It was just a regular Thursday afternoon when I accidentally split the rowing community in two. All I did was tweet a fleeting thought that had passed through my mind, little imagining that the next 24 hours would be taken up in a flurry of intense notifications, crazy gifs, hilarious replies and strong – and I mean STRONG – opinions. So what kicked off this furore? I asked a very simple question. What do rowers wear under their AIO? I wanted recommendations for pants (and for my American friends, by pants I mean underwear) that didn’t chafe, ride up or show through AIO, shorts or leggings. Well, wow. Before I knew it the rowing world was rent in twain, split between those who swear that going commando is the ONLY WAY (and there were a LOT of guys in this camp, by the way) and those who prefer some trusty pantage to keep everything nicely in place. It was a revelation. So here’s what I learned.

The commandos


These are the people who wear no pants at all under their AIO or leggings. The advantages, they claim, are many. No VPL. No extra fabric to ride up and chafe. Less sweaty. Even the Queen of Kit herself, Di from Rock the Boat, whose favourite expletive is “knickers”, was in favour of this option (sensibly, for the sake of hygiene, advocating a spare AIO for day two of a weekend regatta).

There are a few caveats. If you’re going down this road you may want to follow the advice of British Cycling who, for obvious reasons, have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue and who urged their athletes to stop shaving, waxing and depilating. Even doing this may not spare you discomfort, though. We all have surprisingly different anatomies and many people, women in particular, find going commando really uncomfortable. Most leggings and AIOs don’t have a gusset or covered seams (if you make rowing kit and you’re reading this, take note: it would be a very welcome development in kit manufacture. Think of how swimwear is designed and take it from there). Even with well-designed kit, a lot of women just prefer a bit of pantage there for extra protection, so finding the right underwear remains an issue.

One other thing. If your club kit is white or light-coloured below the waist, think very carefully before going commando (sorry).

See what I mean?

The Big Pant Brigade


For those in favour of underwear under kit, giant pants (or Granny-bashers as one rower called them) are a popular option, but you’ve got to get the right ones. I’m not going to suggest any particular brands as it really will be a case of trial and error and the right style will depend entirely on your size and shape (and possibly your rowing technique!) All I will say is that loads of manufacturers now make light, seam-free pants which are mostly excellent and tend not to ride up or chafe. But if you find that good old cotton knickers work for you, then carry on as you were.

The Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenies


The thong probably divided opinion more even than going commando. Many regard them as the instrument of Satan, akin to wearing a cheese wire. But for a lot of rowers they are an answer to prayer. You get a bit of protection in your nether regions without any VPL or riding up and without having a seam under your sit bones. One rower reported having done the Boston (rowing) marathon in a thong, without difficulty. Again, it’s a question of anatomy – some people are better designed for them than others.

If you’re going for this option, choosing the right version is crucial. All I’ll say is that wearing a thong with uncovered seams during a three hour endurance race is a bad idea. Ouch. Happily, finding seam-free thongs is increasingly easy. Shop around until you find what’s right for you.

Let me know if you have any top tips or recommendations, especially for comfortable kit with covered seams. And one last thing. If you’re a fan of Big Pants and need something to make you feel a bit more brave on race day, may I recommend a good old pair of Superhero Pants? They saw me through some scary chemo days last year and made me feel like a warrior.

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