Shaving Down

The effects on swimming of removing body hair

The shaving of body hair from sprint swimmers has long been performed as a procedure that has been claimed to produce faster times in those shaved swimmers. A number of sceptics have claimed that the results were probably a psychological effect and "Any turkey who shaved his head was probably so scared of doing a bad time that his/her increased adrenaline levels would drive him/her on to a faster time!"

The following scientific studies have shown that the removal of body hair does in fact reduce drag in the water so that shaven swimmers travel further per stroke than they did before shaving. While identifying significant benefits for sprinters (i.e. up to 1,500 m), these findings have obvious beneficial implications for marathon swimmers - i.e. so long as the reduced drag is not associated with an increased coefficient of heat transfer.

Anyone who has shaved down for a Big Meet will know the wonderful feeling of doing fast sets with considerable ease during Training sessions for at least 7 days after the meet.

On the other hand, the ladies have been heard to say "Real Men don't shave down".

So guys, sort out your priorities. Is this a benefit reserved for the ladies ?

Sharp RL, Hackney AC, Cain SM, and Ness RJ (1988): The effect of shaving body hair on the physiological cost of freestyle swimming. Journal of Swimming Research 4(1):9-13.
Abstract: The purpose of this study was to determine if shaving of body hair would have an effect on the physiological cost of standard swimming velocities. Physiological effort required to swim at a given velocity was assessed using determinations of blood lactate concentration 2 min after each of four 200 yard freestyle swims. Six subjects volunteered and were asked to swim four 200's with 15 min rest between each and reducing their time by roughly 10 sec on each consecutive swim. On the next day, subjects shaved their body hair from arms, legs and exposed torso and repeated this swimming protocol. Blood lactate accumulation at a submaximal speed of 1.08 m/sec was significantly reduced by an average of 28% by shaving. Blood lactate accumulation at a maximal swimming speed of 1.30 m/sec was significantly reduced by an average of 23%. This much change in the physiological cost of submaximal and maximal swimming speeds is nearly as great as that resulting from a season of collegiate swimming training. It was concluded that there is indeed a physical benefit to shaving-down (most likely a reduction in body drag) and that the benefits are not solely due to a psychological response.

Sharp RL and Costill DL (1989): Shaving a little time. Swimming Technique 26(3):10-13.
Abstract: In summary, it has been demonstrated that removing exposed body hair decreased the physiological effort required to maintain a given velocity during breaststroke swimming but has no effect on physiological responses during tethered swimming. These findings, in combination with measurement of velocity decay after a maximal underwater leg push-off from the side of the pool, are taken as evidence that the mechanism for the improvement in competitive swimming performance following body hair removal is related to a reduction of active drag. The extent to which the present responses may result in improved maximal performance cannot be determined from the present data, but it is reasonable to conclude that factors decreasing the physiological response to submaximal exercise will benefit performance capacity. Thus, it is concluded that the use of this procedure before major competitions provides a measurable physiological advantage for the swimmer.

Sharp RL and Costill DL (1989): Influence of body hair removal on physiological responses during breaststroke swimming. Med.Sci.Sports Exerc. 21(5):576-580.
Abstract: 9 male collegiate swimmers (EXP) were studied 8 d before (PRE) and 1 d after (POST) shaving the hair from their arms, legs, and exposed trunk. A control group (CON, N=4) of their teammates was also tested at these times but did not remove body hair. In PRE and POST, distance per stroke (SL), VO2 heart rate (HR), and post-swim blood lactate concentration were measured during a 365.8 m breaststroke swim at ~90% effort. Subjects also performed a tethered breaststroke swim with retarding forces of 6.27, 7.75, and 9.26 kg. The EXP group experienced a significant (P<0.05) reduction in BL (mean SE: 8.480.78 to 6.740.74 mmol/L), a decreased VO2 (3.600.15 to 3.270.14 L/min, an increase in SL (2.070.08 to 2.310.10 m/stroke), and an insignificant (P=0.08) decline in HR (1745 to 1684 beats/min) during the free swim. The CON group showed no changes in BL, SL, or HR. During the tethered swim, there were no significant PRE-POST differences in VO2, HR, or BL for either group. In a separate group of swimmers (nine who shaved body hair and nine controls), removing body hair significantly reduced the rate of velocity decay during a prone glide after a maximal underwater leg push-off. It is concluded that removing body hair reduces active drag, thereby decreasing the physiological cost of swimming.

Johns RA, Houmard JA, Kobe RW, Hortobägyi T, Bruno NJ, Wells JM, and Shinebarger MH (1992): Effects of taper on swim power, stroke distance, and performance. Med.Sci.Sports Exerc. 24(10):1141-1146.
Abstract: Competitive swimmers progressively reduce training volume or ''taper'' prior to an important competition in an effort to improve performance capabilities. The purpose of the current study was to determine the effects of taper upon factors associated with swim performance. Twelve intercollegiate swimmers were tested before and after taper in preparation for their season-ending meet. Power during a tethered sprint swim increased significantly (P < 0.05) by almost-equal-to 5% with taper. No significant changes occurred in distance per stroke, oxygen consumption, and post-exercise blood lactate level during a 182.9-m submaximal swim with taper. Five swimmers were additionally tested after shaving exposed body hair upon completion of taper. Swim power did not increase further with hair removal. In contrast, shaving significantly increased distance per stroke (P < 0.05) by almost-equal-to 5%. These data indicate that reduced training specifically improves swim power; however, removing exposed body hair after taper may additionally enhance performance capabilities by increasing distance per stroke.

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Created: 25th October 1999
Last Updated: 10th July 2004