How Shaving Can Make You Swim Faster
Barry Hall looks into the science behind the pre-race shaving ritual that is an integral part of championship swimming.
Have you ever noticed how "hairless" professional swimmers are? Well, there is an excellent reason for this, and in this article, we will be "diving" into the science behind the pre-race shaving ritual that has been an integral part of championship swimming since the 1950s. Whether you are a casual weekend swimmer looking to beat your personal best, or a competitive swimmer training for the Olympics, understanding the benefits of "shaving down" and how to do it properly, could mean the difference between a Gold medal and bitter disappointment.
It may sound bizarre to those on the outside, but study after study has shown that removing body hair improves swimming performance and speed.
Competitive cyclists have worked with scientists for years to develop equipment that is as aerodynamic as possible. You name it – helmets, shoes, wheels, bike frames, clothing, even body position – all specially optimised to minimise drag and maximise velocity to the finish line. Cyclists have found that removing leg hairs is an effective way to reduce drag against air molecules. One such study by Specialized Bicycles using wind tunnels showed a reduction in drag by 7%.
Now, this might seem like a paltry amount, but let me tell you, this edge over the competition is quite significant. It means that just by shaving your legs, you could save over 1 minute, over a 25-mile race. On average, they found a saving of 70 seconds from shaving body hair – that is huge.
These tests were repeated and consistently found that hair-free, clean-shaven skin reduced drag and improved performance. When it comes to winning at a professional level, every improvement matters, however little. The reasons swimmers should shave off all exposed body hair are twofold:
Reduction in Drag Forces
The goal of winning a swimming race is to cut through the water as fast as possible, and it is the waters' resistance and friction against the body that causes the drag – it is the water molecules colliding against the swimmer that slows them down. Your swimming strength, skill, and technique will only get you so far.
This is nothing new. Findings from a study back in 1989 - "Influence of body hair removal on physiological responses during breaststroke swimming." concluded: "Removing body hair 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."
Another study in 1992 - "Effects of taper on swim power, stroke distance, and performance" - found that "shaving increased distance per stroke by approximately 5%."
Increased Sensory Perception
The surface of the skin has millions of receptors that relay information about the external environment back to the brain via the nervous system. Shaving the skin removes not only hair, but also dead skin cells, and makes the skin more sensitive. Shaven skin is proven to be more sensitive to unshaven skin, and this heightened sensitivity enhances the feedback signal to the brain, resulting in better muscle motor unit coordination, which ultimately leads to higher propulsion and swimming technique from legs and arms.
Also, athletes say that a clean-shaven body in the water feels "exhilarating" and gives an overall mental and physical boost.
How to "Shave Down" Before a Swim
Removing body hair before a swim is a fairly simple process, that is not much different from any other shaving and grooming routine you would do at home. You just need to be more thorough, methodical, and have the right tools.
Your first reaction might be to reach for the shaving foam and manual razor but remember, you are removing all possible hair, not just one small area on your body. Shaving your head hair off is optional, a swimming cap will remove the drag from head hair and keep it out of your face.
For the ladies, a manual razor should do the trick as a woman's hair is usually finer, lesser, and easy to shave off. For the guys, I recommend using an electric shaver over a manual razor. Remember, it is not just a small area on your face that you are shaving, it is all the hairs on your legs, arms, and body – which can amount to a substantial amount of hair removal. Covering yourself with shaving foam and trying to shave it off with a disposable razor is not practical.
The guys at Specialized Bicycles who conducted the study on cyclists used an electric shaver to remove hairs, which was a quick, thorough, and easiest method to remove body hairs.
Do not pick up any cheap shaver for this. You will want to get the best electric shaver you can get your hands on, one that has the cutting power to blitz through large surface areas of dense hair.
If you try to shave your legs, arms, chest, back and face with a small disposable razor. You will find it will regularly clog up with hairs and the blades with blunt, fast. This method is slow and problematic, you will need a reliable electric shaver to blitz through patches of dense hair, one that's suitable to use over your entire body, so you will not have to stop and start to clean the blades after every stroke. Most modern electric shavers are waterproof, allowing you to quickly get rid of all body hair in the shower before you swim.
If you have a lot of leg hair, you might want to use a set of hair clippers to trim down the long hairs first, then use an electric shaver to get a close shave right down to the skin.
Do not randomly move from one part of your body to another. For example, legs to arms, or chest, to legs - work your way up - from your feet to face.
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About the Author
Barry Hall owns a UK-based shaving business where he specialises in men's shaving and grooming products. He also has a passion for swimming and strength training and writes for major online bodybuilding and fitness publications.