If you’ve ever witnessed an organized swimming event before, you may have observed that the majority of the swimmers present have completely shaven off all their body hair. To a casual onlooker, this may be a bit peculiar. So it’s only natural to wonder why shaving is so commonplace among swimmers.
Swimmers shave their bodies to improve swimming stroke efficiency, streamline farther underwater, further sensitize the skin nerve endings, and boost self-confidence heading into a meet. Although not mandated, it’s emerged as a standard custom that coaches strongly endorse before a competition.
We will analyze the reasons why swimmers go through the hassle of shaving their bodies in further detail below. Read until the end to discover why swimmers don’t keep their bodies shaved all season long if there are so many benefits to being completely free of body hair.
Reason #1: Improves Swimming Stroke Efficiency
Shaving may not seem like it makes much of a difference in swimming performance, but it certainly does. One of the major reasons for this is that it minimizes frictional water drag, allowing swimmers to cover more distance in the water with less effort.
Humans have a surprisingly large amount of hair on their bodies. In fact, hair can be found everywhere on the body, with the only exceptions being the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet (source). Obviously, certain individuals are hairier than others, as no two humans have the same body hair growth pattern.
All of this body hair has a fair amount of surface area when taken in its entirety. This is detrimental to swimmers as they propel themselves underwater because it provides more surface area for friction to work against their exertions.
In essence, swimmers want to have their skin as smooth as possible so that they can move underwater like a bullet. The less body hair they have, the smoother their skin will be, and the less opportunity friction will have to counteract their underwater movements.
For this reason, it is not uncommon for swimmers to shave down their race times when they shave off their body hair. The lack of excess friction allows swimmers to travel a fraction of a distance further underwater with every stroke. These fractions of a distance gradually compound, ultimately allowing swimmers to cover their race distance in record time.
The best part about this strategy is that swimmers don’t have to work any harder during the actual race. If a swimmer performs at the same intensity level and compares their numbers pre-shave and post-shave, their race times will drop ever so slightly.
Researchers confirmed this notion in a scientific study where the energy cost of freestyle swimming was monitored in swimmers, both pre-shave and post-shave. Researchers first instructed swimmers to perform a particular freestyle swimming regimen. Then, the next day, researchers instructed the swimmers to repeat that same freestyle swimming regimen, just with all their body hair shaven off.
Once researchers gathered the final results, there was a clear statistical difference in performance and energy efficiency between the pre-shave and post-shave swimming sessions. In fact, the researchers who conducted the study had this to say:
In another scientific study, researchers focused on quantifying how shaving affected swim power, stroke distance, and overall performance.
Swimmers that shaved saw no increase in their ability to generate power in the water, which was expected since shaving does not affect muscular output. However, shaving did result in a statistically significant increase in distance per stroke because of the diminishment of frictional drag. After crunching the numbers, researchers found that stroke distance increased 5% (source).
This promising data proved that the positive effects of reducing body drag underwater are no sham. This is critical information because, in the swimming world, a fraction of a second difference can make the difference between winning and losing.
Reason #2: Allows Swimmers to Streamline Slightly Farther
The reduction in water drag not only benefits swimming stroke efficiency but streamlining as well.
As a quick reference, streamlining is an underwater maneuver where a swimmer pushes off of the pool wall with their legs to glide through the water. If done correctly, the swimmer should resemble the shape of a torpedo. The arms should be elongated out in front with the hands placed directly on top of one another, with the entire body positioned all in the same level plane.
A visual representation of streamlining is shown in the video below.
The whole point of streamlining is—you guessed it—to reduce water drag. With a properly executed streamline, you should be moving underwater effortlessly.
Since the entire purpose of streamlining is to minimize water drag, shaving off body hair complements this technique perfectly. Since there’s less friction to impede the total distance covered by a push off the wall, a swimmer can move slightly farther underwater without having to exert any more effort.
Think about the smooth, slick blubber of a seal. That’s the kind of texture that swimmers are going after when they choose to shave. Of course, they will never attain this blubbery sleekness, but the general premise still holds since this reduced drag does help with how far a swimmer goes when streamlining underwater.
The streamline is arguably the most important technique in swimming because it fuels the swimmer with momentum heading into their first stroke, setting the tone for the strokes to follow.
Needless to say, a swimmer will take any edge they can get when it comes to this fundamental move, even if that means shaving off their body hair.
Reason #3: Sensitizes Nerve Endings on the Skin
In addition, shaving sharpens the receptiveness of skin nerves, which enhances kinesthetic awareness in the water.
Shaving sensitizes skin nerves by removing the superficial layers of dead skin cells that coat the underlying epidermis. It’s worth noting that the skin sheds these dead cells naturally over time so that new skin cells can eventually replace the outer layer. This “shed and replace cycle” takes about 30 days from start to finish (source).
The main advantage of shaving is that all these dead skin cell layers are removed at once instead of shedding only a couple of dead cells over a protracted time interval. For this reason, any clean-shaven skin has an elevated sense of perception since there are no longer any dead skin cells left to hamper their functional capacities.
Since swimmers typically shave off hair all over their body, this elevated sense of perception occurs on any skin that’s not covered by a bathing suit.
If you’ve ever shaved body hair off before, you’ve likely experienced this invigorating sensation before. Even the simplest of acts, such as snuggling under a blanket, can send rejuvenating tingles up and down your freshly shaven legs.
This exhilarating sensation is multiplied two or threefold when a swimmer fully immerses themselves into water. Every stroke that a swimmer performs becomes a rush of sensation, making a swimmer feel like they’re moving that much faster.
It’s almost shocking how much of a difference a clean shave can make in your body’s perceptive abilities.
Reason #4: Boosts Confidence Heading Into Events
Last but certainly not least, all of these aforementioned benefits bolster the mindset of a swimmer before a competition.
The belief that a swimmer has done everything possible to maximize success—whether it be high-intensity reps at practice or shaving off body hair—feeds into a winning mentality. Even if you take away the reduction in water drag and the hyper-sensitized nerve endings, you’re still left with a swimmer who believes without a doubt that they’re ready to race.
Such a change in self-confidence can have massive implications on how successful a swimmer will perform in competition. Furthermore, multiple studies have approved of this claim, with a team of researchers even going as far to say that:
If swimmers do not feel like they’ve checked everything off their pre-race checklist before entering the pool, it may detract from their ability to perform when the moment comes.
It doesn’t help that shaving has essentially developed into a pre-race ritual for most competitive swimmers. Even the best Olympic swimmers in the world have adopted this trend for the reasons listed above and to be as mentally prepped as possible once they arrive at the pool starting block.
For instance, American swimmers Elisabeth Beisel, Matt Grevers, Natalie Coughlin, and Nathan Adrian have admitted to shaving their body hair during their Olympic Medal runs (source). Needless to say, there’s definitely something to be said about shaving as a swimmer if the world’s finest have incorporated this practice into their pre-competition routine.
Why Don’t Swimmers Always Keep Their Bodies Shaved?
Although shaving off body hair does typically translate into better race times, swimmers don’t typically keep their bodies shaved all the time. Why is that?
It’s already been established that body hair is a form of resistance for swimmers as they propel themselves underwater. Leading up to the final races at the end of the swim season, there’s no point in swimmers ridding their bodies of this added resistance. The presence of body hair makes pool workouts more challenging, which forces swimmers to work that much harder to accomplish their goals.
Over the course of the season, swimmers do not want to grow accustomed to the lack of natural resistance presented by body hair. Instead, they would rather preserve this built-in form of resistance so that they’re even faster come race time.
As an extreme analogy, swimming with body hair is akin to sprinting with a parachute attached to your back.
It’s obviously much more difficult to run with the added wind resistance, but your body exerts itself harder to counteract this stimulus over time. You hone in on your technique, churn your legs with greater force, and refocus your concentration on the goal at hand. Once the parachute is finally stripped off, a burden will quite literally be lifted from your back, resulting in greater speed.
The same general notion holds for swimmers when they shave, but to a less extreme degree.
Plus, shaving every day before swim practice would get to be a bit tedious after a while. Sooner or later, a swimmer realizes that the cost to benefit ratio simply isn’t working in their favor with how much time they’re wasting on body hair removal. Needless to say, you could devote this time to something far more productive.
Not to mention that shaving every single body hair is a two-person job. It’s doubtful that you’ll find someone willing to take a razor to your back every week!
Why Did Swimmers Start Shaving in the First Place?
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time where swimmers did not shave at all before competitions. To go back to a time before swimmers shaved for races, you would have to turn back your clock all the way to the year 1955.
This year, a man named Jon Henricks thought to give shaving a try to see if it would yield any results at his upcoming swim meet. Henricks obviously thought he was onto something because the following year at the Olympics, Henricks convinced his Australian teammate—Murray Rose—to follow his lead in shaving (source).
Their strange competition ritual quickly caught the eyes of other Olympians, mainly because they won five of seven events total. After the Melbourne-Stockholm Olympics, there was a lull in the shaving trend until Henricks and Rose brought this practice to the United States in 1957.
When the next Olympics came around in 1960, most American swimmers had adopted the pre-race shaving ritual. From there, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world followed suit.
So, in a nutshell, all this shaving madness began with a hunch from Jon Henricks. It was only later, after years of swimming races and research studies, that researchers discovered that this experimental strategy actually held merit.
How Far Are Swimmers Willing to Go to Reach These Shaving Benefits?
Now that you know the underlying reasons why competitive swimmers shave their bodies, you’re probably curious about how far swimmers take shaving to attain these aforementioned benefits.
First off, it should be noted that male and female swimmers approach shaving differently since they have contrasting swim attire and slight anatomical differences.
Male swimmers shave virtually every hair on their body, including the hair on their:
In some cases, male swimmers may even completely shave their heads in the name of faster race times! Since much of a male swimmer’s skin is exposed and not covered by their swimsuit, males have to deal with a lot more body hair. The only exposed hair strands that typically aren’t subject to shaving are the eyebrows.
Female swimmers, on the other hand, have considerably more skin concealed underneath their swimsuits. For this reason, their primary focal points of shaving are slightly different, in that they concentrate more on the:
Many female swimmers already shave their body hair regularly. For this reason, they actually may run into the problem of shaving too much!
Thus, coaches typically instruct female swimmers to align their shaving schedule with their taper. As a quick reference, a taper is the practice time just before a serious competition where swimmers scale back their intensity and volume to ready themselves for their upcoming races (source).
Female swimmers do not usually shave their heads, but of course, there are some exceptions to the rule.
Simply put, although male and female swimmers handle the shaving process differently, there’s no question that all swimmers are fully committed to going to extreme lengths to beat their personal records.
To a casual observer, the why of swimming shaving traditions may be somewhat hard to understand, but this level of commitment speaks volumes of how swimmers everywhere understand what it takes to swim fast.
Swimmers shave to peak on race day. It may be a fairly strange tradition, but it obviously yields superior results.
If the prospect of shaving off your body hair is intimidating you away from competitive swimming, don’t think about it too much! There’s a lot more to competitive swimming than shaving.