Why swimmers shave ?

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When one recalls the finals of Olympic Games or World Championships, it becomes apparent that there isn’t a single swimmer proudly displaying their chest hair. Instead, all athletes appear well-groomed and polished. Is shaving now owed to the sporting aesthetic or is it a ritual that has developed over years and decades without being thoroughly scrutinized for its effectiveness?

Taking a scientific approach to the topic, the body of research doesn’t really offer many proven benefits. In 1989, scientist Dave Costill published his findings in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. He divided two groups of competitive swimmers and subjected them to various tests. Initially, both groups engaged in endurance swimming and “tethered swim,” where parameters assessing performance were measured without any body hair removal. Then, one group removed their body hair while the second group made no changes.

Less Resistance?

In a second series of tests, it was observed that the lactate levels of the “shaved” group had significantly decreased, from an average of 8.48 to 6.74 mmol/l, under the same test conditions as before. However, the control group showed no changes.

In another, somewhat newer study, this result was confirmed. Here, scientists found that the decrease in speed over a predetermined distance after hair removal was significantly less than before. The conclusion was that body hair removal apparently reduces resistance in favor of the swimmer, thereby reducing metabolic effort, meaning the swimmer needs to expend less energy for the same performance. Conversely, one could also say: Shaving makes you swim faster!

No Harm Done

However, the experience and feedback from athletes also reveal another important component: the psyche. Typically, the procedure of body hair removal is carried out when it comes to important competitions. In this context, the athletic form also develops positively as the last weeks and days are focused on reducing volume and tapering.

Then perhaps two things come together. Firstly, athletic form improves, the feel of the water enhances due to increasingly higher training speeds, and an extraordinary feeling of resistance optimization is added thanks to body hair removal. Some swimmers talk about being able to “glide forever” when they are shaved.

In the end, it can definitely be argued that body hair removal has never harmed anyone. On the contrary, the ritualized procedure unequivocally signals to the psyche: Now it’s serious, it’s about something!

Holger Lüning (50) is a sports scientist and swimming coach with over 25 years of experience in high-performance sports. He swam in the Bundesliga team of EOSC Offenbach and won numerous championship titles in the Masters category.

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