Shaving and Swim Performance

The technique of shaving arms, legs, torso, and sometimes head prior to a championship swim event has continued for more than half a century and is considered a normal practice for age group, high school, collegiate, and professional swimmers alike. Since the 1956 Olympic Games, in which the dominant Australian swim team is thought to have been the first to shave their body hair prior to swimming competition, the unique technique of shaving down began its spread across the competitive swimming world. Today, shaving down is an essential component of nearly all swimmers’ pre-championship ritual and has been linked to improvements in swim performance (Sharp & Costill, 1989). However, although removing the body’s hair prior to a championship swim meet has become a normal behavior for competitive swimmers, evidence attempting to explain the mechanism by and degree to which shaving down enhances performance has been minimal.

Of the many factors that dictate swim performance, the effect of shaving on swim performance is not well understood. Often occurring concurrently with a taper in training workload that is common prior to championship competition, current explanations for the improvement in swim performance post-shave are mostly anecdotal in nature and include physical, psychological, and neurophysiological factors. Little evidence exists to support any specific explanation, but it may be that, as Doc Counsilman wrote in 1968, “shaving the hair from the arms and legs may increase the swimmer’s sensitivity to the ‘feel’ or pressure of the water and, consequently, improve his coordination.”

As a means to learn more about the effect of shaving on swim performance, the Counsilman Center has conducted the following two studies:

1. The first was to explore the effect of shaving on the perception of cutaneous sensation.

2. The second was to determine if the altered sensory input, caused by shaving one’s body hair, increases muscle output.