Shaving for gold: the grooming rituals of Olympic medal winners

2021 saw a triumphant return of the Olympic Games, where 11,000 athletes competed for medals in Tokyo.  The games were as fiercely competitive as ever, with 22 world records broken!

Many of us are familiar with the enormous amount of preparation and planning that each athlete goes through before the games, but did you know that for many of them, shaving plays a big part?

Most of these grooming rituals exist within the swimming world, where almost all athletes shave their body hair. So, why do they do it?

The Science

The theory goes that body hair can create drag within the pool, which can shave precious seconds off a swimmer’s time – excuse the pun. Despite the widespread culture of shaving within professional swimming, there’s been very little in the way of studies on the effect of hair drag.

However, there have been many studies on the effect that same drag has on bikers. In a study done in 2014 using a wind tunnel, it was discovered that shaving your legs prior to a long-distance bike race would actually reduce drag by a whopping 7%. In a 40 kilometre trial, that 7% would save a biker 79 seconds.

Clearly, when it comes to air, an athlete’s leg hair can cause a good amount of drag. But does this translate to the water?

In a 1989 study, nine male swimmers were analysed as they swam breaststroke, once shaved and once without. Measurements were taken each time on distance per stroke, heart rate, and post-swim blood lactate. The researchers found that after shaving, the swimmers experienced a lower level of blood lactate concentration, decreased VO2, and longer distance per stroke.

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The Psychology

As well as the scientific benefit, shaving also appears to provide a psychological boost for athletes. US Swimmer Katie Ledecky says: “The mental reason is more that it feels good, and that moment when you dive in just after you’ve shaved it’s like – oh yeah! It’s time to swim fast.”

The effect is so profound that many swimmers intentionally stay hairy all year before a swimming event, to maximise the feeling of being freshly shaved. Then, the night before the first event, they will routinely shave off all of their body hair, in a process that can take hours – particularly for men! Some teammates have even been known to shave each other’s backs – how’s that for teamwork!

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