Is body shaving necessary to improve swimming speed?

Nowadays, more and more men are waxing or shaving their body hair. It seems that the perception of beauty has changed over the years. Possibly this is because they feel more comfortable or simply because the standards of aesthetics have changed. Some might say that shaving gives a more youthful appearance or just feels clean and comfortable. In the XXI century this activity has become very popular as more and more men do it. However, body shaving has been carried out in sportsince many years. The first to do so was the cyclist Giovanni Gerbi in the early 1900s. In swimmers it is not something new or fashionable either, since since the 1950s the arms, legs, torso and sometimes the head have been shaved. In 1968 it was said that there was no valid evidence to shave and thus improve performance; the historic US swimming coach, James Counsilman, even said that what increased was the swimmer’s sensitivity, feeling the pressure of the water and that this improved their coordination.

What’s happening today?
Body shaving is now common in all swimming competitions. Clearly in the photographs of Olympic swimmers you can see the bodies free of all body hair in areas where the water could have friction. Swimmers shave their arms, legs, torso, and sometimes their heads to compete. But does this activity have a scientific justification? Does swimming make it easier for them? Does it improve your performance and especially the speed so necessary in an Olympic joust?

In some publications in the public domain they report that swimmers shave because they have a greater sliding of the body on the water, because they consider it more practical, for aesthetics or because it is easier to dry the body. But of all this, what is really scientifically proven? We are talking about Olympic competitions where the most important thing is to break records, swim faster, be better than the opposite in order to win more medals, and for this science has helped sports evolve. It seeks through scientific studies the best techniques, training and equipment that allow better performance.

The laws of physics

In swimming the laws of hydrodynamics dominate, because the body slides in the water and therefore has to overcome the resistance of the water, so several factors intervene in this process: the shape of the body that contacts directly on the water, the body area, the density and the position the body takes when sliding. As a whole, the body overcomes resistance by sliding on water. The laminar friction force of the water against the segments is related to the viscosity of the same and its friction with the body surface. So, if we think about it like this, we could say that the hairs on the body cause more friction and when they are waxed there is more slippage.

The scientific studies that have been done to verify this are few. Sharp and Costill conducted a study in 1988because at that time there was no published scientific literature on whether shaving could improve performance. It was asked whether this practice was effective in reducing the body’s resistance to sliding in water. This first study was conducted with 4 men and 2 women. What he found is that shaving reduced the physiological cost of exercise, but could not prove that it decreased swimming times. He concluded that there was no certainty in shaving to improve times, but there was a lower expense and that this was possibly due to less friction and also commented on the possible intervention of increased sensitivity.

In 1989 the same authors published another study that was conducted on nine collegiate swimmers. With this study it was concluded that possibly shaving decreased resistance and had a better physiological output. While there is little evidence that shaving reduces friction, the reduction in resistance is said to cause a reduction in stroke energy, when compared to unshaven skin. Woods (2004) in his master’s thesis mentions that swimmers have subjective sensations when shaving, they feel that their body mass decreases, water resistance decreases, flotation increases and they feel that it is easier to swim. It has even been mentioned that waxing is more of a placebo because of the sensation it has of sliding the skin in the water. With all of the above, we cannot say that everything has been studied. Until now, there is still a lack of objective evidence to show that shaving causes less friction and that this leads to better performance.

The speed of the bodies in the swim depends on the propulsion and the resistance of the water, so a swimmer can improve by increasing the propulsion force and reducing the resistance forces. Science has investigated more about the technique, since it improves propulsion as well as resistance, in such a way that swimsuits have also been made that reduce friction. That is why they have looked for body alignment, the way of the stroke, how to position the arms when they are driven underwater, as well as the fabrics used in the suits and the way of making them.

Technique and technology, the real answer
Most of the research in swimming has focused on swimming technique, perhaps you remember Michael Phelps, with his wonderful dolphin kick when entering the water or later when turning at the end of the pool. He spends 12 to 13 meters under the water before going out for the first stroke, that time is the one that gave him the advantage. Also about where to put your arms when going underwater on impulse, or how to stroke. It seems that the gain in the times has been more due to the technical adjustments, because the changes in the technique reduce the drag resistance force and improve the propulsion.

Researchers have also focused on the swimsuit, they worry about the fabric, the seams, the shape, the sizes, since the suits can generate less resistance. In 2008 wetsuits were manufactured, this increased the swimming speed and in a single event 43 world records were improved. Since 2010, full body suits are not allowed, because it is considered technological doping.

Although there is not enough scientific evidence on shaving, it is still recommended among swimmers and they do. Because in the end in an Olympic competition, you have to look for all the possibilities that could influence a better result because the preparation to reach that place has been exhaustive and for many years. Athletes cannot allow a millisecond to get in the way of winning. Or would you not do the same?

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