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Take Home Points on Swimming and Shaving Part II: Should you Shave Year Round?

  1. Shaving only once a year likely alters motor control in the water.
  2. Shaving more frequently may improve motor learning and provide positive reinforcement for swimmers.

I recently read an article by Allan Phillips titled, “Does Shaving Improve Swim Performance?” In summary, Phillips states that, “Although the evidence behind shaving is sparse and not recently updated, there is little reason to believe that shaving would make anyone worse.” Sharp and Costill (1989) found that during normal breaststroke swim, “compared to their unshaven breaststroke swim, the shaving group experienced a significant reduction in blood lactate, oxygen consumption, an increase in stroke length, and an insignificant decline in heart rate during the free swim. The control group showed no changes in any performance measures.” Also during an underwater glide experiment, “A separate group of swimmers (nine who shaved body hair and nine controls), shaving significantly reduced the rate of velocity decay during a prone glide after a maximal underwater leg push-off.” Along with physiological benefits there are many psychological benefits to shaving. Phillips quotes an unpublished study from the University of Indiana that states, “Sensory input from the hair inhibits perception and thus removal of hair would enhance perceptual motor skill. Enhanced motor skill may improve a swimmer’s stroke mechanics, thereby increasing propulsive force or reducing resistance and improving performance (Sharp, Costill, 1989).”


Positive Benefits of Shaving

It seems there are only positives that come from shaving and swim performance. My question to coaches is, “Why are we only allowing our athletes to experience these once or twice a year?” If there are benefits, wouldn’t it be an advantage to practice these previous to the most important swim of the season? Many people believe by shaving more than just once a season the athlete will lose the psychological advantage needed for success at the big meet. However, that meet typically occurs when the athlete has her taper, wears her nicest suit, races in the fastest fastest pool and many other variables that would lead to a mental edge. Shaving is only one of many variables that leads to the excitement of shave and taper meets.

In order to make neurological adaptations it is essential to be exposed to the stimulus that the athlete is adapting a great number of times. It would be incorrect to assume athletes can make these adaptations after being exposed to a stimulus for only a few days of the year. As stated previously, Sharp and Costill found that shaved vs unshaved swimmers experience reduction in blood lactate, oxygen consumption, and an increase in stroke length. With this being true, it would suggest that the same swimming events would require different (however minuscule) physiological requirements when an athlete is unshaved compared to that same athlete when s/he is shaved. With different physiological demands, a different race strategy would be required for the same event when the athlete is shaved vs when the athlete is unshaved. In order to maximize those unique racing strategies when it ultimately counts (ie taper meet) it would be necessary to practice those specific strategies throughout the season.


By executing a more specific race strategy on more occasions during the season, it would be expected to increase the chances of executing better race strategies at the end of the season. The sport of swimming has taught us the importance of hundredths of a second. Championship medals are won or lost every year by fractions of a second (Phelps winning the 100 fly in 2008, Le Clos defeating Phelps in the 200 fly in 2012). Mujika and colleagues reported that the difference between the gold medal and fourth place in swimming at the Sydney Olympics was only 1.62% and the difference between third and eighth was only 2.02% (Mujika et al, 2002). Therefore, increasing our chances of success by only 1-2% can dramatically change the outcome of a season or even a career.

Many coaches will argue that the primary benefit of shaving is received from the “feel” the athletes gain post-shave. Coaches and athletes alike refer to this mysterious “feel” as a concept that is a driving force for swimming success, however this is simply up to the athlete’s perceptions at any given moment and these perceptions tend to have very low reliability and validity from moment to moment. Harnessing these uncontrolled feelings and rehearsing them on a more common basis may lead to more controlled and consistent seasonal results.
It is a common belief in the swimming world to plan for shaving at the last possible minute

in order to bring the greatest physiological effects for when it matters most bringing the most success. It’s not uncommon to see top athletes remaining unshaved during a preliminary event in order to save up all their luck for the last, most important race of the season. However, (to my knowledge) there is no scientific literature that supports the hypothesis that shaving earlier reduces the effects later in a shaved athlete. It is a common fear among coaches and athletes that swimming too fast too early may lead to undesired results at the end of the season. Rather than hoping for the large gap from “in-season” and championship meet swims, athletes and coaches should understand the primary goal of achieving desired results at the end of the season. Although it may break from tradition, rehearsing more shaved and suited swims during the season may lead to greater, more predictable success at the end of the season.


Conclusion 

However small, there seems to be only positive benefits from shaving and swimming performance. These physiological benefits may require minor changes in race strategy which would warrant more research and thought to an increased number of shaved and suited race rehearsals compared to what is seen in traditional swimming seasons.

References

  1. Phillips, Allan. “Does Shaving Improve Swim Performance? | Swim Sci.” Swim Sci. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 July 2013. <http://www.swimmingscience.net/2013/07/does-shaving-improve-swim-performance.html>.
  2. Sharp RL, Costill DL. Influence of body hair removal on physiological responses during breaststroke swimming. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1989 Oct;21(5):576-80.
  3. Johns RA, Houmard JA, Kobe RW, Hortobágyi T, Bruno NJ, Wells JM, Shinebarger MH. Effects of taper on swim power, stroke distance, and performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 Oct;24(10):1141-6.
  4. Shaving and Perception of Cutaneous Sensation. Indiana University Counsilman Center
  5. Mujika, I., S. Padilla, and D. Pyne. Swimming Performance changes during the final 3 weeks of training to the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games. Int J Sports Med 23:582-587, 2002.
Herbert Behm is a long time swimmer and coach, currently Assistant Coaching the Senior and Age Group programs at Phoenix Swim Club in Phoenix, Arizona. He is completing his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Communications at Arizona State University where he is a school record holder in the 400 Medley Relay.

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