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Debate: Should you shave your body hair for better athletic performance?

YES: Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

You’ve seen them. They shave their face, arms, chest, legs, and parts unknown. They do it in the name of performance, the ease of treating injuries, and just for the look.

But is there really any good reason for an athlete of any level to remove all traces of body hair? Even if you’re grizzly-bear hairy, do you really think you will cut any time off your run, bike, or swim?

I’ve shaved my body hair regularly for more than twenty years, and I’m convinced there is a substantial performance advantage in shaving. The advantage isn’t so much aerodynamic, though it has been proven to take time off various efforts. Instead, the real performance advantage with shaving smooth has everything to do with giving you a mental boost.

The first time you shave and then go fast in air or water, you’ll notice something. You don’t feel any resistance at all. Your body becomes a knife. Hair on your body slows you down because you can feel the amount of wind or water you’re pushing out of the way. I notice it most when I’m swimming. After I shave, I slip through the water like a glass spear. When I can’t feel the water, I don’t feel how fast I’m going. That means I can push even harder because there is no mental limit being reached. The negative feedback doesn’t trigger my mind to ease off. I can go considerably faster because I can feel the water better without the distraction of thousands of tiny hairs giving me unnecessary biofeedback.

Want a couple more good reasons to shave down?

Remove the rug, and your skin will feel cooler during exercise. Without hair, it is also easier to treat cuts and scrapes. Most cyclists cite this as the reason they shave. It is easier to apply and remove adhesive bandages and keep skin clean and free from infection after injuries.

If you are serious about competition, with yourself or others, shave once and see how you feel. If you don’t dig it, your hair will grow back in a month or two. But I’ll bet you’re going to like the feeling, and I know you’ll love the results.

–Vern Lovic is a top triathlete and cyclist. 

NO: A Shave Like Any Other

As a consultant to professional endurance athletes, I get asked all manner of things. Including, strange as it may seem, looking into the research on performance benefits of shaving body hair.  Beyond psychologically induced gains (placebo effect), there is little to no legitimate evidence that shaving results in any meaningful performance gains. And, even the few studies showing ever-so-miniscule gains are debatable due to potential placebo effects and research bias influence. The only population that may have a somewhat valid argument would be very hairy long-distance, non-wetsuit wearing swimmers with excellent swim technique. That likely limits the number of people who could truly see performance gains from shaving to a very, very small percentage of the athletes.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of the most common rationalizations for shaving.

It makes me faster. In cycling, 90% of your effort is simply fighting wind resistance. Therefore, it would make sense that any additional wind resistance would help, right? To date, this claim is unsupported by legitimate research. The truth appears to be none beyond that it makes you think you’re faster. If there is a true speed benefit, it is ever so tiny. Turns out those little extensions of our body are pretty aerodynamic.

I’m less likely to get an infection in my wounds from the crazy riding I do since I’m the Chuck Norris of biking. Somehow, road cyclists and triathletes have turned this into an excuse. Yet, mountain bikers rarely shave. The truth is that you will get an infection whether you have hair or not if you don’t clean out the wound. Cleaning techniques also work on leg and body hair.

I don’t want hair follicle infections from my recovery massages. My advice is to not to use this excuse. It just adds more ammo.  Now you shave your legs and get lots of massages.

My opinion: skip the unfounded “important” reasons to shave and tell the truth…you do it because everyone else does and it accentuates those hard earned calf muscles.

–Dr. Garret Rock is an adviser to over 80 of the world’s top professional triathletes, cyclists, and runners. And yes, he shaves his legs.

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