To Shave or Not To Shave

I’ve had this topic on my to do list for a while, so when I read Jessie Thomas’ article Secrets of the Wind Tunnel in the July issue of Triathlete magazine, I knew the timing was right. To shave or not to shave, that is the question.hairy legs

Now for many of you this is a non-issue, either because you’re female and likely already shave you’re legs (not a sexist statement, just based on the assumption that the majority, > 50%, of women shave their legs), or because you’re male and you have never considered shaving your legs (again, assuming that the minority, < 50%, of men shave their legs.) Of course this gets complicated if you’re a triathlete and you come from a swimming or road cycle racing background, so let me explain.

There are three primary reasons for a triathlete to shave their legs:

  1. Reducing the issues associated with a bike crash
  2. Making massages more pleasurable
  3. Reducing drag

You might look at this list and discount the first two, saying to yourself that you don’t “plan” on crashing, or that you don’t get regular massages, but the third one sounds promising. Let me also throw out there right now that the drag reduction advantage, on the bike, is for those of you that are hirsute, i.e., very hairy.

Bike Crashes

As far as not planning to crash while riding your bike, road cyclists that race and that ride in large pelotons have a pretty good chance of hitting the deck and sliding along on the pavement at some point in their career, it’s the nature of the sport. As triathletes, who as a group tend to be risk adverse to larger group rides and probably don’t do much road racing, we look past this and hope we don’t crash.

But here’s why you should reconsider and shave under the pretense of doing some preventive maintenance:

  • When/if you crash and you’re sliding along the ground, hair follicles are pulled out at the root causing more damage, while a smooth shaven leg would slide with less issue
  • When you’re in the ER and the doctor or nurse is debriding your wounds, hair gets in the way.
  • It also makes applying the dressing more problematic, so they’re probably going to shave the area around the wound, which also makes changing the dressing less painful as you pull off the adhesive tape
  • Hair also makes the healing/scabbing process take a bit longer, while a clean wound heals quicker


While your masseuse is rubbing out your sore leg muscles they too are pulling the hair back and forth along your leg causing friction, even if they’re using massage oil. Clean shaven legs are much nicer for them to work on and you won’t feel like your skin is being stretched out so much.

Reducing Drag

So this is the big one right, minutes saved on the bike? Well that kind of depends on how hairy you really are. I mentioned Jessie Thomas’ article where he describes himself on the 10-point “Chewbacca Scale” of hairiness as a 9, and his experience in the wind tunnel. He went there to test out some new clothing, equipment and to validate his bike fit, realizing that he hadn’t shaved in quite some time. On the last day he asked the guys running the test if they could do a before and after shaving test, just to satisfy his interest in seeing if it really does matter.

Well after he shaved and got back on the bike they made him run the test over and over, frustrating him as it’s not the most pleasant experience working in the wind tunnel, so he was wondering what the issue was. Finally they called it quits and he asked the guy what the problem was. Their response was that they couldn’t believe the initial set of results, so they wanted to make sure they were valid.

He saved 15 watts when tested with shaven legs over his un-shaven legs. If you don’t train with a power meter then this might not mean anything, so as comparison he said that he saved 2-3 watts with his new helmet and wheels, 5 watts by adjusting his arm position, and 8 watts with his new kit. Shaving his legs added up to the same total as doing all that, so he was sold. The wind tunnel guys said they have seen typical savings of 7-13 watts before, again, based on the Chewbacca scale, so the hairier you are, the more the gain. It probably adds up to a bigger saving the faster you ride, so keep that in mind, but the bottom line is the savings are real.

I asked local pro-triathlete, coach, and all-around good guy Jason Smith if the pros shaved their upper bodies, seeing how they do lots of races without wetsuits. He said that the ITU guys tend to have a swimming background and were therefore used to shaving everything, armpits and all, while there’s also the desire to go “Euro” as they put it, kind of a fad to just shave it all, whether it really helps or not.

Very fast swimmers always shave and taper for swim meets, but as we swim most times in our wetsuits this is not much on an incentive. It does make your skin hyper-sensitive after you shave, so you feel every nuance of the water moving over your body, now without the information we receive as the water moves over our hairy bodies.

I mentioned this to my good friend and local Chiropractor (free plug…), Dr. James Adams and he chimed in that he read that Andy Potts does not shave. So there’s a guy that regularly is the first one out of the water who doesn’t bother, but then again I have to wonder what his Chewbacca score is?

Anyway, I think you get the idea. Really hairy people will benefit from shaved legs on the bike and maybe in non-wetsuit races. For the rest of us, maybe just the thought of doing a little preventive maintenance in case we find ourselves sliding along the ground after a bike crash, or to make our masseuse happy and our massage more pleasurable is reason enough.

I know a lot of guys are still out there thinking no way man, that’s not my thing, and that’s fine too. But if you find yourself racing at or near the top of your age group and are looking to move up, check out the legs of the people up on the podium and do your own survey; I think you’ll be surprised to see a lot more clean shaven legs than you expected. Nothing like a little peer pressure to make you change your tune, no?

Another local friend and good guy living and training up in Santa Ynez Valley, Correy Evans, passed along this link to a YouTube link with the guys from Specialized Bicycles in the wind tunnel talking about hairy legs and shaving: Thanks Correy!



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