The ‘shave down’

The advent of the ‘new’ swim suits by FINA has brought back smaller swim suits and by default this has brought back the importance of shaving down.

I think that for the swimmers of previous generations shaving down technique was simply passed down from senior swimmer to junior swimmer.  However when the full body suit came along, the skill of knowing how to shave you body for a big race may have been lost.

I think it is important that some basics are practiced when shaving down because I have seen some very big mistakes that are actually quite dangerous and always painful.  I also think it seems like an odd thing to shave down and I can’t recall ever having read about how to do it.  To me, having lived my life in the swimming world, its just one of the things we did.


1. Plan ahead.  If you are going to shave down you need to be prepared.  You need to have all of your equipment,  a private place to shave and enough time to not be rushed.

2. Get the tools together to do the job. You need the correct equipment by going to the store and purchasing it.  You must have; shaving foam, enough good razors (double edge is fine), clippers, a large mirror, towels and a large bucket of hot water.

3. You need some space.  It is important to have some area that will allow you to do this job.  Some people prefer to sit in the bath but many put some towels down and sit on the edge of their bed.  To shave some areas of your body you will need to be in front of a mirror so you will need to use that space which can be difficult for your room mate if they need that space too.

Once you have all those basics in place you are ready to shave down.  You will likely be at a competition where you are staying in a hotel room and have a room mate.  If this is the case then be sure to share the bathroom space and plan for the shared space for your shave down.   You will likely need some help shaving the hard to reach places like your back so you will need someone to help out at some time, so plan for that too.

shave down

Shaving down in the 1980’s…glasses may give away the decade.


Step 1. Clip.  Get the clippers and clip the area you are going to shave first.  It is very hard to shave long hairs because it clogs up the razor so fast.  So you REALLY need to clip first even if you are not very hairy you should clip first.  You can even clip the day before.  A lot of swimmers save their shave down for finals and just ‘clip’ for heats.  It is a risk because the shave down has a bigger affect on your performance, unless you are very hairy, then then clipping on its own has a pretty big affect too.  Some people clip the day before just to save some time or to share the clippers.  If you are using electric clippers don’t be anywhere near water.  Tidy up your hair clippings afterwards, don’t be inconsiderate.


Once you have clipped it is much easier to shave down

Step 2. Now get your shaving space ready.  Normally the upper body is done in the bathroom in front of the mirror.  You will monopolise the bathroom for quite some time.  Put on some good music in your room. You don’t have to be in your swim suit but it is easier to jump into the shower after if you do.

Step 3.  Foam up.  Put shaving foam on your body in units.  For example foam one arm first, shave it, then move on.  Mark out moles or things like scars that you don’t want to shave by dragging your fingernail (lightly) over them so you can see them easily.  A mole will bleed for a long time if you cut it so don’t shave too close.  For males, make sure you mark your nipples out the same way as a mole…you may laugh but I’ve seen it done, it’s very bad thing indeed to cut your nipples.  You would only do it once.

Step 4. Start to shave.  Shave the ‘easy’ sections first and the ‘harder’ sections second.  Take your time and take breaks after each unit.  Shaving your whole body could take up to three hours if you are new to it once you are practiced it won’t take near that long.   The harder sections are your joints; elbows, knees, ankles, and wrists.  Most of these parts have bumps and lumps; try to twist your body around so that the bumps are not as bumpy by twisting around so that they flatten.  Shaving over a bump often leads to slicing the top of the bump off, this is very sore and you will start to bleed.  To see some parts of your body you will need to use the mirror. Using a mirror helps a lot but it takes a bit of practice to use a razor while looking in a mirror while pulling your skin tight.  Other harder sections are areas of your skin that are the hairier bits.  Shave only in the direction of the hair growth.  Hair growth direction changes quite a lot in some areas and may even be a swirl!


Avoiding in-grown hairs.  Shave ONLY in the direction that the hair grows.  Pay very close attention to this.  If you shave against the direction of the hair growth you will get ‘in-grown’  hairs.  Shaving against the hair growth makes the shave feel a bit closer when you run your fingers over it but you don’t need to be that close. Trust me on this.  Susceptible areas for ingrown hairs are: the area below your belly button, on your chest, on your armpits (if you are shaving them) and around your ‘bikini’ line (males you don’t wear a bikini but I am sure you know the area I mean).  Having very sore in-grown hairs during your big race day will be distracting, uncomfortable and may become septic. Its not a nice look either.  I am not a Dermatologist but basically what happens if you shave against the hair growth you cut the hair too short and it goes below the skin line.  The skin then heals itself more quickly than the hair, creating a skin layer over the hair follicle, and then the hair grows in a curl…downwards.  This makes a pimple-like sore because the hair is now growing into you.


In-grown hair curls over and causes the follicle to become inflamed

Bleeding. If you start to bleed because you cut yourself, rinse the area with water and put pressure on it.  This will stop the bleeding after a few minutes.  Once you get good at shaving down you will not cut yourself.  Pulling your skin tight with one hand and shaving with the other will help to avoid cuts.

Use new razors only.  There are some dangerous things that can be found in things like rusty old razors, you don’t want them introduced into your body through a cut.  Dull razors just do not work well, so if shaving down is important to you spend the money on new blades.

Shaving makes your skins sensitive.   If you shave under your swim suit line it can be irritating so shave with your racing suit or one the same size so you don’t shave under.

Foam.  You should never ‘dry shave’ or only use water instead of foam. This will give you razor burn.  You will look like you put red stripes all over your body. Some swimmers do this at the pool to ‘re-shave’ before an important final.  The razor will cut too deep without foam and will leave your skin red and very sore.

Sleepwear.  You need to wear tight fitting sleepwear after shaving down because anything loose fitting will rub on your skin and your skin is now extremely  HYPER SENSITVE after shaving down. Anything that is loose like bedding or pyjamas will brush against your skin and keep you awake.  If you want to sleep after shaving down, plan ahead.  Old school is best; long-johns.  Tight fitting sleepwear acts like a second skin and protects your skin from getting rubbed.

Waxing and Neet.  Don’t bother with hair removal cream like ‘neet’ or waxing.  The important thing that shaving down does is it takes a very thin layer of skin off.  This makes your skin extremely sensitive and gives you awareness that you will never have experienced before.  Your skin is essentially shallower, so your nerve endings are closer to the surface.  Waxing just rips out the roots of your hairs.

Don’t pick.  In-grown hairs are common and likely to happen even if you are very careful.  They can become infected, get very large and leave scars if you pick them.  Fingernails are notoriously dirty, so don’t pick.  I have found that if you use a rough wash cloth with soap and scrub quite hard this will open up the follicle and the hair will come out.  It is sore but it works. If you have very curly hair, like most people with African ancestry, you might consider close clipping some difficult areas rather than close shaving.  A friend of mine was very curly and he always had difficulty with in-grown hairs.

Using your razor.  You don’t need to press really hard but just firm, or even a bit lighter than ‘firm’.  You should rinse your razor in the hot water often so that the blades are clear of hairs and not clogged.  If you clipped then you should not have lots of hair clogging up the blade.  Use a new razor after each section of your body.

Take your time.  You must not rush yourself.  Mistakes are mostly made when you are getting rushed.  If you are going to run a razor over your skin it will be important to do it well because razor cuts are painful and you will bleed…a lot!

Shaving down for young swimmers.   I don’t recommend any prepubescent swimmers to shave down.  It is too dangerous and no child needs to be so concerned with a taper that they need to shave down.  Children should be able to achieve their goals without shaving.

Shaving will make me hairy.  It is not possible to change your genetic make-up by shaving.  Hairs that have been cut have a blunt edge microscopically and at first look different, but once they reach their normal length they will look the same as if you had not shaved.  Your hair colour may be darker after you shave because you have bleached your previous crop of hair with hours in the pool.  I have shaved down my entire body many times, I am sure I don’t look any different now than if I had not…  maybe just greyer.


About Coach Gary

I competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul representing Canada and coached in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics for Great Britain. I have a degree in History and a minor degree in Psychology from University of Calgary. I have travelled extensively and have been very lucky to see so much of the world while representing Canada and Great Britain at swimming competitions. I am very proud of the fact that I coached a swimmer to become number one in the world in the fastest swimming race in 2002. I pride myself in my ability to find new and interesting ways to teach swimming. I am an accomplished artist specialising in sculpture, I have another blog called 'swimmingart' where I publish some of my swimming drawings. I have three young children; all boys. I have recently taken up painting and yoga....but not at the same time. You can see my new paintings at:
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