Wednesday, February 14, 2007


there's been all kinds of weird things i've learned since i've been in this sport. things that the ordinary person just doesn't know, or would ever be expected to know. the proper way to clean swim goggles, how to change a tube on a bike, the mystery of derailleur adjustment, the care and maintenance of blisters on feet. it's all things that outside the context of the sport would just simply be seen as weird. as in occasionally arcane. maybe useless. likely bizarre. often very strange.

but nothing, and i mean nothing, has been as strange as the idea of shaving.

i mean body hair. and i mean for men.

like most people, i was just incredibly naive. i had never even considered the idea of shaving body hair. ever. it just wasn't something i'd ever been taught as something men did.

but then i got into this sport, and started hearing stories and rumors about what the men were doing. it wasn't such a big secret, but it was something seemingly kept on a "down low" and under wraps, shared in whispers and covered in giggles and blanketed with jabs. at first i thought it was indeed all just a big joke, thrown around the sport by a community lock-step in common spirit of triathlon. eventually, however, i got the gradual, dawning realization that the jokes weren't really jokes, and the jabs and giggling and whispers were more from embarrassment than humor.

what i realized was that most of the guys were spending inordinate amounts of time engaged in generous amounts of "private time"--and this private time was spent on dealing with body hair. shaving it. trimming it. waxing it. laser removing it. anything to it, just whatever managed to get rid of it. from their legs, their arms, their heads, their backs, their rear ends. everywhere.

people have given me all sorts of reasons for this:
  1. it's a swimming thing. swimmers have always shaved down in an attempt to reduce friction and drag induced by body hair, and to improve the fluid dynamic properties for faster swim times. believe it or not, sports medicine has actually verified this. you can see a list of studies at
  2. it's a cycling thing. cyclists have always shaved their legs to reduce the pain and suffering induced by road rash--removing a bandage or a scar is markedly more painful if hair is present, since the bandage or scar rips the hair out with it as it is removed. having hairless legs eliminates this pain. in addition, hair tends to hold in dirt and bacteria, increasing the risk of an infection with road rash. shaving hair reduces this risk. a good comment on this:
  3. it's a mental tool, helping you trick your mind into believing you are more capable of athletic performance than you already are. the act of removing hair produces new sensations of the skin, and if done over a large enough of a surface area, the new sensations overwhelm the brain into thinking that there has been a physiological change in the entire body--presumably a change associated with the visual cues we typically associate with hairlessness: sleekness, smoothness, slipperiness, aerodynamics, motion, speed
  4. it's tantamount to a communion with god (or so women have told me). women have told me the act of shaving is a transformative spiritual experience providing ritualistic solitary quiet time akin to prayer.
  5. peer pressure. everybody's doing it. and you'll just feel left out if you don't.
  6. women dig it
  7. it's just plain sexy
my take on all of these vary and are legion. i won't go into them. suffice it to say:
  • i think the time difference induced for swimming are seconds or fractions of seconds that are only important to elite swimmers (and besides, most of the time triathletes are in bodysuits anyway)
  • road rash is going to hurt no matter what. and if you crash on your bike, there's going to be a whole bunch of other things you're going to be more worried about
  • mental tools are wonderful. but seriously, huh?
  • communion? prayer? whatever. dude, i get plenty of prayer suffering at the 12-hour mark of an Ironman.
  • peer pressure isn't as big a deal as everyone says it is. as far as i know, men don't go around checking each other out to see if their legs are smooth.
  • women dig it? really? they do? then where are they?
  • hmmmmm. it is sexy. in a weird, perverted sort of way...but i kind of have to expand my mind on this.
i've also found that there's been a fairly significant amount written on this, of varying degrees of quality and usefulness. this is a sample what i've found of reasonable triathlon-related value:
for me personally, i've pretty much resigned myself to the depilation. i thought about laser removal, but that was too expensive and seemed a bit too permanent (i do want to have the option of backing out of this entire situation and returning to a hirsute hoary state). waxing was just too painful a concept to even think about. leaving only shaving, with the classic razor and cream and a nice hot shower.

it was surprisingly habit-forming. once i did it for one race, i found myself doing it for every race. and after that, i found myself continuing it through the off-season. it's gotten to the point now that it's almost a regular point of each week (or maybe 2)...but i say almost because i'm not at the point to where women say about me what Sheryl Crow said about Lance Armstrong while they were still dating: "i'm actually feeling pressured to shave, because he's more regular about it than i am."

i have to admit, it does feel pretty good. and i do feel much slicker going through the water and the air, and much lighter on my feet. and it does make a difference when i'm dealing with cases of road rash (or trail burn, or whatever). and i do feel mentally much fresher and more self-assured after i shave. and there is some peer pressure whenever race season comes around. and women do seem to notice (i admit, a woman once asked if she could touch my legs while i was running past her). and there is a sort of strange kinky sense of sensuality of feeling nothing but smooth skin...

the only problem i have is that it's not always a successful project. i've found that shaving seems fraught with perils related to skin and irritation, particularly for skin that is sensitive (and i've been shocked to find that the skin on my legs is a whole lot more sensitive than i cared to admit--i mean, come on, i'm a guy, how can my skin be sensitive?). i've experienced major cases of rashes, razor burn, and bleeding. enough to make it a daunting prospect.

and i've done my best to follow the advice and tips of the various websites. you can reference:
but most of their tips are somewhat iffy and not always effective.

all i can tell you (if you're a male triathlete contemplating shaving your legs, or if you're friends with someone who is) is that shaving is not that easy. it's surprisingly difficult to do well, takes time if you're not practiced, and can have really really REALLY bad results if you make a mistake.

to help you out, i can tell you what i've learned after some excruciating (and sometimes gruesome) trial-and-error:
  • shower first, get the skin washed and wet--i guess this is what they mean when they say "prep the skin." i removes the dead layer of skin and cleans out anything that might cause infections or irritations on the skin. it also apparently makes the skin more taut, lifting the hair so it's more easily shaved.
  • fresh razors--this is the same story as disposable razors you use for your face. razor edges tend to get blunt and nicked at a microscopic scale pretty quick, and if you continue to use razors that are blunt or nicked, it increases the chance of creating abrasions or cuts to the skin that create openings for infection. razors should always be fresh, or at least renewed every few times.
  • shaving gel--a good one. i don't particularly base my preference on scents or skin conditioning. to me that's just being fancy. what i do care about, however, is if it 1) helps prep the skin and hair, 2) disinfects pores and abrasions, and 3) soothes the skin after shaving.
  • shave gently and methodically--with the same level of gentleness and method you shave your face. especially for areas close to the bone (e.g., the shins and knees). it's tempting to try and speed things up or to really dig for some stubborn hairs, but this just increases the risk of cutting the skin and inviting infection.
  • shave against the skin--as if you don't already know. but the rule that exists for shaving your face applies to your legs (or chest, back, armpits, whatever). this makes for a much closer shave, which is pretty much the entire point of shaving.
  • pat the skin dry, don't rub--rubbing the skin with a towel to dry off just serves to irritate it, and invites the development of rashes. why, i don't know. but whatever the reason, it seems to work better to pat it dry.
  • use lotion--a good aloe lotion will do the trick. hand lotion is designed to treat the skin to keep it from becoming irritated. i've found this makes a HUGE difference. apply it liberally, especially before putting it in contact with clothing (which irritates fresh-shaved skin).
  • trim first--this is the same thing as for when you try to shave off a beard. if it's your first time shaving and your hair is really long, you'll want to trim the hair down (with clippers or whatever you use to trim your beard). razors don't work as well (and they get worn down quicker) if used on longer hair.
  • do it regularly--the first few times appear to be shockers for the skin, and you'll tend to find a lot of rashes and irritations in the beginning. eventually, however, with regular shaving and treatment, the skin seems to adapt and there will be fewer issues.
on a final note, i know there's always the temptations to use the typical ointments used on the face: aftershave or alcohol. i personally have never given in to this. the thought of the sting from aftershave or alcohol is a little unnerving, and besides, it just doesn't seem appropriate to throw them on your legs.

does all this say something about my masculinity? who knows. if it does, then it probably also does for all the other guys in this sport who are showing up on training days and race days with freshly-smoothed skin. my attitude is whatever. i figure it's part of being a triathlete, and i treat it as a badge of honor.

and i don't even consider it that strange anymore--it's pretty much just another weekend shower ritual by this point, and another excuse to spend a few more minutes soothing myself in hot water. of course, this may indicate just how weird i've become courtesy of triathlon, but i'd prefer to maintain my own delusions of sanity and go on blithely about my way.

No comments: