Is Hair Care a Burden or a Barrier to Entry for Swimming and Triathlon?

by Amy  - July 5, 2021

Today I’m going to talk about hair.


This article explains my thoughts and opinions behind a couple of podcast interviews I did and they are linked here as well.

Back in the early 2000s there were several research studies which had headlines like “Women avoid sport because of burden of hair care.”

Many of these studies which were academic in nature singled out a specific group of women who were avoiding exercise due to hair care. That group was Black Women. Here’s a link to one so that you know I’m not just inventing this.

There were big headlines about this as recently as 2019. Here’s an article in US News.

In 2012 when I was an ambassador for Women for Tri we were on a conference call where they reviewed the results from a survey to try and figure out why more women were not doing triathlon and sure enough hair care was a common response.

Case closed … hair is a barrier and a burden. Makes sense. Moving on.

NOPE! Well, sort of… but not really.

I only know my hair.

I have thin, fine, medium brown hair. If I grow it too long it gets spit ends and if I spend a lot of time in the pool it gets blondish and dried out. After my first Ironman the stress on my hair caused a lot of damage because I had it pulled tight and wet under a swim cap, bike helmet and then running cap all day. It stressed me out I went to the doctor and everything. There you go that’s my full experience.

Many women I know modify their training schedule around hair care. If I go and get my highlights and my hair styled … I want to enjoy that good hair for as long as I can. This for me was just a part of balancing my life between life and sport. It’s not something that I talked to my coaches about though … just my friends.

Is natural black hair different? To find out I interviewed a hair stylist. A Trichologist actually which means she specializes in hair loss.

What she taught me is that yes there are several types of hair textures that range from straight, to wavy, to curly to kinky. BUT that the real issue is when we process our hair with color or straightening processes that damages our hair a little bit. When you combine that with swimming it can reverse the process, damage the hair even more and sometimes even cause the hair to fall out. Yikes! Nobody wants that!

The thing is that there is a question behind this though which is that it’s not actually the hair itself it’s the process we put our hair through. And notably straightening curly hair or kinky hair is possibly trying to look less like your natural self. While I don’t want to be dramatic it’s a good idea here to notice that straightening curly hair can be seen as trying to make the hair more … white.

Yes, this may possibly come back to a racial bias.

Honestly, it’s not the overt purpose of these interviews but swimming in the USA has a racist history. We did totally ban black people from the public swimming pools and beaches for decades.

The impact of that is still felt.

The message of the “burden of hair care” may also play into the patriarchal message that women get which is that it’s our job to appear a certain way. That “way” is historically determined by men. That’s a whole other story but it’s there it’s a part of this icky message that hair care is a burden that prevents us from getting started in sports.

The message of the “burden of hair care” in terms of coloring our hair may also play into the patriarchal message that women are more valuable when we’re young. So, we certainly can’t show our grey hair.

So let’s see…racism, patriarchy, ageism. Okay that’s enough food for thought for you there.

Make your own opinions but maybe take a minute and think about it. I know I didn’t think about it until somebody pointed it out to me.

Why do we wear swim caps?

Swim caps serve to hopefully keep extra hair out of the drains of swimming pools.

Historically, because men had short hair swim caps or bathing caps were only worn by women. Ahem … please refer to the mention of patriarchy above.

Today in competitive swimming and triathlon swimmers wear swim caps to make them more easily seen in open water and identified in a swimming pool and also because it is a more hydrodynamic effect. The swim cap reduces drag in the water compared to a head of hair.

In triathlon participants are normally required to wear a colored cap given by the race director. The color of the cap indicates your wave or classification during the swim portion of the event.

One size swim cap does not fit all

Swim caps come in three main styles/types. Latex, Silicone and Fabric.

Latex is the least expensive. Silicone is more gentle to wear (that’s my opinion), fabric I don’t see very often but I did start my kids with fabric swim caps because they are super easy to put on and take off.

Swim caps do actually come in sizes. Swim cap manufacturers like Speedo and Tyr do make XL or Long Hair swim caps. In my experience, you have to know about this and know to go and order them. You may not find these at the swim store on the pool deck or at a swim meet or at your nearby sporting goods store.

Peoples skulls come in different sizes. This is why ball caps are adjustable and cowboy hats are sold in sizes. And some people have a lot more volume of hair than other people.

The first time I met somebody who didn’t fit easily into a latex swim cap she was a training partner of mine in triathlon. She is a delightful person and has a ton of very thick hair. Her heritage is hispanic … just saying. Often her swim cap would split during a race. She had a variety of strategies to try and prevent this because often the lifeguards in the swim would snap at her. I don’t think she was ever actually fully disqualified.

Have you ever been to a race that offered an XL swim cap? This could be a thing. It seems like it should be a super easy adaptation to make. Order some bigger caps. But I don’t know if there are race directors out there doing this or not.

Just cut your hair

Hmmm. Well okay once you are really serious about a hobby maybe this is a reasonable answer.

When I first started looking for stories of people struggling with hair and swim caps I got several answers of women who did shave the bottom back of their hair to reduce the volume of their hair.

But when you are a child or a beginner … I don’t know that this is a helpful answer.

When we talk about removing barriers to entry or making sports inclusive for all I think that means that the people who govern the sport and make products for the sports should think about meeting the prospective athletes where they are.

Swim caps are NOT comfortable.

This could just be my opinion. Maybe there are people out there who love how swim caps feel.

They are tight on our heads and they pull hairs on our crown and at the base of our neck. If you wear your long hair in a bun they push that bun into your head and after a while that hurts. And they hold in heat which is good when you are in cold water but not so great in the summer. One good thing they do is keep hair out of your eyes while you swim.

For individuals that have long thick hair and especially volumous hair. Sometimes this will mean natural black hair or it could mean braids or extentions or even dreadlocks. These really don’t fit easily into a standard swim cap.

There are a few companies who have made swim caps to solve this. Soul Cap is a company from the UK. They recently made news because they petitioned to allow their caps to be used in the 2020 Olympics and FINA said no.

I have no say in what cap is used at the Olympics. I figure by the time you get to the Olympics you’ve probably figured out how to handle your hair and a swim cap.

What’s more important for me is that people who are considering a new sport like swimming or triathlon should be able to easily find gear that fits them and works for them for the sports. Let’s be real, it’s not reasonable that anybody is going to consider changing their hairstyle to try swimming lessons the first time. More likely they would just not wear a cap so this is an issue when caps are required. Which is pretty common in public pools, competitive pools and triathlons.

So, yes, if you cannot find gear that works for you – that fits you that is a barrier to entry.

It’s not because of HAIR but a lack of information and access to the right gear

Hair just grows out of our heads.

We don’t have a choice about what type of hair we get. Thin hair, curly hair, thick kinky hair.

This barrier is because the market is not reflecting the needs of the people who want to swim.

There are companies making products for this marketplace of swimmers.

Soul Cap which I mentioned, Swimma Caps and Swimmie Caps are three that I’ve heard of. There could be many more brands or styles that I don’t know about.

I know a lot about swim gear and triathlon gear. Although I didn’t even know that there were caps for long hair when I started this search.

Why don’t I know about these specialty caps? Well, truly, I don’t have volumous hair. This is not my perspective. I had to get out there and find a whole different perspective to learn about this and search for these brands. I hope that if you do have big volumous hair that you did already know about these brands and more.

Perhaps the reason I haven’t heard of these brands is because these brands are not (YET) as well represented in publications for swimmers and triathletes as they could be.

Perhaps it’s time that this could change. Wouldn’t that be fun!

Why bring this up at all?

If it’s not an issue for me why would I bring this up?

Well, because I do truly want swimming and triathlon to be inclusive and welcoming sports. I mentioned before that offering bigger swim caps seems like a pretty simple step to take.

Triathlon is a complicated sport. It’s tough to figure it out what will work for you and what won’t. Bringing information about specialty products to more people is something I want to do.

Also to be a little more direct I personally think it would be great if swim coaches, magazines, race directors, camp leaders, and other people in the industry of swimming and triathlon were more aware and sensitive to the swim cap and hair care issues. Get to know these vendors, perhaps showcase them to your audiences.

In my coaching business I do my best to constantly be open and learning about new perspectives and ideas. I’m certainly not perfect but it’s a continual goal.

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Amy Stone (she/her/hers) is a life coach who helps adults in blended families. She is a mom, step-mom and a step-grandma. Other random fun facts include that She is a 7-time Ironman triathlon finisher and many many marathons and shorter races. She created

  • Thank you for writing this piece! Swim caps do not keep my hair dry. And yes… modifying my training schedule around hair care is a real thing and something my husband doesn’t understand!

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