Readers Roundtable: To Draft or Not to Draft?

As we journey through fall and prepare to greet winter, the temperatures drop, leaves fall, and we face less-than-ideal conditions on our outdoor runs. And then there are the dreaded headwinds. You know the ones I’m talking about: your eyes water, snot smears across your cheeks, your hat blows off, and every step feels like you’re a football player pushing the sled down the field. 

A road race should not feel like this. (Photo cred to かねのり 三浦 from Pixabay)

I’m only being a tad hyperbolic. Are cold seasons are actually windier than warm seasons? Or do we feel more wind in the swing seasons of fall and spring because of the fluctuation in high and low air pressure systems? Alternatively, does winter feel windier simply because the wind is so darn cold? Meteorologists can’t decide. But, whatever the cause may be, it is a universal truth that cold temps + strong headwinds = ooof. I recently experienced this struggle during a half marathon. The temperatures weren’t particularly bad that day, but it was overcast, drizzly, and terribly windy. While crossing a bridge over a river, I felt like I was running through quicksand. As I ducked my head to prevent the wind from whipping my hat off, I seriously considered tucking in behind a group of strangers in front of me to allow them to break the wind for me. And that brings me to the topic of today’s reader’s roundtable: drafting in races – is it acceptable?

Drafting is when you move through the air, creating a pocket of air behind you that is traveling at the same speed. If someone moving behind you stays in the pocket you’ve created, they don’t have to push the air out of the way because it is already moving at speed (and you’ve done the hard work for them). Drafting is prominent in NASCAR where, when executed properly, the drafting car can literally be pulled along by the lead car. Cycling is another sport where drafting is both popular and effective. Alas, running does not afford these same benefits to those who draft. Much of this is due to the fact that runners move through space more slowly than cyclists (or cars, duh), and therefore wind resistance is not as great of a factor for us. But scientific studies suggest that drafting does have its own place in the running world, and the running community has generally embraced this as an acceptable strategy. From what I can gather from the science, drafting is more effective for faster runners (in the 4:00-6:00 minute/mile category), unless there is a significant headwind confronting you. It appears that to physically benefit from drafting, you not only need to be fast, you also need to tuck in pretty closely to the runner(s) in front of you. To achieve the drafting effect, you must stay within a pocket of air a few feet behind the lead runner (like, almost close enough to step on their heels). Under these circumstances, you can shave off seconds here and there by conserving your energy. At 4:30 mile pace on a still day, you can save one second per 400 meters, which means you’d save even more on a windy day. That’s according to a 1971 study by Griffith Pugh.

But what about those of us who are not running sub-7:00 minute miles? I, for one, submit there is a mental benefit to be gained from having a break in the wind. After all, we all know the relief of ducking into an alcove just to get a respite from a strong winter wind. So even if you are not conserving energy per se, it feels equally as beneficial to have a physical barrier from the wind on the course, even if just for a short time.

(Photo by Fitsum Admasu on Unsplash)

Of course, I am writing all of this from the perspective of the benefiting runner. But what about the lead runner who is doing all of the hard work? Lots of runners do not like to be drafted, especially when their hard work is turning into a payoff for the competition. This is actually the concern that prevented me from drafting during my race, despite my desperate desire to tuck in behind that group of strangers. I didn’t want to unintentionally anger a fellow runner or run afoul of the rules of good sportsmanship.

What are your thoughts on drafting?  Do you do it? Does it work?

I am a full-time attorney, wife, and mom of three active kiddos. In my spare time, you can find me pounding the pavement in the hot and humid south. I aim to write about maintaining balance, finding the humor in life, and training from the perspective of a middle-of-the-pack, self-coached, just-trying-to-improve runner.

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