Drafting is a principle that has existed in cycling for years. The idea is that by sitting behind another rider, you’re minimizing drag and therefore decreasing the amount of energy you have to put out to maintain the same speed as those in front of you. At cycling speeds, drafting can save riders huge amounts of energy, but how much does it matter for runners who are travelling much more slowly in comparison?
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Until very recently, the key research on drafting and drag in runners was over 50 years old. However, last week a paper out of The Journal of Biomechanics was released, highlighting the impact that drafting had on Kenenisa Bekele’s performance at the 2019 Berlin Marathon, where he ran the second-fastest ratifiable marathon time in history.
There’s an optimal drafting position
Researchers found that Bekele ran in three different positions while racing towards his 2:01:41 finishing time. He had three pacers in front of him, and he oscillated between running behind the leftmost pacer, between the leftmost and centre pacer and directly behind the centre pacer. During the first half of his race, he stayed on average 1.3 metres behind his pacers.
Researchers found that between these three positions, running behind either the central pacer or the left pacer was optimal, but interestingly, that sitting between two runners wasn’t much better than running solo. Many runners like having the ability to see the road ahead of them, but sacrificing sight might be the tradeoff they need to squeeze the most out of their draft.
Drafting does matter for runners
It was calculated that Bekele likely sustained a 1.91 to 2.84 per cent energy savings because of his drafting technique. Over the course of a marathon, that’s a lot. This energy savings could be what allowed him to negative split his race, giving him the energy to speed up in the second half of the race.
At a minimum, following always feels easier than leading
Even if you’re not concerned with a two per cent energy savings and achieving perfect pacing, running behind someone always feels mentally easier than doing it on your own. Really difficult workouts can be made much easier simply by sharing the load with a training partner. As researchers point out in their introduction, that’s the second benefit of drafting – the ability to shut your mind off and simply follow.
If you’ve got a big workout or time trial on the horizon, a pacer is undeniably a good idea.