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The Aerodynamics of Running: What Can You do to Run Faster?

How can you use engineering principles to optimize your run?

In aerobic sports, aerodynamics play a crucial role. Wind resistance, wind speed, and clothing can make a significant difference in a race for long-distance running, biking, or swimming.

In essentially any activity that involves prolonged exertion, if you want to maximize your time and capabilities, or even just minimize how tired you are, you're going to want to care about aerodynamics.

Aerodynamics affecting long-distance running

One of the best examples of how aerodynamics can have an effect on running, specifically, is that of the most recent "world record" marathon attempt by Eluid Kipchoge. Kipchoge beat the world record time. However, it wasn't valid due to some aerodynamic techniques he and Nike, his sponsor, used in the race.

Kipchoge ran 26.2 miles, the standard marathon, in 1 hour, 59 minutes, and 40 seconds. That's an average of an astonishing 4-and-a-half-minute per mile.

Kipchoge's time was absolutely mind-boggling, and it was the first time anyone had broken 2 hours in a marathon. The official world record is still 2 hours, 2 minutes, and 57 seconds, held by Dennis Kimetto set in Berlin in 2014. 

RELATED: A RUNNER JUST RAN A SUB TWO-HOUR MARATHON

Nike's goal in running Kipchoge was to break the two-hour time barrier on marathons, which they ultimately did. To do this, they took a highly scientific approach to the aerodynamics of running.

What Nike and Kipchoge did

Kipchoge ran his entire marathon race in a formation known as the delta formation, with a group of rotating pacers. These pacers were cycled in and out to keep a constant 2-hour pace for Kipchoge and also keep him constantly in this unique running formation. 

This delta formation involved seven rotating pacers and Kipchoge, so an 8-man team, running in the shape of an arrow. Kipchoge was the first man behind the "arrow" portion with one man behind him. This running formation allowed the pacers in front of him to take the brunt of the wind resistance and allowed Kipchoge to run right through the fluid streams trailing off of the runners ahead.

It's estimated that this technique cut off 1 minute and 30 seconds of his time. That may not sound like much, but in long-distance running, that can make a world of distance.

The runners also ran behind a car keeping the exact pace they needed to hit with a massive board on top serving two purposes. It kept the current time and pace visible to the runners, and it also created a massive draft effect for the arrow-shaped running formation to run through.

All this meant that Kipchoge ran his race in the exact perfect location, free of the most wind resistance humanly possible.

These two things together were likely the key aerodynamic components that boosted Kipchoge's marathon time. From there, we can learn how to improve our own running times, or at least give us the best opportunity.

How to maximize aerodynamics while running

Drafting is key in any race if you want to decrease the aerodynamic wear and tear on your body. This means that next time you're in a race, find a runner that is keeping the pace you want to finish in and just rail behind them. 

This may seem unfair to the runner you're following, but your trailing doesn't negatively affect them, and hey, they could do the same thing too.

Looking back at Kipchoge's attempt, it's clear that for most runners, aerodynamics is a factor, but not a huge one. Even for the best runner in the world, using the best aerodynamic techniques can only cut off about 2 minutes from a 2 hour time. That's roughly a 1.6 percent improvement in time. 

If you do want to increase your aerodynamics as much as humanly possible while running, then you'll want to do a few other things too.

According to various sources and testing on running aerodynamics, you'll want to:

  • Braid your hair if it's long.
  • Wear ultra form-fitting clothes
  • If wearing a water bottle, move it to your back or wear a camelback.
  • Shave your legs
  • Get slim, lightweight shoes, i.e., good running shoes.

Doing all of these things optimizes all the aerodynamics of you while you're running. You'll also want to be sure that you have a good running form, though this affects your ability to transform energy into speed more than it affects your drag coefficient. 

In the end, aerodynamics in running does matter. I guess it's time to go shave your entire body, wear super tight clothes, and go follow someone a little too closely. It's all worth it if you get to cut those few extra seconds off your race time.

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