Drafting: A Placebo effect or true benefit?

DraftingMany runners know how hard even a slight breeze can affect a run, and make it seem that much more taxing. Even when not racing on a windy day there are many runners who choose to draft behind another runner. This effectively lets the lead runner cut through the wind and thus reduces the resistance the trailing runner feels.

Is drafting though a true benefit and viable racing strategy or is it just a placebo effect? In a study released by the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Sports Performance the researchers wanted to answer that exact question.

The researchers aimed to see if drafting would have a positive effect on elite runners in the 3000 meter run. They looked to determine whether running times, rate of perceived exertion, and physical response would reflect a benefit from drafting.

The study took ten elite runners and had them go through three running tests. The first testing collected data on maximum oxygen uptake, and maximal aerobic speed. The second test was a run with no drafting. The third and final test was a run where the runners would run while drafting over the first 2000 meters of the run.

The results of the non-drafted run were much slower than the trial where the runners drafted for the first 2000 meters. Cardiovascular factors were similar across the testing. Blood lactate was “significantly higher” in the non-drafting run than in the drafted run. This is lactic acid we as runners or exercisers hate. It is that burning feeling in your muscles that are being exercised, in this case the leg muscles. So it is to no great surprise that runners felt the perceived exertion of the non-drafting run to be harder than the drafted test.

The conclusion of the researchers was that “This effect could not be explained by a reduced energy expenditure or cardiorespiratory effort as a result of drafting. This raises the possibility that drafting may aid running performance by both physiological and nonphysiological (ie, psychological) effects.”

This was an interesting but not overly surprising study. I came across this last week as I was getting ready to run my own 3000 meter event. I purposely stayed away from reading it beyond the title to see what I felt after my run to compare what I felt and what the study reported.

While I am far from elite even within my own age group, when I ran my 3000 meter race I did quite a bit of drafting. The wind had picked up as the morning of competition went on. So there was a fairly decent swirling wind on the track. I drafted when I could and did feel the lead runner cut the wind resistance for me. I felt at those times I could pick up my pace a bit from what is was previously when no runner was ahead of me.  I feel any runner might benefit from feeling their run is easier and not as taxing, while also helping them reduce the energy cost of running, blood lactate or lactic acid, and should try using drafting in their own runs.

Based on the above study and how I felt during my event I will use drafting a racing strategy going forward. It certainly cannot hurt, and according the science will help.

Happy Running!