Thursday, March 19, 2009

Wind Will It Stop?!

As of today, there are just over 12 days left of March. Surviving the blustery, irritating month is, for most runners, an accomplishment within itself. The wind can create an annoying problem that turns a planned "easy" run into a seemingly endless marathon - an experience which I'm certain could turn even the happiest, most peppy cheerleader sour.
Why is March so Windy?

If one were to follow me on a mid-March run, you might witness some anger, futile yelling, and exasperated "URGH!"s. Despite the frustration wind can incite, trust me, it isn't karmic retribution, selective smiting on mother nature's part, or stroke of bad luck.

Meteorologically speaking, March is such a windy month because of extreme temperature and pressure contrasts. Also, the increasingly strong sunshine heats the Earth, causing this warm air to rise and cause atmospheric instability when it mixes with the colder air higher up. Therefore, when your rope of tolerance is shortening in the face of a relentless headwind, remember it is only a temporary weather phase for which there are scientific reasons.

The Effects of Wind Resistance

There are three factors that have an impact on the energy cost of running:
  1. Runner's surface area
  2. Air density
  3. Square of headwind velocity

Of course, the more surface area of the individual, the more wind will demand of them to maintain any given pace. However, this does not necessarily hold true with children, who are estimated to be 20% - 30% less economical per unit of body mass than their adult counterparts. A child's inferior running economy is caused by a larger proportion of surface area to body mass, shorter stride length, greater stride frequency, and other biomechanical characteristics.

Air density is more influential in running energy expenditure at sea level than it is at higher altitudes. Therefore, there is much less air resistance for runners to overcome at altitude. Only for faster moving cyclists and speed skaters does this become more of an obstacle.

Perhaps you're thinking, "I like running in the wind! A tailwind, that is." Unfortunately, even though this wind may help you on the latter half of an out-and-back route, the high energy cost in overcoming the headwinds you first experienced exceeds the reduction in oxygen uptake with the same wind at your back. *pop!* Sorry to burst your bubble!

How to Reduce the Wind's Effects on Running

If you've ever watched a televised, windy marathon, it's likely you are familiar with the term "drafting." Drafting is the act of using a competitor to divert gusts and their fatiguing effects. Although ineffective when running alone, its use in a race setting could give you an edge. When running with a friend or group on a weather appropriate day, you can practice this technique by taking turns as the "draftee(s)" and the "drafter(s)." I do not condone exploitation, but when you're sucking air mid-race against immense gales, using the front competitor as a partition will look awfully appealing. So draft away, I say!

On several occasions, I've seen runners along the sidewalk who, through their own fashion mistakes, were fighting a losing battle against the wind sporting a pair of parachute-like sweatpants. Unless it is your specific intent to use the wind resistance, there's no need to be one of them. Form-fitting gear has been shown in wind tunnel experiments to increase running performance. And, you long, flowing-haired runners, did you know trimming your beautiful locks could cut (pun intended) wind resistance effects by as much as 6 percent?

Using the Wind to Your Advantage

In competitive settings like races, the goal is often to achieve the lowest time possible, which means looking for ways to increase aerodynamism and reduce wind resistance effects. However, in training, when the goal is to achieve optimum fitness for the race, one can utilize the wind to increase their stamina, running form, and power. This is called "resistance running."

Trainers often use resistance running to improve the athlete's performance. To stimulate wind resistance effects, they can utilize running parachutes, which come in three sizes: small, medium, and large.

People often think that wind is something you have no control over. However, remaining level-headed, using strategies such as wearing form-fitting apparel to reduce drag, or utilizing wind resistance to your benefit are variables over which you do have control. So next time you consider aimlessly antagonizing mother nature, choose instead to accept the challenge. At your next race, you might just have your expectations "blown away."


  1. Great post! I look at running in the wind as a strength-building workout. The biggest mistake I see people do running in the wind is try to fight through it rather than keeping their level of effort constant and accept that their times are going to be slower.

  2. Good post. We rarely get severe winds around here, but I'll try to take some of your advice the next time I get faced with some gusts.

  3. Great post! Perfect apt for running in the Northeast. I ascribe a large percentage of my increase in speed to always running against the least that's the way I explain it!

  4. i hate the wind! today it was windy and snowing - stupid march!

    a running parachute sounds like fun but i think i'd give up quickly. lol.

    great post. we should consider the wind a friend with the extra benefits it gives us over time, but it's hard to feel the love :)