The metabolic cost of emulated aerodynamic drag forces in marathon running

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2022 Sep 1;133(3):766-776. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00086.2022. Epub 2022 Jul 14.


The benefits of drafting for elite marathon runners are intuitive, but the quantitative energetic and time savings are still unclear due to the different methods used for converting aerodynamic drag force reductions to gross metabolic power savings. Further, we lack a mechanistic understanding of the relationship between aerodynamic drag forces and ground reaction forces (GRFs) over a range of running velocities. Here, we quantified how small horizontal impeding forces affect gross metabolic power and GRF over a range of velocities in competitive runners. In three sessions, 12 runners completed six 5-min trials with 5 min of recovery in-between. We tested one velocity per session (12, 14, and 16 km/h), at three horizontal impeding force conditions (0, 4, and 8 N) applied at the waist of the runners. On average, gross metabolic power increased by 6.13% per 1% body weight of horizontal impeding force but the increases varied considerably between individuals (4.17%-8.14%). With greater horizontal impeding force, braking GRF impulses decreased, whereas propulsive GRF impulses increased, but the impulses were not related to individual changes in gross metabolic power. Combining our findings with those of previous aerodynamics studies, we estimate that for a solo runner (52 kg) at 2-h marathon pace, overcoming aerodynamic drag force (1.39% BW) comprises 7.8% of their gross metabolic power and drafting can save between 3 min 42 s and 5 min 29 s.NEW & NOTEWORTHY We measured the metabolic and biomechanical effects of small horizontal impeding forces (representing realistic aerodynamic drag forces) on high-caliber runners across a range of velocities. Combining our metabolic results with existing aerodynamic models indicates that at 2-h marathon pace, optimal drafting likely allows a marathoner to run between 3 min 42 s and 5 min 29 s faster. Our rule-of-thumb (∼6% increase in gross metabolic power per 1% body weight of horizontal impeding force) will allow others to estimate the performance enhancement of different drafting formations.

Keywords: drafting; horizontal impeding forces; metabolic power; performance.

MeSH terms

  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Body Weight
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Humans
  • Marathon Running*
  • Running*