Does Running in the Wind Hurt Your Performance?
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We’ve all woken up on a stormy day and looked out the window to see blustery skies and gusting winds. We know that we should lace up our running shoes and head out the door, but is it a good idea? Can you even have a good run when you’re fighting against the wind?
Running in the wind can hurt your running performance if you’re not mindful of your form and energy levels. Whether you’re running in a headwind or a tailwind can impact the amount of air resistance you will need to combat and how you will need to approach it.
It can be really tempting to ditch your workout on a day when the winds are brutal. Yes, you should always be aware of your safety and never go out for a run if there would be any concerns for your well-being if you went out on a windy day. If it’s a typical windy day though, there are some good things to keep in mind that can help you get out for a successful run with an idea of how it will possibly impact your running performance.
Impacts of a Headwind vs.a Tailwind on Running Speed
A headwind is a wind that blows at you from the front. All of us can remember some strong headwinds we’ve encountered. They are those winds that make you feel like you’re using all of your energy to keep moving forward as you fight the wind that’s coming straight at you and pushing you back.
A tailwind is a wind that blows at you from behind. Many people, especially runners, enjoy tailwinds because they almost seem to push you along as you’re moving. Like headwinds though, tailwinds aren’t always pleasurable. Even though tailwinds can be helpful as you’re running, sometimes they can be too strong and impact your balance.
If you’re like me, you enjoy that moment when you’re fighting against a strong headwind and then turnaround to enjoy a nice tailwind. It’s like a reward. Regardless of what the science says, I would guess that most runners would say that they can really feel the difference between a headwind and a tailwind. But, it can’t just be a shared anecdote. There’s got to be some real data behind it, right?
We’re in luck! Yes, there is actually some science about how wind and air resistance impacts runners.
A study by C.T. Davies found that it takes additional energy to overcome air resistance or, a headwind, on a calm day.
The energy required ended up being 7.8% when sprinting, 4% for middle distance running, and 2% for marathon running(source).
Pugh did another study that found that the energy is as high as 13% for sprinters and 8% for middle distance runners (source). This means that a runner has to expend anywhere between 2-13% of extra energy in order to overcome a headwind on an otherwise calm day.
A strong headwind is actually believed to have contributed to Usain Bolt’s loss of the gold medal in the London Olympics in 2017. Even though bronze is nothing to sneeze at, he was favored to win the gold. The key here is to realize that headwinds don’t impact everyone in the same way. Wind needs something to push against. When you’re running, that something is your body. The larger you are, the more “mass” you have for wind to push against. Usain Bolt is a big guy in comparison to other runners. He’s powerful and strong. While this normally benefits him, it can make it harder for him on windy days when his smaller competitors are less impacted by the wind resistance (source).
Interestingly, Pugh found that drafting or, running right behind a runner, mitigated most, if not all of the impacts of a headwind. This became a hot topic when Eliud Kipchoge attempted to break the 2 hour marathon. It’s believed that the pacers used for the race reduced Kipchoge’s air resistance by as much as 83% (source).
Clearly, reducing the impact of a headwind can improve results, but what benefit can embracing a tailwind have? Looking back at the experiment to break the 2 hour marathon, researchers calculated that a tailwind of 6.0 m/s was an important part of the equation leading to a successful sub-2 marathon (source).
Ok, so headwinds hurt your performance and tailwinds help, but what happens if you run in a loop or an out and back? Unless we’re in a race, very few of us run from one spot to another without ever turning around and heading back where we started. This means that we have to face both the headwind and the tailwind, whether on the way out or on the way back. So, if your running performance is being hindered by a headwind and helped by a tailwind, what’s the end result at the end of the day?
Davies actually looked at this exact scenario.
Davies found that, in an out and back run, the benefits of a tailwind are evened out by the penalties of a headwind. Basically, the end result is negligible.
After this LONG section going back and forth about headwinds and tailwinds, here’s what we’ve discovered: headwinds hurt, tailwinds help, but it doesn’t matter because you’re going to have to turn around at some point and face both anyways.
Don’t flip your desk and close this article yet, though! Even if headwinds and tailwinds end up being negligible for your actual running speed, there are still some important factors that you need to consider when you head out for a run in the wind so that you don’t end up injured or miserable.
Running in the Wind and Your Form
The last time you ran in a strong headwind, you might have noticed that you started to hunch over. If the wind really picked up and you felt really tired, you may have started to curl up until you resembled a rollie pollie. Heck, there have been times I wanted to curl up on the side of the road instead of continue running. We’ve all been there. Well, maybe you haven’t, but I’m sure you can imagine the patheticness of it all.
When you’re running against a headwind, you want to be sure to stand up straight and maintain your form. If you start crunching and bending, you could end up running for a few miles with a hunched back, which will hurt overtime. This also won’t do you any favors in the speed department.
That said, staying strong and leaning forward can actually help. This is the difference between rounding your back as you hunch over and keeping your back straight as you lean forward with your entire body. Studies show that leaning into a headwind in this way can actually convert drag into lift, which is great news and a great way to get as much benefit from a headwind as possible (source).
When you’re running with a tailwind, it’s also important to stay strong and straight. Don’t let your back bend in any unusual ways. It’s easier to maintain your form when you’re running with a tailwind as opposed to a headwind, but it’s still something to keep in mind.
Running in the Wind and Your Mental Stamina
Running in the wind is hard. Dirt and sand is flying in your face, your eyes are watering, you can barely hear your music because of the racket of the wind tunnel, and you’re freakin’ freezing. If it’s raining as well, you’re probably pretty miserable and ready to cut your run short.
Even when you’re running in perfect conditions on your best day, running can be straining. That’s why it’s called exercise. Even the best of running requires strong mental fortitude. I mean, I’m ready to stop as soon as I see a doughnut shop. Add some wind into that and I’m already imagining a doughnut in each hand.
Every single run, you naturally work on your mental strength. With every step, you push yourself to keep going and resist the urge to stop and relax. It’s hard. Yet, you still manage to get out the door everyday and go for a run, even when it doesn’t feel great. That’s where your mental strength comes in. This mental training comes along with the physical training and is just as important as all of the miles and sprints you accumulate.
Windy runs are challenging, but that’s what can make them a great way to build your mental endurance and learn to withstand runs that aren’t so pleasant. Think of your windy runs as mental training exercises, helping you build your mental abilities to push through and keep going.
If you’re looking for a great foundation in running training from a mental standpoint, Matt Fitzgerald’s book, How Bad Do You Want It is my go-to choice. It is one of the best books I’ve read about the physiological aspects of running and how you can use your mental strength to your advantage. You can read more about it on my recommended books page. Fitzgerald is a brilliant runner and makes a great case for getting out there and putting your mind to the test.
When you head out for a run in the wind, be prepared for it to be harder than you’re used to from a mental perspective. Your mind will be yelling at you to turn around and go back inside to do almost anything else except for running. Even your taxes will seem appealing. It’s just not a part of our survival instincts to leave the comfort of our homes to run through less than ideal conditions. Expect your brain to push back
What are the Best Clothes for Running in the Wind
When you’re running in the wind, you want to make it as easy on yourself as possible and limit as many hurdles as you can. Especially with wind, clothes can be a HUGE hurdle. Here are some tips to make sure that you’re picking clothes that will help you instead of hurt you during a windy run.
1) Wear Skin Tight Clothes
A windy run is not the time to wear your most flowy clothes. Some of those drapey shirts might be stylish and cute right now, but they won’t be so adorable when they’re blowing up around your face and getting stuck on fence posts. Depending on how much extra material there is, you could also increase the amount of air resistance you’re going to be facing. Choose pants, shirts, and jackets that fit as tightly to your body as possible so that your clothes aren’t flying around and slowing you down.
Important note: don’t forget about drawstrings! They seem harmless most of the time, but as soon as you’re out on a windy run, they can blow around and hit you in the face. Either choose a shirt or jacket without drawstrings, or remember to tuck them in before you head out on your run.
2) Dress Warmly
Especially in the winter, you can find yourself running through frigidly cold winds. If you don’t prepare for it, you could end up needing to rely on your mental strength even more than usual. Be sure to consider wind chill when you get dressed for a run. Even though it sucks, go stand outside in your pajamas for a second to get a gauge of what you’re facing. Don’t let the shock convince you to crawl back into bed though.
Wind can be fickle though. It might be blowing strongly one minute and then completely gone the next. It’s a good idea to wear layers that you can slip off and tuck away or wrap around your waist mid-run. Arm sleeves can be really helpful with this. Having layers will make sure that you have a way to cool off in case the winds suddenly go away while you’re running.
3) Wear a Hat...But, One That Won’t Fly Away
As we talked about, it can be cold when you’re running in the wind and many of us underestimate how much of a difference it can make to keep our heads warm. Also, if you have long hair that tends to fly around in the wind, a hat can be a lifesaver with keeping your long locks at bay.
Beanies are a great choice for windy runs. They’re form fitting, are designed for warmth, and won’t blow away easily. There are some great sport beanies that aren’t the chunky beanies you’re used to seeing in winter. Even though beanies are great, if it’s raining as well, you may want to go with a hat that has a bill so that you can keep the rain out of your eyes. Make sure that the hat is tight on your head so that it doesn’t blow away during your run.
4) Wear Your Reflective and Safety Gear
Especially if you’re running during a storm with dark skies, heavy winds, and rain, drivers and bikers may not be as aware of their surroundings as they normally are. Make sure that you’re safe and wearing all of your reflective and safety gear. Gear up as though you’re running in the morning or at night when it’s dark. Running in bad weather can be dangerous and you want to be sure to keep yourself as safe as possible.
This Noxgear vest is what I wear for every single one of my runs in bad weather or in the dark, which is almost all of them given how much of an early riser I am. It is fantastic and it works really well. I can spot other runners wearing them from a block away. They are top notch when it comes to light-up gear to keep you safe and visible.
It’s also important to realize that YOU may not be fully on your game either. When you’re dealing with the elements, you can get distracted and find yourself caught off guards by things you normally wouldn’t. You might be more likely to fall over a speed bump or fail to hear an oncoming car. There also might be more hazards in the road. Depending on how windy it is, there may be tree branches or debris in the road or sidewalk. Take extra caution when you’re running in the elements to make sure you’re safe.
Overall, running in the wind won’t hurt your running performance in any significant way. A headwind will slow you down, but once you turn around, the tailwind will speed you up just as much. If you keep your form and posture in check and make sure that you wear appropriate clothing, you can have successful runs on windy days.
Hey, I’m Diana! I’m an occupational therapist and a long distance runner. I’ve run more races than I can count from 5ks through full marathons, including the Boston Marathon. Right now, my PR for the marathon is 3:09 and 1:26 for the half. I’m a bit obsessed with running and sharing what I’ve learned along the way. Let’s crush some running goals together!