What Is Drafting? How the Practice Helps Runners Perform Better

Two woman out for a run together.
Sam Edwards/Getty Images

You might have seen large groups of cyclists riding close together, or a race car driver speeding directly behind a competitor. This technique is called drafting and allows you to go faster by doing less work—during drafting, you stay behind people to block weather elements that often inhibit pace, and you create an environment ripe for extra speed by reducing aerodynamic drag.

Drafting in running is not the same as cycling or auto racing, however, and the time gains made from drafting during a run often do not amount to much. For those who want to try drafting and see if the tactic helps shave down your running pace, you can take specific measures when training and racing to implement the practice.

What Is Drafting?

Drafting is a tactic employed in certain sports, largely activities with high speed, such as in biking and race car driving. When drafting, you conserve energy by using a wake created by others to pull everyone along, Because this wake pressure is low, those behind the lead athlete get pushed by atmospheric pressure behind them. You also block some of the challenges Mother Nature presents, such as gusts of wind.

Although drafting provides a significant advantage in high-speed sports, you can use drafting as an effective technique in lower-paced sports, such as running, as well. But the effects will not be as substantial.

In one of the most relevant (and still referenced) articles on drafting, researchers determined the following percentages for the energy cost of overcoming air resistance on non-wind days when outdoor running: 7.8% for sprinting, 4% for middle-distance, and 2% for marathon running.

In short, the faster you run, the more substantial the benefits of your drafting technique will be. Drafting is nearly as helpful at cutting down time during longer distances.

How Drafting Impacts Performance

Drafting can have some degree of impact on performance, including finish time and perception of effort.

Physiological Responses

In a study on the effects of drafting on running, middle and long-distance runners performed three track sessions. The first determined maximal oxygen update and aerobic speed, the second used a non-drafting workout of 3,000 meters, and the third used drafting on the first 2,000 meters and 1,000 meters of non-drafting. Results showed that athletes perceived the 3,000-meter non-drafting workout as more strenuous than the drafting one.

In this same study, researchers found that performance in the 3,000-meter non-drafting session was “significantly” slower than during the drafting session, and cardiorespiratory responses were not significantly different. This means that the heart was working the same during both track sessions; however, the athletes performed better when drafting.

Researchers do note that drafting offers “significant” effects on highly trained runners. For certainties of drafting in slower speed runners, more research is needed.

Energy Usage

Drafting can also help you conserve energy. In the 2018 Berlin Marathon, researchers investigated elite marathoner Kenenisa Bekele on his drafting techniques to finish in 2:01:41—two seconds slower than the world record. Bekele ran behind three shoulder-to-shoulder pacers for the first 25 kilometers. In the most effective aerodynamic position (behind the middle pacer), Bekele used 2.84 percent less energy than if he would have run the first 25 kilometers alone.

How to Draft During Training and During a Race

During training and racing, you can use certain techniques for optimal drafting. However, greater results are found when these are employed with elite runners.

Get Directly Behind Your Training Partner

As researchers found in the Bekele study, staying at this optimal position provides your best energy conversation. However, you also need to be safe. You can use apps or a Garmin to keep you and your training partner running at the exact same pace to lessen the chances of an injury; for example, if the person in front slows down, the person behind will need enough space to not crash into them.

Find a Pacing Group

In large full and half marathons, you will often find pacers carrying a flag on a stick with their finish time. You can run directly behind this pacing group to keep you on target with your goal.

In a study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, researchers found that athletes should adopt a realistic pace and stay within a pack of runners if they have hopes of earning a medal. Even if you do not intend to win and simply want to finish at a specific time, drafting off a pacing group can help.

Complete Speed Drills in Big Groups

Fast running sees the greatest benefits when drafting. Performing your track sessions in groups could allow you to perform faster without working your heart harder.

Proper Race Etiquette

Although drafting can definitely benefit a person during a race, there is a right and wrong way to go about this during a race. Basic race etiquette includes:

Drift to the Side

You cannot see the road when you are directly behind someone. This does not allow you to prepare for potential obstacles, such as speed bumps and discarded water cups. You also might bump into the runner you are drafting off of, as this person could slow down or suddenly stop. Make sure you can see the road in front of you, even as you're working to position yourself behind someone.

Start in the Proper Corral

You should begin any race with similarly paced runners. According to the Road Runners Club of America, this allows the race to manage runner congestion. If you are a slower runner or walker, starting at the back of the pack does not impede faster runners and you can draft off of others easier.

Design Your Racing Strategy

Develop optimal drafting strategies and find behaviors that work for you. This includes what you will do at water stops, how you will move off the course if needed, and how you will draft and pace with running partners (for example, running at a specific speed for the first 10 kilometers). Being prepared with a racing strategy will help your race go smoother, and keep you (and other runners) safe.

A Word From Verywell

Drafting can provide several advantages to running, including saving energy, increasing pace, and boosting psychological responses. Although elite runners gain the greatest benefits from drafting, slower runners can employ drafting tactics when training and racing. If you're adding this technique into your routine for the first time, be sure to speak with a medical professional to ensure you take any necessary precautions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How does drafting impact your race times?

    Drafting can lower your race times, although results are minimal when you run more than seven minutes per mile. By running behind others, a wake is created that pulls everyone along to make running feel easier. Drafting also impedes headwinds and other weather challenges.

  • Is drafting while running effective?

    Drafting can be effective in running. According to the most relevant study on drafting while running, the following percentages show how effective drafting is in conserving energy on a calm day: 7.8 percent for sprinting, 4 percent for middle-distance, and 2 percent for marathon running.

  • It is rude to draft during a race?

    Following directly behind a stranger can put you and another person in a potentially hazardous situation. Should someone trip or slow down unexpectedly, you both could fall and get injured.

    If you want to draft during a race, running with a training partner who is aware of your pace would be a helpful technique. You can also run behind someone else, but position yourself to the side instead of directly behind. This allows you to see around someone and get out of the way if the runner slows down.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Schickhofer L and Hanson H. Aerodynamic effects and performance improvements of running in drafting formationsJournal of Biomechanics. 2021;122:110457. doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2021.110457

  2. Penn State University. Optimal drafting position for marathon runner.

  3. Davies CT. Effects of wind assistance and resistance on the forward motion of a runnerJ Appl Physiol Respir Environ Exerc Physiol. 1980;48(4):702-709. doi:10.1152/jappl.1980.48.4.702

  4. Zouhal H, Abderrahman AB, Prioux J, et al. Drafting’s improvement of 3000-m running performance in elite athletes: is it a placebo effect? International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance. 2015;10(2):147-152. doi: 10.1123/ijspp.2013-0498

  5. Polidori G, Legrand F, Bogard F, Madaci F, Beaumont F. Numerical investigation of the impact of Kenenisa Bekele’s cooperative drafting strategy on its running power during the 2019 Berlin marathonJournal of Biomechanics. 2020;107:109854. doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2020.109854

  6. Pacing profiles and tactical behaviors of elite runnersJournal of Sport and Health Science. 2021;10(5):537-549. doi:10.1016/j.jshs.2020.06.011

  7. Road Runners Club. Safe Event Guidelines.

By Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed
Jennifer Purdie, M.Ed, is a certified personal trainer, freelance writer, and author of "Growth Mindset for Athletes, Coaches and Trainers."