Sunday, February 3, 2013

Riding / Running in the Wind - 5 Ways to Make it Suck Less

She likes the wind. Why can't you?
Have you ever wondered why so many people hate running or riding in the wind? They hate it even more than hills but for a similar reason; In short - you don't get back what you put into it. It's like a wind up toy that keeps part of the wind up.

For this post we'll stick to wind - since the concepts and equations are actually quite different than hills.


Scientific disclaimer: Fluid dynamics is a complicated matter. When I was in engineering school, we spent an entire quarter of Physics JUST on fluid dynamics and it merely presented the basics. The complexity of the math is why R&D departments use wind tunnel testing. In this post I'm trying to simplify things to basic concepts assuming the reader doesn't share the same love of engineering and math that I do. In doing so - I take some liberties with the vocabulary. For example I mix the terms 'speed' and 'velocity' (they aren't technically the same thing). I'm always happy to have a detailed, technically accurate scientific conversation on the matter of aerodynamics - but am going for a larger audience here.

The physics around wind go something like this. Wind is moving air, and in many regards - you apply fluid mechanics to how it behaves. This includes running through it. The force that wind 'pushes' on you with is a complicated matter - but there are some simple components of that force.

  • How fast you are going
  • How fast the wind is going and what direction the wind is blowing at you (angle of attack)
  • How much of a surface you present to the wind
  • How 'slippery' you are

There are other matters like air density, turbulence, etc. but the above are the big ticket items for runners and riders and we're trying to keep things simple.

Why it Sucks
Velocity (of you and the wind) is the biggest one. Let's start with a direct headwind (running into the wind). The force that wind pushes you back is proportional to the the combination of your velocity with the wind velocity in a 'squared' relationship. Meaning, for every 'doubling' of speed, you 'quadruple' how hard the wind is pushing on you (all other things being equal).

So first point - faster runners have to work harder than slower runners in any given wind. btw - notice that this is true even when there is ZERO wind. You're creating your own wind as you move.

Next - notice that the velocity is the combined velocity of the wind pushing in one direction and you running into it. Turn around and run with the wind and the relative velocity decreases. In short - you get less help from the wind when running downwind than you did fighting the same wind as a headwind.



To make matters worse, a cross wind (from your right or left side) requires effort to still push against it (although now the velocity is all the wind's fault). Still, riding or running in cross winds tire you out even more as you work to keep on your bike or stay upright when you run.

Ahhhh... so THAT'S why it totally sucks. Simply put the wind is a parasite, sucking energy out of your runs and rides, and keeping some of that energy for itself when it's the wind's turn to help you on the way back.

5 Ways to Make it Suck Less
Ok - so the wind doesn't play fair. But there are still a few things that you can do to improve your experience. And the good news is that most won't even cost you any money:

1. Lose the tension
This is the biggest one. Wind causes us to tense up. We hunch our shoulders, stiffen our arms, breath shallower. All this tension wastes energy and actually makes us more unstable on the bike or messes up our nice efficient running form. Next time you are in the wind, really try to relax your body and feel like you are a noodle slipping through the air. Slow down and shake out your arms and shrug your shoulders. Take some deep, cleansing breaths. Then slowly speed up again. It will feel easier.

2. Get more aero
There are three ways to get more aero.

  • Present less to the wind for it to push on (reducing your cross-section that the wind 'sees'). 
  • Become more 'slippery' to the wind
  • Use the wind to your advantage through aero technology (helmets, wheels, bike, etc..)

The first two are 'passive' reductions and you can get 90% of the way there through common sense. Don't wear loose fitting clothing that flaps in the wind and increases your cross section. Wear tight fitting clothes. Opt for slippery wind jackets as opposed to fleece (not so slippery). If you're on a bike, work on your aero position, even if that aero position is just down in the drops. Tuck in your elbows. By the way - I was inspired to write this post after running with my dog the other day. Usually I can dust her at tempo pace for a sustained effort, but on this day she was out in front. I noticed how aero she was. Not just naturally, but she was tucking her ears back and scooting very close to the ground when we were going into the wind.

Super Aero Doggie
Not so aero Kevin

There are other things to look at - gloves, shoe covers and of course your helmet.

An aero helmet can have a significant impact on your 'slippery-ness'; but only if it's the right one for your body and you keep your head in an aero position. The minute you look down and that alien point goes up in the wind, you lose what you've gained. Similarly, being up on the bar with an 'alien' type aero helmet looks silly and you risk some roadie (like me), shaking their head as we blow past you wearing our 'non-aero' helmet, but down in the drops.

Not aero my friend....
*Seriously* not aero... the one on the left... you're other left....
There are actually some great options other than the radical alien helmet. Some people put on helmet covers (or just tape over) the front holes (yes - it works). Some helmets are made to be the best of both worlds like the new Giro Air Attack helmet (I'm considering this one). The aero data from this helmet is pretty impressive and you don't run the risk of looking like as much of a dork when you are going less than 24mph

Courtesy Giro:  Alien-Type (Blue), Air Attack (Red), Bottom lines (standard road and a simple (bald) head)
The third way can be active depending on how the wind is blowing on you. Aero wheels work not because 
they present a smaller cross section but because of the 'sail' effect they can have depending on the angle of attack. A well designed (and selected for conditions) wheel will literally 'pull' you along like the sail of a boat.

3. Adjust your route

Change the direction of your loop so that you are running back with the wind behind you. Run in a forest (the wind will be cut down a bit). Run uphill into the wind - yeah, but at least you'll be going slower ;-) Change the time of day you are running depending on the wind forecast / direction. Stay away from hazardous situations (like busy roads) in strong cross winds unless you are used to dealing with them - especially gusts.

4. Run indoors

Great time to do an intense speed session on the treadmill. If nothing else, the thought of that may make the running in the wind option seem less evil. But seriously, I think many runners and cyclists should embrace the treadmill and trainer to go through a really focused training session.


5. Adjust your attitude and your expectations
This is actually the best advice and it applies to a lot of different situations (wind, hills, rain, snow, cold, dark, etc.). You run and cycle because you like being outside and in nature. Wind is part of nature. It's part of the equation, not something separate. If you want consistency outside, roll your trainer out into the backyard. On the road you'll encounter not just wind, but potholes, gravel, mud and the occasional errant dog. This is part of running and cycling.


And if you're a racer and trying to get faster - then by all means you NEED to practice in the wind because sooner or later you'll enter a race or event where it's howling like a banshee. The better skills you have in being aero, the stronger your race will be. Yep, you're time will be slower - but everyone runs / rides the same course. Skills are skills. They give you an advantage.

Go out with a buddy and take turns being out front. See how well you can tuck in behind someone. This works running but pays even bigger dividends cycling since the speeds are higher and the 'pocket' is bigger. Many cycling races are draft legal. Almost all running races are. Learn how to bridge in a running race or work together with other racers. Yeah - you're helping a competitor, but it's better to kick against one person at the finish line than a whole pack.

Finally, speaking of advantages, running or cycling into a hard wind not only builds skills and character - it builds stamina and strength. Any time you work against resistance, you are creating a training adaption that will make you faster when that resistance is removed. You can't change the windy days - but you can change how you think about them. And happiness (or 'sucky-ness') comes from within.


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