Long haired sprinters

I usually only watch the track events at the Olympics and that too only after it is over. I was watching the finals of the women’s 100m and noticed that the top three medal winners (all from Jamaica) all had long ponytails, with the silver medalist’s hair an eye-catching yellow and red.

I wondered whether having long hair might slow them down just a fraction due to increased wind resistance. It is true that resistance is not as significant as in swimming where everyone wears caps. But in an event where one-hundredth of a second can make all the difference, wouldn’t sprinters want to minimize drag as much as possible?

Since almost all the eight finalists had long or longish hair, I have to assume that they have concluded that it does not matter and that does seem to be the case.

Flowing locks increase air resistance insofar as they boost a runner’s surface area. More hair creates more opportunities for friction between the runner and the air, so a full-headed athlete would have to work harder to maintain the same speed as a bald one. And since Olympic sprinters are already close to maxing out in terms of effort, any situation that requires them to do more work has the potential to extend their times.

But hair is pretty light, so athletes know it’s the styling, not the quantity, of their tresses that could dash their hopes. Hairdos like ponytails, braids, and or buns, which comb the mane behind the neck, have little effect on overall surface area, while hair that sticks out from the sides of the head increase it (and might also whip into the runner’s eyes).

All the sprinters had their hair in ponytails that stayed behind their backs and did not swish back and forth.


  1. Holms says

    Well yeah. Increases to cross sectional silhouette are the source of drag, not surface area per se.

  2. sonofrojblake says

    A flying buddy of mine has a massive pink afro wig he owns for comedy purposes. He tried paragliding in it once (worn over his flying helmet). He didn’t last long, soon landing and stowing it. The air resistance generated caused his neck to ache.

    The top pilots all fly pod harnesses with inflated fairings on the back, because theory and practice show that while the the optimum shape for moving through the air is a smooth rounded surface at the front (NOT a sharp point you might think might “cut through” the air) and a long, tapering surface at the back to minimise vortex shedding which creates drag.

    Speed skiers hit speeds of 130mph+ (compared with freefall parachutists doing 120mph…). They do so with teardrop-shaped helmets on their heads. Thus a ponytail might HELP. Anything that gets your head closer to the shape of the helmets used by speed-skiers is going to be of benefit.

    I would, however, additionally observe that the difference made would be so small as to be negligible. Even the fastest sprinters aren’t getting much over 23mph, and even for speed skiers the benefits of the helmets are marginal over 100mph faster and in a fixed, optimal position (rather than flailing their limbs all over the place as sprinters do by comparison).

    It would be interesting to try to work out the optimum height for a sprinter -- every additional cm of height offers greater stride length and leverage with leg muscles but conversely greater cross sectional area to push through the air.

    Another thought -- if air resistance makes much difference, put a world class sprinter in an oxygen tent for an hour next to the start line of a 100m track in Mexico City (altitude 7,350ft). Less air = less resistance, and over that distance the lack of oxygen in the air won’t make any difference, assuming they’re fully oxygenated to begin with. It would be an interesting experiment, but would the tent make the record (if one were set) invalid? I’d expect so, but don’t know.

  3. garnetstar says

    Women figure skaters have always had to put their hair tightly back to get through almost all their elements, but pretty soon they’re going to have to quit wearing skirts. To do all the quadruple jumps, they need to rotate faster in the air, and their skirts flying out horizontally increase their axis of rotation (? not the right name) and so keep the rotation slower.

    Or, would a fabric skirt not add to the length of the axis they’re rotating on, because it’s too light, or something?

  4. John Morales says

    Rotational inertia, garnetstar. But not much mass there, so probably negligible.

  5. sonofrojblake says

    @garnetstar: skirts are low mass, so rotational inertia is negligible. They’re high drag, though, which is what will be the dominant factor allowing rotation.

  6. says

    What I think is interesting is how sexism hasn’t come up yet.

    If you look at women in the USA playing high level college basketball, players at the Oregons and Southern Californias and Baylors and Connecticuts of the women’s college basketball world, they very, very often have hair that it seems obvious would impede athletic performance, if most often only slightly. Even the slight chance that a pony tail might whip into your own eye at the wrong moment might discourage a player who wants to compete at the highest levels.

    And when you hit the professional ranks, more WNBA players have their hair cut short or otherwise styled so it (at the very least) can’t get in their eyes.

    Having spoken to women who played varsity college basketball (though not quite at those lofty levels), it’s clear that sexism is a huge factor in promoting long hair in at least those athletes. I haven’t ever spoken to a sprinter about it, but when you’re a woman who is only just reaching adulthood, and put into a peer pressure hell like a college dorm, and you have a tall, muscular body that you continue to work to make more fit, more muscular, every single day, you catch a LOT of hell for not being sufficiently feminine. Wearing makeup and having long hair and dressing at least as feminine as average for your college peers is often a defense against gendered harassment.

    I imagine similar things are true for sprinters, although they may not have the problem of skewing tall the way basketball players do. This leads me to wonder, would they shave their heads if the rest of the would could agree not to give them shit for it?

    Crosssectional area and wind resistance and even mass are interesting subjects, I guess. But I think you’re all very likely missing what’s really causing women who are elite athletes with the necessary accompanying muscular bodies to choose long hair.

    I seriously doubt it’s because they’ve carefully calculated the effect of their hair length on their sprint times.

  7. Mano Singham says

    Crip Dyke @#8

    That’s an interesting take that I had not thought of, that long hair is a deliberate choice in order to serve a purpose, to deflect questions about femininity. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s bright red and yellow hair definitely makes her memorable!

  8. captainjack says

    120 MPH is around the slowest terminal velocity for skydiving. If you’re tracking it’s easily 30 -- 50 MPH faster.

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