Women faster than men in races longer than 195 miles: Study
- the study shows that in extreme distance races, the gender gap not only keeps narrowing, but even reverses
In 2004, the journal Nature published a short paper called “Momentous sprint at the 2156 Olympics?” The headline was followed by a one-line explainer: “Women sprinters are closing the gap on men and may one day overtake them”.
The authors had plotted the winning times of the men’s and women’s Olympic finals in the 100m sprint over the past 100 years against the dates, and then, using a process called linear regression, projected that forward in time. The result? In 2156, the women record a better time than the men.
The authors base this on one simple fact—that over the years for which they had data, the women’s timings consistently edged closer to the men’s timings.
They ignore completely, among other things, the fact that the human body—both men and women—have their limitations, and many readers responded with hilarious rebuttals. An example: Sir — A. J. Tatem and colleagues calculate that women may out-sprint men by the middle of the twenty-second century (Nature 431,525; 2004). They omit to mention, however, that (according to their analysis) a far more interesting race should occur in about 2636, when times of less than zero seconds will be recorded.
In the intervening 600 years, the authors may wish to address the obvious challenges raised for both time-keeping and the teaching of basic statistics.
That there is a performance gap between men and women on every athletic parameter at the elite level (at most levels in fact) is a hard fact. It is explained by a range of common biological differences between the sexes—things like testosterone (the subject of so much controversy since it is used globally to determine whether someone is eligible to compete in a sport as a woman or not), the production of haemoglobin, more muscle fibre, or even how the heart changes in size in response to exercise (many studies show that the male heart responds more rapidly by growing larger).
Gap reduces with distance
Yet, there is a well-documented exception. In extreme endurance races, this gender gap is nearly negligible, or sometimes even reversed.
A new study “The state of ultra-running 2020” (https://runrepeat.com/state-of-ultra-running ) looked at the results of 5,010,730 million finishers from over 15000 races from 1996 to 2018, and found that female ultrarunners are actually faster than their male counterparts in races that were over 300 km (these are run over multiple days). The study, authored by climber and runner Paul Ronto and Vania Nikolova, a mathematical analyst in collaboration with the International Association of Ultrarunners, found that the gender pace gap reduces with distance. In 5K runs for example, men run 17.9% faster than women (this analysis excludes professional athletes), whereas in marathons the difference comes down to 11.1%. In 100-mile (160.9km) races, that difference shrinks further, to 0.25%. Go above 300km, and “women are actually 0.6% faster than men”, the report says.
In case you are wondering about 300km plus races, here are some you can look up: La Ultra in Leh (333km), Tor Des Giants in Italy (330km), Berghaus Dragon’s Back in Wales (300km), Al Marmoom Ultra in Dubai (300km) and the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (692km).
The study finds that the average pace of running has gone down since 1996, for both men and women, and the two timings are almost the same now. The female pace has slowed from 12:25 minutes per mile to 13:23 minutes per mile, while the male pace has gone from 11:24 to 13:21.
The reason has mostly to do with the enormous increase in popularity of ultrarunning as a recreational sport—participation increased by 1676% in the last 23 years from 34,401 to 611,098 yearly entries in events according to the report.
“As more people participate in a sport the average time will inevitably go down,” said Ronto in an email interview. “New participants are not seasoned pros, they are not die-hard fanatics, they are experiential runners, marathoners looking for their next challenge or Instagram-worthy accomplishment. They just want to participate, not win, so the overall average will always get pulled down as the funnel is much bigger at the bottom level for participants than the top-level ones.”
The larger number of male runners—even though female participation in the sport has never been higher—is part of the reason, Rondo said, that the time gap has narrowed.
“There are fewer female runners, and those running those extreme distances are really all pros,” Rondo said. “The men’s group still has experiential runners out there for a challenge and the “fun” of it. The larger cohort of male runners simply means their average time will be affected by those slower runners in the group. We are not saying individual women are faster than individual men, but we have seen a few races lately with women overall winners and that’s really exciting news. Courtney Dauwalter is a good example, she’s won around 10-11 ultras beating the whole field.”
Dauwalter, an American ultrarunner, first beat the entire field when she won the Moab 240, a 383km race along the Colorado river in the US, in 2017. She finished the race in less than 58 hours, 10 hours less than the next best runner, a man. The next year, she won 9 of the 12 races she ran and in two of them, she was the best finisher irrespective of gender.
In 2002, another American ultrarunner, Pam Reed, recorded the best finish, men or women, and set the then course record for Badwater Ultramarathon, a 235km race through California’s Death Valley, infamous for being one of the most gruelling endurance races on the planet. Reed repeated the feat in 2003.
Rajat Chauhan, a New Delhi based doctor specialising in sports medicine and the director of La Ultra – The High, a set of endurance races held in Ladakh, said that in 2011, during the second edition of the event, there were six women in the starting line-up for the 222km race.
“None of us thought, because we are sexist, that a woman would be able to win the race,” Chauhan said. “And one of those women was asthmatic. We were sure that the winner would be this former boxer from the US called Ray Sanchez, who had become an accomplished ultrarunner.”
The asthmatic runner, Sharon Gayter from UK, eventually beat Sanchez by more than an hour.
“You would think maybe that’s an anomaly, a one-off thing,” Chauhan said, “but she ran the race in around 38 hours and in the last 10 years of the race, only one other person has done it faster than her.”
Higher pain threshold
“There are a few reasons why the timing gap narrows at extreme distance,” Rondo said. “Our study did not look at the why, we just present the data that shows what is happening, what follows are my opinions. First off, women are built better for long endurance sports. They carry a higher % of body fat which is used in ultraraces more efficiently than men. Also, women have been proven to have a higher tolerance for pain, which can lead them to perform better over the long haul like in ultras. Lastly, women tend to have less ego in these types of events. Ego drives men to over-extend themselves early on in a race whereas women tend to pace better. We’ve seen data that shows men tend to start too fast and slow down much more over a long race, whereas women tend to stay more steady throughout, even if it means a slower starting pace.”
In distance running, pacing is everything. A study on recreational runners published in 2015 in the journal Medicine and Science in Sports & Exercise (https://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2015/03000/Men_Are_More_Likely_than_Women_to_Slow_in_the.19.aspx) found that “men are more likely than women to slow their pace in a marathon.” On an average, the study found, even accounting for age and running experience, there was a 15.6% drop in pace during a marathon for men, while for women the drop was 11.7%.
The higher fat percentage in women, Chauhan said, could be another reason for their success in extreme endurance.
“The extra fat must be really advantageous since it can be used by the body for energy as the endurance event becomes more and more extreme,” Chauhan said. “Also, there is really no pain like labour pain during childbirth—women can endure that. They simply have much more pain endurance than men and that too becomes critical when you are running in these extreme conditions for hours and hours, for two, three, four days.”
More than one study has shown that glycogen—the primary form in which glucose is stored for energy in the human body—depletes faster for men than for women during endurance training.
The closing gender gap in endurance does not apply to running alone—last year, when a group of researchers examined a large dataset of results from ultracycling events (more than 12,000 races ranging between 160km to 800km), they found results that are very similar to what the State of Ultrarunning report found.
“Men were faster than women in 100 and 200 mile races, but no sex differences were identified for the 400 and 500 mile races,” the report said.
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