Olympics marathon: Why women could make for better endurance athletes than men
In long-distance events, men tend to take the lead. But what happens in ultra-endurance competitions?
You only need to think of any marathon you’ve watched to assume that men tend to outperform women in sport.
But an interesting recent review published in the journal Sports Medicine has reignited the discussion. It highlighted that the male-female performance gap in ultra-endurance competitions (events typically more than six hours) is as low as 4 per cent, while it’s around 10 per cent in traditional endurance sport.
And the difference seems to reduce the longer the event becomes, to the point that women even outperform men when it comes to events like ultra-distance swimming. Just look at the finishing times for the 45.8km Manhattan Island marathon swim. On average over the past 30 years, the best women have been 12 to 14 per cent faster than the best men.
There’s lots of speculation as to why women might make better ultra-endurance athletes. If we look at the physiology, men tend to have more type II (‘fast twitch’) muscle fibres, which are good for high power output sports such as sprinting. Women have more type I (‘slow twitch’ or oxidative) muscle fibres, which produce less force but are more resistant to fatigue – ideal for ultra-endurance events.
Another theory is that women are better than men at burning fat for fuel and so they have spare essential carbohydrate stores. This would mean they’re less likely to hit ‘the wall’ in a race (the point where glycogen is depleted). Other studies show that women are more likely to keep a consistent pace, instead of going too hard too soon.
Sports psychologists have also suggested that women are generally better at bearing pain, reframing feelings such as fatigue and enjoying the process rather than obsessing over the outcome – all of which might lead to a better performance.
As persuasive as these theories are, it’s difficult to be certain. Ultra-endurance events are niche and the small numbers of women participating make extrapolation challenging, and it’s rare to find direct comparisons with men. Hopefully this will change over time.
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Dr Nish Manek is a GP in London. She completed her medical degree at Imperial College and was runner-up in the University of London Gold Medal. Manek has also developed teaching courses for Oxford Medical School, and has penned articles for The Guardian and Pulse magazine.