Are Women Bet­ter Than Men At Ultra Run­ning?

Writ­ten By Sam Heward

Sam is one of the Ultra X Co-Founders. If he’s not actu­ally out run­ning, chances are he’s busy writ­ing about it (or plot­ting Ultra X strategy!)

5 July 2020

0 Com­ments

Sub­mit a Com­ment

Your email address will not be pub­lished. Required fields are marked *

Read­ing Time: 7 minutes

Over the last few years, we have seen ultra endur­ance races crown­ing female cham­pi­ons with increas­ing fre­quency. In 2019, there were a flurry: Jas­min Par­is fam­ously becom­ing the first women to win the 268 mile Mont­ane Spine Race, smash­ing the record in the pro­cess; Katie Wright beat­ing 40 men to win River­head Back­yard ultra mara­thon in New Zea­l­and; and Court­ney Dauwal­ter win­ning the 238 mile MOAB race. These per­form­ances, in a sport that gen­er­ally sees male dom­in­ated fields (84% of com­pet­it­ors in races that are more than 50 miles are men), have ignited dis­cus­sion as to wheth­er women are bet­ter at the sport. 

How could this be though? Men will always, on aver­age, have big­ger hearts, a great­er capa­city to get oxy­gen to their muscles and be able to store more gly­co­gen. The only mixed events in the Olympics are in teams (where the sex ratios are bal­anced) and there is only one Olympic World Record where a like-for-like phys­ic­al feat is matched by women (arch­ery). Here we take a look at some of the key argu­ments for.

Phys­ic­al­ity

The male physique with, on aver­age, longer legs, big­ger heart, great­er gly­co­gen stores and of course extra testoster­one, is gen­er­ally seen as con­du­cive to enhanced ath­let­ic per­form­ance. How­ever, when dis­tances get longer and it comes to endur­ance over power, women have sev­er­al inher­ent advant­ages.

Fat

This is the big one. Women gen­er­ally have a high­er body fat per­cent­age than men, they also burn a high­er per­cent­age of body fat com­pared with men.

In short­er events muscle mass is bene­fi­cial for per­form­ance, but in longer ones fat stores become cru­cial (check out our LCHF art­icle for fur­ther on this). A well-pre­pared body can only store around 2,500 cal­or­ies of car­bo­hydrate, not even enough for a mara­thon (a typ­ic­al mara­thon run­ner will con­sume ~3,000 over 26.2 miles). As suc­cess in the sport of ultra run­ning relies sig­ni­fic­antly on the abil­ity to fuel effect­ively, the abil­ity to util­ise the huge cal­or­if­ic reserves of fat stores our bod­ies hold becomes vital.

This factor prob­ably has the biggest impact in long single stage ultras where every­one regard­less of gender ends up with massively depleted gly­co­gen stores. Hav­ing said this, there is of course still an ele­ment of need­ing to train the body to use fat for fuel for it to have a sig­ni­fic­ant per­form­ance advant­age.

Size and Sur­face Area

Being smal­ler, as women gen­er­ally are, means car­ry­ing less weight and there­fore stress­ing the body less. Being short­er can also help — short legs can offer an advant­age as they are more suited to a quick­er turnover and a faster cadence ensures effi­cient use of the elast­ic energy cre­ated dur­ing our run­ning stride. A lower centre of grav­ity also gives an advant­age when cov­er­ing more tech­nic­al ter­rain and lowers the poten­tial risk of a fall which may res­ult in a DNF. Mar­gin­al maybe, but if it worked for Team Sky…

At the same time, a typ­ic­al woman’s body shape means that they gen­er­ally have a lar­ger sur­face area to mass ratio, which enables heat to dis­sip­ate from their bod­ies quick­er. In a sport that is so often played out in extreme con­di­tions over long peri­ods of time reg­u­lat­ing tem­per­at­ure is key and so this can be a big per­form­ance boost­er.

Muscle Fibre

Women tend to have a great­er dis­tri­bu­tion of slow twitch muscle fibres than men. Whilst not so good in a 100 metre sprint, these tend to be more res­ist­ant to fatigue and more suited to endur­ance. As was demon­strated in a study per­formed at the UTMB (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc) where Guil­laume Mil­let stud­ied male and female par­ti­cipants before and after and found that men’s muscles got more fatigued over the race.

Men­tal state

In ultra endur­ance sport, it is impossible for ath­letes to sus­tain their effort at max capa­city through­out. Instead, peri­pher­al con­di­tion­ing and men­tal tough­ness come into play. At Ultra X we hear the line “it’s 10% phys­ic­al and 90% men­tal” prac­tic­ally every day, and whilst vir­tu­ally impossible to quanti­fy accur­ately, it’s def­in­itely true that for every com­pet­it­or there will come a moment in an ultra where it is mind over mat­ter. It is at this point where there is a strong argu­ment that any male/female play­ing field is lev­elled con­sid­er­ably.

Pacing Strategy

The longer the race, the more import­ant pacing is. Whilst run­ners can get away with fly­ing out of the blocks in a 5km and hanging on, get­ting it wrong in an ultra or multi-stage race is the dif­fer­ence between com­plet­ing or not. Vari­ous stud­ies have shown that women are gen­er­ally bet­ter than men at main­tain­ing a con­sist­ent pace (slow­ing down 19% less than men over the second half of a mara­thon) cit­ing reas­ons ran­ging from con­fid­ence, com­pet­it­ive­ness or simply being more likely to plan. 

Famil­i­ar­isa­tion and Exper­i­ence

Some of the biggest bar­ri­ers in ultramara­thons are psy­cho­lo­gic­al rather than physiolo­gic­al and so when prob­lems arise hav­ing the right emo­tion­al response is vital.

Typ­ic­ally, women use more emo­tion-focused cop­ing strategies, so they focus more on how to reframe what they are feel­ing than males in gen­er­al, and this could be a reas­on why they may be more suited to those more ultra style events. A study cited by Run­Ul­tra found that women recruit their emo­tions while men recruit their threat-con­trol cir­cuits when pro­cessing pain, with Dr Josephine Perry agree­ing, put­ting it that women are simply bet­ter at deal­ing with pain.

Atten­tion to Detail, Multi-Task­ing and Self-Suf­fi­ciency

There have been stud­ies show­ing that women are bet­ter at focus­ing on things at close range, where­as men focus more on the big­ger pic­ture. This would be quite a con­sid­er­able strength to have when pre­par­ing for an event, par­tic­u­larly for the longer, more com­plex ultras that might require you to self-nav­ig­ate or take place in hos­tile envir­on­ments with extreme tem­per­at­ure, alti­tude, and elev­a­tion. 

Longer ultras will require a good level of per­son­al admin and so being able to prob­lem solve and look after your­self when tired is cru­cial in keep­ing a pos­it­ive men­tal state needed to fin­ish.

Moth­er­hood

Soph­ie Power became a house­hold name when an image of her breast­feed­ing at an aid sta­tion of the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) became a vir­al sen­sa­tion and now the ultra run­ner uses this plat­form to speak up about women’s par­ti­cip­a­tion in sport. For Soph­ie, get­ting two chil­dren up and dressed for school whilst hold­ing down a full-time job was per­fect pre­par­a­tion for the prob­lems which might come up mid-ultra and although gender roles are chan­ging, women still do take up most of the par­ent­ing respons­ib­il­it­ies and per­haps this does give them a secret advant­age.

Con­clu­sion

Attempts to exam­ine the per­form­ance gap between sexes have his­tor­ic­ally been flawed. It was only in 1972 when women were allowed to com­pete offi­cially in the Boston Mara­thon, and fol­low­ing rap­id improve­ments in per­form­ance in 1992, it was widely pre­dicted that elite women would close the gap in the mara­thon by 1998… 

That gap had been nar­row­ing as female par­ti­cip­a­tion went up, but the upward curve couldn’t last forever and the num­ber crunch­ers who made the call have since been cri­ti­cised for mak­ing such a leap, with the gap in elite mara­thon run­ning sta­bil­ising since then around 10%.

With the rise in ultra run­ning in recent times, so comes with it the rise in female par­ti­cip­a­tion, a great thing undoubtedly. In the last 20 years par­ti­cip­a­tion has increased by more than 1500%, and with that the num­ber of females has jumped from 14% of par­ti­cipants to 23%. When we see these spec­tac­u­lar feats by the likes of Jas­min Par­is, Court­ney Dauwal­ter, and many more it is easy to jump to con­clu­sions, but we mustn’t jump in the same way as those arm­chair pun­dits 30 years ago.

As demon­strated above, women do abso­lutely have sev­er­al cog­nit­ive and phys­ic­al strengths which might help when events get longer. How­ever, wheth­er these are suf­fi­cient to over­come those physiolo­gic­al ones which make men gen­er­ally faster and stronger is yet to be truly seen.

When Run­Re­peat pub­lished their “The State of Ultra Run­ning in 2020” report they showed that women become faster than men at over 195 miles long and at each dis­tance from 5km up until that the gap got smal­ler (at 100 mile events they found women are just a quarter of a per­cent slower than men).

The issue is, mak­ing com­par­is­ons is dif­fi­cult, suc­cess among women in ultra mara­thon races is down to the fact that these are niche events — the small num­bers of female ath­letes who do com­pete make any kind of ana­lys­is or extra­pol­a­tion chal­len­ging. As ultra races get longer, the per­cent­age of women com­pet­ing in them also decreases. It is there­fore highly likely that the few women who choose to run dis­tances approach­ing 200 miles at a time are already some of the best run­ners around (or at least very well pre­pared). As Par­is puts it there are “far few­er women in the room because they have less ego, they wouldn’t turn up unless they were well-pre­pared. Where­as men can be a bit like, how hard can this be?”

The truth of the mat­ter is, if you want to pre­dict who will win a 5km race, you can take them into the lab and get a good sense, but if you want to know who’s going to win a 200-miler, there is simply not enough evid­ence out there to say with accur­acy that one sex has an advant­age over the oth­er at any dis­tance. 

Maybe that is why we love it? When we line up nobody knows with cer­tainty what is com­ing next and who will cross that fin­ish line first.

0 Com­ments

Sub­mit a Com­ment

Your email address will not be pub­lished. Required fields are marked *

You may also like…

Top Tips For Run­ning In The Cold

Top Tips For Run­ning In The Cold

With winter fast approach­ing and tem­per­at­ures drop­ping, we take a look at the effects of run­ning in the cold and share some top tips for the winter sea­son.