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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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