Often — not always, but often — men are faster runners than women. This is why the elites have different start times and awards are given to not only different age groups, but also to different genders.
When it comes to the marathon, however, research has found women maintain or gain speed throughout the course of the 26.2 miles, whereas men are more likely to slow. Does this mean women are more suited for endurance running? The answer isn’t quite cut and dry, but what we can hypothesize from it is fascinating.
One study — published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE) — sought to determine how pacing varies between men and women in the marathon. Researchers looked at data from 14 different U.S. marathons, chosen because timing data is provided at both the halfway point and end of the race: Air Force, Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Disney, Georgia, Grand Rapids, Miami, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. With the data from 91,929 individual performances of non-elite runners in the 2011 editions of each race, researchers discovered men were more likely to slow their pace in the marathon.
Researchers had three objectives: To compare pacing between men and women in different age groups and abilities, to conclude if race experience had an effect on pacing and to test whether making adjustments based on women’s lower VO2 max would affect the marked differences between men and women.
While a 12% adjustment was made to women’s performances to “address the fact that they are roughly 10–12% slower than men’s [performances],” when all was said and done, this adjustment didn’t change the occurrence of the gender difference in pacing. Women were a smaller part of the sample — 41.5% — though they consistently showed less change in pace in every marathon included in the study (5% marked slowing to men’s 14%).
THE PHYSIOLOGY OF MARATHONERS
Researchers note that both physiological and psychological differences in men and women could play a role in their results. As noted, men have a higher VO2 max — or maximal oxygen uptake — and it has been found that women are less fatigable than men. The exact difference that led to the results wasn’t pinpointed, but they conducted the research with no adjustments and additional adjustments — such as for the 14–16% gender difference for near-elite performers — and all results were the same. So what exactly could be going on physiologically?
“The theory currently is that women have more body fat [than men],” explains Dr. Martha Pyron, of Medicine in Motion, who has spent the past few years as the official medical provider for the Austin Marathon. “Fat burning is ideal for a long endurance event. Less body fat means relying solely on glycogen stores, which run out in a long event.”
Pyron notes that men build muscle mass more easily and burn fat differently, due to testosterone levels. While she notes this is advantageous when running short distances, it is not for events requiring longer endurance.
Researchers note that based on previous data, men are more likely to race competitively than women when presented with the option. Though the average runner skews female according to the 2017 National Running Survey by Running USA, researchers also noted that more men cite competition as a reason for running. Pyron notes that women often have a larger balancing act between training and life — including family and career — that actually aids them when it comes to long distance running.
“The balancing act it takes for women to do this is a perfect training scenario for long-term growth, change and endurance, [and] in all honesty, what we are seeing in running I think we will start to see in many aspects of life in general,” adds Pyron. “Until the social concepts around [gender] equalize, women having to work harder translates into them achieving more; once the outcome is not determined by [gender], women will become more successful than men for a while at least.”
WHAT THIS MEANS FOR RUNNERS
There may be no definitive answer as to whether on not women are “better” at long distance running, as the cause for these pacing differences are unknown. However, having this knowledge helps when mentally preparing for a race. Understanding men are more likely to slow in the marathon may lead you to run more conservatively during the first half of a race or closely examine your endurance during training runs. In the end, it also depends on your personal definition of better.
In this specific example of the marathon, men run faster than women but women are less likely to slow after the halfway point. Which, therefore is “better”? It all comes down to personal goals — such as a negative split — and, as shown based on adjustments made for the study, differences in physiology such as VO2 max between between men and women.