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The Great Gender Gap – The Past, Present and Future of Women in Endurance Sports

The Great Gender Gap – The Past, Present and Future of Women in Endurance Sports

Female triathlete competing

 

For many years, sport was considered to be only for men, as women’s physiology was viewed as being less efficient, weaker, and unable to push their bodies in the rigor of sport. Prior to the 1960’s, women were banned or restricted from longer running and endurance events as they were considered “too fragile” for distance sport or even shorter Olympic events like the 400 and 800m sprints. This began the era of mass participation of women in sports, and in the 1972 Olympics the first women’s 1500m was run. The same year, eight women “legally” ran the Boston marathon, and by 1984 (only 35 years ago!) the first women’s Olympic marathon was sanctioned.

This year in 2019, 45% of runners were women and in more local smaller city races, women tend to comprise over 50% of participants. Women’s participation in running and endurance sports has come leaps and bounds in just the last several decades, but only recently has science and psychology begun to identify some profound differences between the sexes. What exactly is it that differentiates women’s performance abilities from men?

Physiological Differences

It is generally accepted that women are smaller in stature, have more body fat, and less absolute muscle mass and fewer and smaller muscle fibers than men. As well, women have physiologically lower VO2 max numbers than men (the maximum amount of oxygen their bodies can utilize during high-intensity exercise), which is also sensible. In power-based activities, these differences are likely where the discrepancies primarily lie. Across the board, women’s distance running and cycling records among elite athletes are typically 10-12% slower than men, although with longer distances these patterns tend to change as we’ll discuss more later. It has also been seen that men have greater running velocity and can cover more distance in a set period of time. These differences are more profound in shorter, more powerful contexts like shuttle runs or sprints.

However, when it comes to longer, slower, or more submaximal effort events, women have some interesting advantages. Women have higher prevalence of slow-twitch muscle fibres which contract less quickly, but can contract consistently for very long periods of time. The hormone estrogen also seems to improve the oxidative capacity of muscles – meaning greater oxygen update and improved recovery. Men however, tend to be able to have enhanced muscle growth due to higher level of testosterone – again, benefitting sports that favour power but potentially less valuable to low-and-slow type training and racing.

What Does This Mean?

So, when women train at the same intensity as men, they are able to adapt to the same degree, and in some circumstances even more effectively. As we’ve discussed, especially in distance events, women who focus on endurance training are able to become more metabolically efficient and run just as far as men. The science tells us that they should be as quick, but not so fast!

Female marathon runner competing

Go a Little Longer

When it comes to ultra-endurance events, women seem to have the upper hand. Many ultra-endurance race winners in unisex races are women – and not by a small margin. This past year, German cyclist Fiona Kolbinger raced 4000km through Europe and finished the Transcontinental Race 10 hours ahead of her closest male opponent. This past May, Katie Wright beat 40 men and six other women to win the Riverhead Backyard ReLaps Ultra-marathon in New Zealand, running almost non-stop for 30 hours. It seems that when the distances get longer, the women are rising to the top.

Why is this? Well, for all of the physiological science out there, there is only just recently a rise in the “biopsychosocial model” – which essentially looks at the mind-body connection and how the mind can affect boundaries within our deeply-entrenched biological systems. In excruciatingly-long distance races, athletes are working far under their maximal power for very long periods of time. Absolute strength and power is of less importance, and mental patience and grit hold much more water. Women also tend to be better at pacing themselves and “seeing further into the future” when moderating their early-race paces. Females also tend to use more emotion-focused coping mechanisms during the pain, fatigue, and sleep deprivation points in long races. Whether its experiences like childbirth or mental toughness from, well, life, it seems that this has given women a leg up when the going gets beyond difficult.

On the Whole…

Women have traditionally been seen as the physiologically “weaker sex” for many years. Culture and society has finally started challenging these norms, as women are now participating in events similar to men, and in some cases out-performing them. While it’s unlikely that women will naturally be lifting heavier weights than men or sprinting 100m faster than men, in longer races the gap is significantly lessened. Moreover, both genders need to remember that the power of the mind is probably the greatest tool of all, and with consistent training for both mind and body, great things can be achieved.

About the Author:

Lauren Roberts is a Registered Physiotherapist and Founder of The Running Physio in Toronto. For more information on her team, the clinic, and for more great blog articles, visit www.therunningphysio.ca

Female athlete competing


References

Boston Athletic Association. (2019). 2019 Boston Marathon Statistics. Retrieved from https://registration.baa.org/2019/cf/Public/iframe_Statistics.htm

C. Baumgart, M. H. (2014). DIFFERENT ENDURANCE CHARACTERISTICS OF FEMALE AND MALE GERMAN SOCCER PLAYERS. Biology of Sport, 227-232.

Joyner, M. J. (2016). Physiological limits to endurance exercise performance: influence of sex. The Journal of Physiology.

K.M Haizlip, B. H. (2015). Sex-Based Differences in Skeletal Muscle Kinetics and Fiber-Type Composition. American Physiological Society, 30-39.

Williams, S. (2019, August 11). Are women better ultra-endurance athletes than men? Retrieved from BBC News: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-492843894389

Altitude training for injured runners

Altitude training for injured runners

Are you a runner dealing with injuries? Altitude training could be your best friend

Most runners have been injured, and it’s a dreadful part of sport. We spend hours pool running, we do endless glute bridges, and we watch our friends leave for runs and disappear into the abyss just like our abs. We get bored out of our minds, and stressed about losing the fitness we worked so hard to build.

As we lope and mope on the local gym’s elliptical machine, we think of three things:

How can I make cross-training less boring?

How can I maintain fitness?

Is this thing ever going to heal?

Thankfully, there might be an answer to these questions that has nothing to do with stepping foot into the pool with an aqua belt.

Altitude training could be your most valuable cross-training tool. Here’s how:

Research shows that low-oxygen (hypoxic) training increases red blood cell count, which facilitates oxygen transport to the working muscles. Better oxygen transport can lead to more aerobic benefits (which can help us maintain fitness when we are injured) and decreased injury recovery time. As well, seeking out a new method of cross-training can be mentally refreshing, and can make our time away feel less terrible.

Plus, no matter where you are on the injury spectrum, altitude training can be your ally.

The Injury Spectrum

How might altitude training be helpful to you

Injury Prone

You’re not injured right now, but you push your limits and regularly find yourself sidelined. Maybe it’s pesky runner’s knee, or notoriously weak hips (they especially don’t lie when you’re a runner). You want to keep making gains, but you struggle handling your workload before a nagging “issue” turns into a full-blown problem. Do a portion of your training at altitude instead in order to maximize your time on your feet without additional stress to your weak spots. Your 75-minute run can become a 60-minute hypoxic run. Similar aerobic stimulus, less pounding.

On the Comeback

You are returning to training, and can only handle half your regular volume. Because you are doing less than what you are used to, you find it difficult to gain much fitness. Doing that reduced volume at hypoxia can produce physiological stimulus that will let you get fit at a faster rate, so that you can get back up to speed in a reasonable timeframe. See training at altitude as the bridge to get you back to your full volume of running again, but safely.

Short-term Sideline

It’s the middle of your season, and you are in the shape of your life, and you are told to back off for three weeks. Not enough to kill the race goal, but enough to lose your edge. You don’t want to take time off, and you want to keep building fitness. For a short period, use an alternative form of training to maintain your fitness. Do it in low-oxygen conditions, and you might not miss a beat—red blood cell count and oxygen transport tends to spike after three weeks to a month of hypoxic training. You may actually come out of this mini-pause in your run training fitter than before. Plus, it’s a great excuse to explore our classes, and get to know our TechnoGym spin bikes, which are the most advanced available.

Out for the Season

You are riding great fitness, and come down with a pretty serious injury, say, a muscle tear or the dreaded stress fracture. You might be off for a few months, but you are motivated to stay fit. In the past, you’ve put in two to three hours of work on the bike or in the pool per day to get enough aerobic stimulus, only to come back to running with bike legs (this is when you discover how strong your quads can get) or pool arms (swimming reminds runners that a bit of upper body is perhaps not a bad thing).

But how can you maintain fitness for two months, without coming back with a body that would rather swim or cycle than run? Do that cross-training at altitude, and get the desired aerobic stimulus without having to cross-train excessively. This approach will also free your afternoon for more glute bridges or planks (which can be done at altitude as well). You’re welcome.

Far Gone

You have been injured for a long time, and feel like you have lost all fitness. Generally, the more unfit you are, the greater the results of hypoxic training. Use our training methods as your first step back to action, either on your own terms during our open gym time, or with the help of a group during our expert-led classes.

If you are injured and want to get back to competition in a more effective and less painless way, give Altitude Athletic a try. If nothing else, it’s way more fun and adds stimulus than staring at the wall of your local pool for an hour.