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?
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!
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:
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
Today we feature the experience of a cyclist on the June 2019 Magic Places adventure cycling trip to the Pyrenees in France. He’s got even bigger plans for next year, and altitude training is definitely something he is going to want to do for his next big riding trip.
June 2019: an epic cycling adventure through The Pyrenees mountain range of France (and Spain) organized by Magic Places. The goal: “…have some fun with friends, see some great sights, and get into better shape.”
The trip started in Toulouse, but the actual riding would start in the seaside town of Biarritz and finish in Carcassone, with difficult climbs and spells of inclement weather to tackle in between. There were 10 rides in total, very few rest days, and a different place to stay every night. The elevation gain was significant, but so was the perseverance. At the end of the trip, the key discoveries were: “…dealing with the weather, encountering lots of livestock, keeping hydrated due to the elevation (5 large bottles of water per day), dealing with some difficult grades, eating some great food, and of course, taking care of each other.”
Check out the full itinerary and trip photos below…
A 16-day trip through France (and Spain), showcasing some of the most pristine landscape in southwest Europe. The total distance travelled on the bike was 934.3 km and total elevation gain was 18,463 m. In total, it was 51 h 11 min of riding.
The Pyrenees – stunning and rural, and a thrilling challenge for cyclists. “We faced a lot of bumps between here and there…”
The Journey: Framed by a Stunning Backdrop
Whether your quads were burning from a seemingly never-ending climb or you were shedding layers from rapid changes in temperature – the scenery never failed to disappoint. Take this 102 km ride from Isaba to Pau for example…
Gorgeous ride: 1513 m of climbing, a 26 km climb to start the day, green mountains, snow at the summit, road followed the river, goats, cows and horses on road.(from Strava)
“Beautiful day, more climbing…”
When cycling uphill, your rate of deceleration actually increases due to the impact of gravity on momentum. So you have to push your pedals at a constant effort throughout the climb to avoid a dramatic reduction in speed. Altitude is also a factor. You’ll find it harder to breathe because oxygen is no longer as easily available to your body. This can be particularly noticeable for those who have limited experience cycling at altitude, and those of us living at sea level. Indeed the guys on the trip who were from Calgary seemed to have a bit of an advantage when it came to the big climbing days (Calgary is at 1045 m).
“Lunchtime, bikes parked…”
Re-fuelling is extremely important during a trip like this. Fortunately, the food in France is delicious. Midday stops in rural French towns allow for lengthy lunch breaks and great meals. Those calories are certainly going to good use!
Col du Tourmalet
“The big climb…”
We’ve reached the highest point of our ride. This is the most utilized of any peak in the Tour de France. Le Geant de Tourmalet is one of two statues found on the summit. This ride was actually delayed by a day due to the rain and fog which would have made it almost impossible to see the peak.
An Epic ride: Strava stats from the big climb
Distance: 128.31 km
Moving Time: 7:12:16
Elevation: 3,685 m
Gorgeous sunny day for popular Tour de France climbs Col d’Aspine, Col du Tourmalet and Col de Peyresourdes. 3085 m of climbing. (Strava)
There is always more to altitude to gain…”
It’s always a great feeling seeing the route you conquered and looking through the Strava stats that show your hard work. There’s always more mountains to climb and landscapes to explore.
If you are reading this, you are probably thinking about experimenting with low oxygen (hypoxic) training.
Great move. Altitude training has many benefits—exercise physiologists around the world say that it can improve fitness by increasing mitochondrial activity, augmenting red blood cell count, even changing gene expression.
But here’s the thing: no matter your fitness level or sport of choice, it’s best to have a plan when implementing a new form of training. Here, we suggest how you can make the most of Altitude Athletic in each phase of your race build-up.
The Base Phase
When: up to two months before race day
You might like to start to build your base five to six months in advance of your race, particularly if it’s a longer event like a half-marathon, marathon or Ironman. If so, your question might be: when do I start implementing altitude training? New research indicates that there could be a memory component to altitude training benefits—the more accustomed you are to low-oxygen training, the greater the benefits you might reap. So, best to acquaint yourself with thin air as soon as possible.
That being said, ease into running, cycling or other workouts at altitude slowly. If this is your first experience with low-oxygen training, and your goal race is still months away, start your build with easy efforts in the first week at altitude. So, if you’re focused on an upcoming marathon, begin by targeting recovery and non-workout runs, and adjust how you define “easy pace.” Unlike running at a measly 250m in Toronto, running even the easiest of paces at, say, 9,000 ft will at first feel challenging. After one month of base, also try one of your weekly workouts at altitude.
Tip: Monitor your blood ferritin and haemoglobin levels monthly during this phase to see how you are responding to the change in stimulus.
2) The Added Stimulus Phase (two months to two weeks before race day):
This is when you dive into harder, higher-volume and race simulation workouts. Executing these tough sessions at altitude can boost fitness and confidence.
In this phase, alternating between altitude simulation and sea level workouts can be useful for two reasons:
First, working out in a low-oxygen environment will make it harder to hit splits. Use those workouts for building fitness and accustom yourself to the feeling of running hard, and use the sea level workouts for teaching your body what it’s like to run at your goal pace.
Second, doing big workouts at altitude may tire you out at times in this phase. By mixing in sea level workouts, you mitigate the risk of overtraining and burnout.
Tip: Hard training at altitude will likely elevate your basal metabolism, so hydrate aggressively and eat many nutrient-rich foods in this phase. Remember that this phase is more refined: it’s where you can make the most gains, but it’s where you are most likely to overexert yourself. These tenets are significantly augmented at altitude, so make sure you are giving your body enough fuel to recover.
The Sharpening Phase
Last two weeks before race day
If altitude simulation feels comfortable by now, try to train exclusively at low oxygen for these last two weeks. It is common practice for athletes to spend the two weeks prior to a goal race at altitude, before coming down two to three days before your race. That is because even though it likely takes longer than two weeks to see haematological (blood) adaptations, studies show that other benefits of altitude training can be made faster. In the two weeks before your race, training at altitude could improve your muscles’ buffering capacity, making them better at working in acidic conditions (like the final parts of your race.)
Tip: Do not fret over workout splits in this phase. Remember that workouts at altitude will still feel harder than normal, even if you are sharp. If you have made it to this phase healthy and fit, your reward should be to feel good during workouts, instead of worrying about pace.
Tip II: Do your last training session at altitude at least three days before your race, to ensure that you do not have leftover fatigue on the start line.
No matter the training phase you are in, approach altitude training like regular training: with diligence. Eat well, drink lots of water, and always listen to your body’s signals. Do those three things, follow our tips, and put in the work – the results will take care of themselves.