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
As the leaves begin to turn and temperatures begin to drop, for many people this time of year becomes staying indoors with Netflix. For the endurance athlete however, the time between November and April can represent a big wide window of opportunity to reflect on what went well in your season, identify areas of focus for coming one, and develop a finely-tuned base-building plan to prep you to conquer the spring.
If your racing season took you into the fall, it’s always a good idea to take a few weeks, or even a couple of months, off of a structured training plan. Physically, this gives your body a true chance to recover, as prolonged racing and training causes a substantial degree of muscle breakdown and a systemic inflammatory response. It can take up to 19 days after an Ironman-distance triathlon for inflammation and cortisol to return to baseline levels, even in a well-trained athlete. Mentally, endurance events require long term commitment, self-discipline, and a high degree of day-to-day planning and time management. It’s healthy to give yourself a break from the rigidity of this type of schedule.
So once you’ve refreshed your mind and body and as the mornings continue to get darker, here are 5 reasons why you should get yourself back in gear over the colder indoor months.
Controlled environments let you hone in on specific weaknesses.
Did hills eat you up this year? Does your form start to fall apart at a certain speed? Now is the time to work on whatever’s holding you back from the next level. Not having a race schedule allows you to build training blocks and choose training workouts with these goals in mind. Running or cycling workouts using treadmills and indoor trainers are great ways to target exactly what you need to improve on.
Workouts give you more bang for your buck.
Take cycling for example. It is generally accepted that 60 minutes on an indoor trainer is equivalent to 90-100 minutes of outdoor cycling. This is because you are pedaling against a controlled, consistent resistance, and there aren’t any opportunities for coasting downhill or stopping at a red light. This is a good thing, since even the strongest mental game can go a little bananas when on a trainer for long periods of time. Which brings us to our next point…
Classes do the job, and they’re social.
Endurance sports can be a little lonely. Maybe you’ve got some friends in the summer that you can join for long runs or rides, but the winter can be much more isolating. Rather than hole up, try a class specifically designed to challenge runners or cyclists. Whether you’ve got a friend to go with you or not, the time always passes much more quickly in a group setting, not to mention it’s way more fun. Check out Altitude’s roster of upcoming classes this winter here!
Hit March with a spring in your step.
Most athletes look to start racing again for March-April. Nothing feels worse than sitting on your couch for several months, only to blow the dust off of your shoes in spring and have to dedicate the first 6-12 weeks of training to just base build. Even doing a few key workouts per week can keep you from detraining, or, even better, can help you beef up your base before the warm weather comes around again.
Keeps the winter blues at bay.
SADS, or seasonal affective disorder syndrome, is a proven disorder that manifests as an increase in sleep, sedentary behavior, depression and sometimes weight gain that occurs during the fall/winter months and remits in the spring. Research has shown that light therapy and getting outside is helpful to combat symptoms, as well as aerobic exercise. Bonus points if you can grab a buddy to join you.
So after your last race, take a breather, do some reflection, and plan for crush your goals for the following year.
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.