Don’t think you could ever run a marathon? Worried to push yourself beyond 5k? The research suggests that, as women, we’re better equipped to run longer distances.
One of the most unfair aspects of life has to be that most men, however badly or infrequently they train, will usually be stronger and faster than us. Even if we do our hill sprints and strength training, prevacid take they’ll usually be able to run a faster 5k.
Despite my own boyfriend being less experienced and hampered by a bad back, he’ll consistently outrun me during sprints, 5k and 10k sessions. When we run longer distances, however, I’m usually the one out front – and finishing with energy to spare.
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Women are really good at long-distance running. Men may still outperform us over a marathon distance, but when you go into ultra-marathon territory, women start to pull ahead. “In all the research I have looked up on gender differences in endurance sport, the average times between men and women are staying about the same,” explains sports psychologist Dr Josephine Perry. “But when we get to extreme distances, there do seem to be a few outliers who are doing brilliantly and finishing first overall – most recently Maggie Guterl at the Big Dog Ultra and people like Nicky Spinks and Jasmin Paris.”
On an amateur level, we also do pretty well. Sure, women aren’t yet running a sub-two-hour marathon but if you look at the data on ‘normal’ marathoners, women consistently seem to pace better than men. So, why are we so well equipped to move for long periods of time?
Women tend to be more humble
Each time I’ve run a marathon, I’ve noticed that around mile 20, the casualties also seem to be overwhelmingly male. At the London Marathon, you see guys being stretchered off by the St John Ambulance volunteers with just a couple of miles to go or being wrapped in foil blankets and rolled to the sides of the road.
That, I’m sure, is all about pacing. Women are more cautious and perhaps nervous about running a long way, so we start slow and build – and that leads to fewer earth-shattering cramps. And the science backs this up: a Danish study looked at the results from over 130 marathons and found that women are nearly 19% better than men at running with a controlled and consistent pace.
Back in 2018, Strava also looked at the data of 10,706 runners who completed the 2017 London Marathon and found that women were ‘significantly better’ at pacing – with the best pacers being women aged over 60.
We’re used to being in pain
Period cramps, childbirth, endometriosis, menopause… women spend years living with chronic pain. That, Dr Perry believes, has an impact on our capacity for discomfort. “I wonder if the fact that so many women have to regularly put up with pain from our gynaecology means we become better conditioned to cope with the discomfort which comes in long-distance races,” she says. “80% of women get period pain at some point in their lives and around 10% have conditions like endometriosis that can severely impact their ability to perform in sport on certain days of the month.
“If a large majority of women have developed strong coping mechanisms to deal with this regular pain then the short-term pain they feel when running a race will fade in comparison and they can deal with it far better.”
Our bodies are better at using fat for fuel
A 2020 study tracked ultra-marathon running times worldwide over 20 years and found that after 195 miles, women tend to outrun men. Men tend to be faster than us generally, and that’s because they’ve got bigger hearts that can deliver more fresh oxygen to the body, as well as having stores of testosterone – the hormone responsible for building strong muscles. Because of those muscles, they’re able to store more glycogen than women, and that means having a ready supply of energy when needed.
But all of that can only get you so far. The longer you run, the more you’ll need to rely on fat as a source of fuel – something women are biologically better at. And it looks like after a few days, men simply can’t compete with our natural energy resources.
We’ve got more slow twitch fibres
Our muscles consist of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres. Your fast-twitch fibres work hard when you’re sprinting, powerlifting, boxing – anything short, sharp and powerful – while your slow twitches are responsible for aerobic and endurance activities. And the latter are also more resistant to fatigue, which means you can keep going for longer. Studies suggest that women tend to have a greater distribution of those muscle fibres compared to men, which means that our muscles fatigue at a slower rate.
Women are mentally tough
Dr Perry believes that as women generally have lower confidence, if they enter a long-distance race, they’re pretty guaranteed to finish it. “Men would be more likely to enter, so I’m sure they’d be more likely to drop out,” she tells Stylist.
We’re not expected to succeed
One reason loads of us love sport is the possibility of an underdog coming out on top. Dr Pretty says that when there are no expectations (either from ourselves or others), “we relax a little bit and can enjoy the process of seeing what is possible (a challenge mindset) rather than worrying about failing (a threat mindset)”.
In endurance races where no woman has ever won before (or you don’t know anyone who’s ever competed), there’s no expectation – so women can justfocus on the process of running well and finishing. “When our focus is on this mastery rather than on outcome, we tend to do a lot better,” Dr Perry explains. “These women may well see the event as ‘just a race’, where they can see what is possible rather than openly and loudly setting out to win it. This lower-profile mindset can be incredibly beneficial to performance.”
Ready to run long? Check out our Strength Training for Runners guide over first.
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