Updated: September 6th, 2021

The differences between men and women will shock you; Who will cross the line first?
I don’t know about you, but I get asked this all the time; whos better at running? Will we ever beat men? Why do they find it much easier than us?
Call it ‘little woman syndrome’ or a high competative nature, I’ve been going head to head with male runners (whether or not they were aware of it) for aslong as I can remember actually. From jumping on the treadmil next to you just to run 0.1 mile further at 0.01 min per mile quicker if I have to.

Don’t laugh; I know many women who do the same, and celebrate the little wins of beating their male runner counterparts, and why shouldn’t we? Because afterall, they are naturally better built for the sport, that is until a certain point…

The gender argument has gone on forever and is often brought down to these factors:

  • Hormones
  • Body size
  • Body composition
  • Mindset (decision making capabilities)

Lets dive in and get to the bottom of this debate (and more importantly find out the exact point at where women are naturally more sufficient for the sport we all love; running).

run start line

Hormones

Before puberty, girls and boys bodies are relatively similar, however after boys experience a flood of testosterone, so that by adulthood, most men have up to 20 times more testosterone than women do. It’s an important hormone playing the role of making new blood cells, increasing bone and muscle strength, and prompting growth spurts.

Women do have testosterone present in our bodies (peaking around the ovulation part of our cycle – find out more here). As we pertain significantly less than males we are at a disadvantage straight away in terms of muscle bulk and red blood cell production.

As women, we also have more of the hormone’s oestrogen circulating our bodies than men, which leads to a higher body fat percentage (see body composition section to see how this can be a game changer for us runners).

line chart

Body size

Size isn’t everything… okay, in this case, it might be.
Ladies, on average we have smaller lungs than men, meaning our maximal oxygen consumption (v02 Max) is naturally lower – our bodies capability to produce oxygen at maximum exertion is less than male ability:

  • Women = 33millilitres of oxygen per kg of body mass per minute
  • Men = 42millilitres of oxygen per kg of body pass per minute
  • In addition to our smaller lungs; our smaller hearts, only 2/3s the size of a male heart. The implication of a smaller heart is a smaller stroke volume (amount of oxygen rich blood pumped out of the left ventricle in one heartbeat). Speaking of heart beats; we ladies have, on average, a higher resting heart rate or 3 beats per minute.

    I like your thinking, the extra beats could make up for the smaller stroke volume, right? basically… No. The amount of blood a male heart releases per beat will ultimately outdo us everytime.

    Heart

    Oh, and to top it off; Women are said to have less haemoglobin (the protein in red blood cells) who’s job it is to carry oxygen rich blood to the bodies tissues and working muscles… its really not looking to good for us here eh?

    Speaking as a 5 foot 1 inch female runner, I would argue that my long legged running friends have it much easier than me. Covering more distance in less steps, however I’m told being shorter is actually a benefit.

    We’ve learned that testosterone promotes growth, we have less thus by default are often smaller than men. Being shorter means a faster cadence and much more efficient use of the elastic energy created during a running stride (more on that here).
    It can even help us with trips slips and falls. A lower centre of gravity lowers the risk of DNFs (did not finish) when tackling tougher terrain.
    There’s hope for us yet.

  • Don’t forget to check our always updated guide to the best running shoes for women.
  • Body composition

    We’re talking muscle and fat in depth – remember that as we do extremely well in oestrogen levels, that comes with a fat percentage increase too earlier in the article? I mean it’s all natural. We carry more fat primarily for reproductive reasons (and lacking in this area can really mess with your menses, bone strength and hormone regulation, let alone running performances).

    See the chart for ages, ranges and comparsions between men and women fat percentages here.

    measuring womans body

    Okay so we have more fat, so what? Ill tell you what; it’s a plus in our power my friend! We naturally have more and also burn a higher percentage of fat compared to men. In shorter events muscle mass is beneficial for performance, but in longer endurance events, fat stores become crucial. Teaching your body to utilise body fat stores as energy for women is a game changer for marathon distances and further.

    At the same time a typical woman body shape has a larger surface area to mass ratio enabling us to let heat escape from our bodies quicker. Longer endurance events that take time, regulating body temperature is key to getting to the finish line.

    So yes, we have the built-in au-natural storage system to do the distance, but what about muscles?
    Well, a male leg is said to be composed of 80% muscle. With the help of the testosterone flood, more and bigger muscles put men on the strong pedestal, inclusive with 59-66% more type 2 muscle fibres to women (fast twitch, meaning they are quicker)
    I don’t see us winning this sprint ladies.

    Male quads

    However.
    We, having 60% muscle in our legs, yet 35% more type 1 muscle fibres (slow twitch) puts us naturally stronger over a distance. According to American Council on Exercise, “Because women can provide their own source of energy, slow-twitch fibers can sustain force for an extended period of time, but they are not able to generate a significant amount of force.” This makes us naturally better at longer distances.

    CHA-CHING!

    So you can see why it is impressive, even with raw, biological disadvantages, some women are still quite competitive with men.

    Mindset.

    Did you know women are 18.61% better than men at running? It’s a scientific fact based on numerous studies. Studies noted that men are not as efficient to maintaining an even running pace, factors such as pride, testosterone, overestimation of fitness levels, the thrive of taking risks, mood to name a few.

    Although they are 7% faster, naturally:

  • Male average marathon time of 04:21:36
  • Female average marathon time if 04:41:2
  • Ego sign

    Men are significantly more likely to start too fast, and slow down through the race, in this concluded again and again through research from 10k to ultra-marathon distances; and is put down to the gender differences in decision making.

    I guess it’s true; Women are from Venus, men truly are from Mars!

    Generally speaking, men perceive lesser risks than women, which poses them at a higher risk of over-confidence especially throughout a longer distance run that requires discipline to pacing. Competitiveness, and external drivers to get a rounded time are major influencers so Men are more likely than women to begin a race with an ambitious pace with growing likelihood of slowing later.

    The slowing rate is 14% for men over the 11% for womenUs women like to finish strong and tend to speed up 2.2km from the end because we can. We have been disciplined, we have the energy and let’s go for it!
    I guess ladies; we may lose the shorter battles, but we sure can win the war.

    Woman running and smiling

    The male biological advantages, on average with longer legs, bigger heart, higher red blood cell count and ofcourse abundance of testosterone; they are generally seen to have the athletic edge, however, when distances get longer, it comes down to endurance over power; and women really do have the advantages there.

    When RunRepeat published their “The State of Ultra Running in 2020” report they showed that women become faster than men at over 195 miles long and at each distance from 5km up until that the gap got smaller (at 100 mile events they found women are just a quarter of a percent slower than men)

    Its no wonder more women are turning to the longer distances, a whopping 33.35% increase into marathon and ultra-marathon events.

    So, when are you signing up for your marathon?

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