Gender Difference in Running Performance

In 1985, the scientific journal Nature predicted that the women marathon record would become equal to the men’s record before the year 2000. However, the current men’s marathon world record is 2:03:59, and the female marathon world record is 2:15:20. Why was Nature so wrong and what explains the gender difference for running performance?

Predicting World Record Progression for Women

As explained in a 2005 article that appeared in the Sports Medicine journal, Nature’s mistaken prediction is the result of a misunderstanding of the history of women’s marathoning. In 1985, women participation in marathons was still a relatively new idea. The women marathon record, therefore, had been dropping at a very fast rate by the mid-1980′s. It was unclear how fast a woman could really run.

Now that the performance data is much more complete, we see that the female marathon world record has had the same kind of plateau as the men’s record. The once-rapid progression of the marathon world record for both men and women has reached almost a stand-still. The men’s record has gone down only 3 minutes since 1985, and the women’s record has gone down by only 6 minutes compared with the 1985 time. Obviously, both men and women have come pretty close to understanding the limits of their performance, but why are men still eleven minutes faster than women?

Biological Factors of Performance

Female runners work just as hard, if not harder, than male runners. However, they still have not caught up with the best men in the world. The gender difference in running performance is not related to work ethic – it is rooted in biology. The three main factors of running performance in humans are:

  • Running Economy: A measure of how efficiently a person uses oxygen while running at a given pace. Runners who have the ability to consume less oxygen while running have better economy.
  • Lactate threshold: The exercise intensity at which lactate starts to accumulate in the blood stream.
  • Aerobic capacity: The maximum amount of oxygen the body can utilize

There appears to be very little gender difference in the running economy and lactate threshold level of men and women. However, research has found that women have a lower aerobic capacity than men. This appears to be primary gender difference that prevents a woman from running a 2:03:59 marathon like a man.

The lower aerobic capacity for women is due to a number of factors, including: (1) a woman has lower blood hemoglobin levels, (2) a woman’s arm and leg muscles have a lower oxygen extraction, and (3) the left ventricle in a woman’s heart has a smaller stroke volume than men.

These biological factors appear to be the reason why the female marathon world record prediction in the 1985 Nature article has not come true.

Photo courtesy of Ken Morrill

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