Are Women Better Ultra-Runners Than Men?

This week we are trying to answer a very controversial question!

Are women better ultra-runners than men?

This comes after last week’s interview with a world-record breaking, 60-year old lady who ran more than 800 miles in 18 days - ‘The Running Granny’.

And there have been numerous examples of women winning ultra-races outright.

In this article, Marie Bernards from www.TheRunningStudent.com gives her thoughts on why women are crushing the longer distances.

Marie Bernards, author on   www.TheRunningStudent.com  , gives us her thoughts on what makes women such good ultra-runners

Marie Bernards, author on www.TheRunningStudent.com, gives us her thoughts on what makes women such good ultra-runners


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The Rise of Ultra-Marathons

Attempting and finishing an ultra-marathon is one of the most impressive things a human being can achieve in their lifetime.

This extreme form of racing can scare even the most committed runners.

But, despite the huge scale of the challenge, there has been a 1000% increase in ultra-races in the last 12 years.

There is a huge market that seems to be saturated by people looking to surpass something that is perceived as physically impossible by many.

The Rise in Success of Female Ultra-Runners

Ultra-running has typically been dominated by men.

Not just by the people who win races. But also by the sheer number of men who enter compared to the number of women who enter.

But is the tide turning?

Ultra running is one of the few sports where men and women compete side by side, as equals – a rarity found in many other sports.

And now we are seeing more and more exceptional performances from women who win races outright.

Ellie, Courney and Jasmin are just some of the names that now come up in search engines when you type ‘female’, ‘ultra-marathon’ and ‘winner’.


So, What Makes Women Such Good Ultra-Runners?

You might be asking yourself: ‘If men are still winning marathons, why would women be winning over these incredibly long distances?’

There are a number of potential factors.

1) Skeletal Muscles and Hormones

Men are quicker at running marathons than women. But is there a reason that the fastest current marathon time shows a 14-minute difference between the two genders?

From a solely scientific perspective, men are better at developing muscle tissue and tend to have less body fat.

That is because the primary male hormone is testosterone, which triggers rapid muscle growth.

It also increases the red blood cell count, which is crucial for transporting more oxygen to our muscle tissue. According to a study done by the University of Leuven, men can take in up to 29% more oxygen than women during intense exercise.

Women tend to have a greater amount of slow-twitch muscle fibres than men. Which are more useful for ultra-marathons.

Women tend to have a greater amount of slow-twitch muscle fibres than men. Which are more useful for ultra-marathons.

Women, on the other hand, tend to store a lot more fat around the hip and chest area (about 10% more than men) due to their ability to bear children.

Females are also limited by their menstrual cycle and a much smaller left heart ventricle, which restricts them to pumping much less blood around the body than males.

All of these facts apply to the majority of women, but certainly not all of them.

So, what could be giving women the advantage for ultra-marathons?

One answer might be due to their muscle fibres!

Women tend to have a greater amount of slow-twitch muscle fibres.

These aid you in sustaining long periods of mild running because they utilise oxygen much more efficiently.

But they are less useful for short, powerful bursts, such as sprinting.

2) Pacing

In 2016, the Journal of Sports Analytics published a study that showed that men might have a disadvantage due to their psychology when it comes to running long distances.

Men overestimated their finishing times of a marathon by roughly 9.0% and tended to slow down 11% in the second half of the race.

These findings can be attributed to stereotypical traits that obviously do not apply to all runners, such as over-confidence and egotistical tendencies.

It has been proven in other studies that ego and the task at hand have a strong correlation with many male and some female athletes.

Another study where 17 athletes were asked to perform 200 calf raises showed that men were overall quicker and more eager to finish, but women were much less fatigued.

This suggested that men are more likely to be better at pushing for a record time, but women are better at pacing themselves.

 What you can deduct from these studies is that during long-distance events women might be better at keeping a steady pace throughout the entire race. Rather than emptying your tank at the start.

3) Pregnancy and Stress

No one denies that women who carry a life inside their bellies for 9 months are incredibly strong.

During this period, the female body undergoes rapid changes that we haven’t even come close to grasping the extent of.

Researchers that study the limit of human cardiac output found that ultra-runners sometimes reach 15.6 times their basic metabolic rate (the amount of energy you need to supply your body at rest) while performing in these extremely strenuous races. 

On average they would stay at around 2.5 times their BMR, which is still a major strain on the runner’s physique.

A woman’s body during pregnancy stays at around 2.2 times her BMR for the whole duration of her pregnancy.

So you could say that when you are pregnant you are doing the same effort as running, non-stop.

There have also been studies that suggest that mothers and runners that run while or after pregnancy significantly increase their VO2 max and learn to manage the pain they feel during races much more effectively. 

As Tracy Beth outlines in one article, there haven’t been any studies done on how much running during pregnancy is considered too much.

But pregnancy can definitely be an indication on how well women handle the massive challenge ahead of them once they hit the runner’s wall.

4) Nutrition and Storage

Speaking of the runner’s wall, us women have quite a good advantage when it comes to our bodily make-up and nutrition while running.

While men need more calories than the average woman on a daily basis, women store glycogen that supplies their muscles much more efficiently.

This gives women a slight edge over the men because they need to consume fewer calories and tire less frequently.

When running for such a long distance, one could argue that the energy deficit that is induced by such high energy output cannot be regained by any sort of physical advantage.

And even pro athletes such as Courtney Dauwalter have to leave their races to chance and hope their stomach will co-operate.

But she could have a slightly advantage over her male competitors in this part.

Summary

So, are women overall better at ultra-marathons than men? Or are a few women better than few of the men?

What my research has shown me is that the studies that are conducted on these athletes are very small and they rarely ever exceed 20 participants.

Proving whether it is Courtney Dauwalters’ commitment to running, the thousands of hours of intense training she’s done or her genetic make-up that pushes her to the top is an incredibly tough task.

Running 100 miles and more through extreme weather conditions is also not something that can be measured as easily as a road marathon can.

Maybe competitor A’s stomach is upset throughout the whole race and contestant B had a few nights of bad sleep.

In situations like this, gender advantages won’t save anyone. 

What can be said for sure is that every single woman (and man) who signs up for one of these incredibly impressive distances is superhuman in their own way.

Sadly, the participation rate of women during these ultra-races is still very low. But it is growing steadily every year.

In the US alone, 42% of participants in all trail running events in 2017 were women.

But this hides some huge differences at various race distances.

While the participation is quite high in 50k events with about 30% participation by women, 100-mile races (such as UTMB) can be very strict with their requirements so that women only make up 10% of all runners.

Hopefully these numbers will increase in the next few years.

And who knows, maybe one day we will truly be able to prove who is better at taming this beast.

But for now, love what you do and enjoy being out there with all your fellow runners!

You can subscribe to Marie’s blog on therunningstudent.com - She posts every Sunday!

More Sources Used in This Article


Do You Think Women Are Better Ultra-Runners Than Men?

Let me know in the comments at the bottom of this blog, on the Contact Page or on social media below. 


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