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Can women ever beat men at marathon running?

Marathon Runnners

Last month, we witnessed the greatest female marathon runner in Great British history Paula Radcliffe bid an emotional goodbye to the London Marathon.

On 26th April 2015, 41-year-old Paula Radcliffe was cheering across the finish line where she posted her final time of 2:36.55, bowing out on a stunning athletics career which saw her break the world record (of two hours 15 minutes 25 seconds) in London in 2003, and take 3 of the fastest times in marathon history.

To mark the event, we take a look at the rise in women taking part in marathon running over the past century, and discuss the possibility that women could ever over-take men in future marathon running.

"Jens Jakob Anderson concluded that women are 18.61% better at maintaining a consistent pace across the duration of 26.2 miles" 


The Facts

In 1985, the journal Nature made a prediction that by 2000 women would begin to consistently beat men in long-distance running events that were traditionally won by men. Although, women are not quite there yet, results are showing that they are getting closer.

One of the reasons behind this prediction was due to women's times in long-distance running vastly improving at a faster rate than men. However, much of this was down to an increase in women participating in long-distance events - there was very limited data prior to 1985.

It wasn't until the 1980s when women began to shine as marathon runners, mainly because up until then, their presence was virtually banned from the sport. There wasn't even a women's marathon in the Olympics until 1984, but since 1985, the women's record for marathon running has continued to improve, producing a rapid series of records in the early 2000s held by Catherine Ndereba and the current record holder, Paula Radcliffe.


The Theories

Women's time in long-distance running events are continuing to improve at a much faster rate than men, which could be down to new research which has revealed women are better at marathon pacing than men.

A comprehensive study of marathon results conducted by Jens Jakob Andersen, a former competitive runner and statistician from Copenhagen Business School, concluded that women are 18.61% better at maintaining a consistent pace across the duration of 26.2 miles. However, despite extensive research from 2008 to 2014, the study was unable to conclude the reasons behind these results. There was speculation that men overestimated their abilities whilst women underestimate theirs, but the physical differences that affect performance between both sexes required more in depth research.

Of the 1,815,091 marathon runners surveyed (excluding those with no gender information available), 974,599 (68.48%) were men and 448,561 (31.52%) women. Results revealed that men were actually slowing down during the second halve of the race between 16.96-27.27% more than women. Why was this happening? Researchers concluded the results reflected a difference in psychology and decision making between the sexes.

Furthermore, a study of the Chicago marathon suggested that that women might burn a higher percentage of fat than men, so were therefore less likely to hit "the wall" where glycogen in the body becomes depleted. In addition, when running marathons in warmer weather, it was found that women in general had a larger surface area-to-mass ration than men which was capable of dispelling more heat.

A group of researchers at the University of England studied the reasons why female athletes scored better times in endurance events and came to the conclusion that long distance running is one of the only sports where men and women are competing on an even playing field, therefore women might just be getting faster because their competition is as well.

Another study found that simply lacking testosterone could be beneficial to women in terms of endurance running. Research suggested that without testosterone, women did not feel the need to go all-out at the beginning of the race and could therefore better pace themselves throughout the entirety of the race. 

"The female marathon record time of 2 hours 15 mins set in 2003 by Paula Radcliffe is yet to be beaten."


The conclusion

Women are making incredible progress in endurance sports and are now beating men more frequently than ever, but the female marathon record time of 2 hours 15 minutes set by Paula Radcliffe in 2003 has yet to be beaten, in fact, no woman has come within 3 minutes if it yet. So, for now, the record remains 11 minutes slower than men.

Some researchers have blamed physiology for the slower endurance times for women, citing that women naturally have a lower aerobic capacity due to lower blood haemoglobin levels that lower oxygen extraction in the arm and leg muscles.

Despite the best women runners being better than 99 percent of men, there are a great deal of outside factors that can affect the way the marathon is run. For example, some women may feel that it is better to pace themselves and avoid injury so they can run again sooner following the race, rather than running hell for leather to try to break a record. Female runners also have a tendency to run in groups, as opposed to Radcliffe's preferred front running.

Whatever the reasons, there remain so many physical differences between men and women that aside from all of the studies and speculation, women are still a long way from beating men in marathon running in the foreseeable future.


Do you think women could ever compete alongside men? We'd love to hear your thoughts.

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