Are women narrowing the gap in ultra running?

Keri Wallace delves into the respective traits of male and female runners and considers what it could mean for the future

Earlier this year Jasmin Paris became the first person to cross the finish line in the 2019 Spine Race. What was remarkable was not that she obliterated the women’s record, but that she also took the overall record, winning outright – a first for any woman in the history of the event.

Women’s success in ultras could be partly down to being better at self-preservation, says Nicky Spinks

Women’s success in ultras could be partly down to being better at self-preservation, says Nicky Spinks

The world was flabbergasted, but it was Jasmin who got the biggest shock of all. Not because of her performance, but because of her sudden and unexpected rise to stardom. Jasmin’s face went from the BBC to Vogue magazine before she even caught up on her missed sleep.

But, given that there have been other female outright race winners in the past, what endeared the world so much to Jasmin Paris? Perhaps it was her humble reaction and genuine modesty. It’s more likely that she is a new mum, a small animal vet and is also writing a PhD thesis. In other words, she is ‘normal’ but also seemingly superhuman; a relatable superhero. As such, Jasmin became a role-model and ambassador for women’s running overnight.

In truth, she is one in a line of incredible performances and high-profile outright wins by female endurance athletes in recent years. Her achievement has added considerable fuel to the debate around whether women are better suited than men to challenging endurance running events. With women like Courtney Dauwalter, Nicky Spinks, Marianne Heading and Pam Reed catching the eye of the media, women are smashing through glass ceilings left, right and centre. Can we expect this to continue? Will we see more and more outright wins by women in the future? 

Science of endurance

“The rate of progress has been so rapid that statistically you might expect that at some point soon the gap will close and females will be better than males. But the physiological characteristics of men predispose them to faster times in endurance races, and as a result the very best men will always beat the very best women,” says John Brewer, professor of applied sports science and deputy vice chancellor at Bucks New University.

So, what are these physiological limiting factors? Brewer continues: “Men have bigger hearts than women and also bigger lungs (by body mass), and higher levels of haemoglobin, all of which contributes towards a higher oxygen transport capacity, often known as VO2max. They also tend to have higher testosterone, which results in higher muscle mass and strength.”

But even in the face of these significant differences, there appears to be anecdotal evidence that women have an ‘aptitude’ for endurance. Many ask if it can be put down to differences in body fat, but this doesn’t seem to be the case. “Although women can have higher energy reserves due to a higher percentage of body fat, even the leanest of males has enough fat to fuel around 40 consecutive marathons,” says Brewer. “Men actually have a higher maximum rate of fat oxidation, which has been correlated with improved endurance,” says Tracy Høeg, who is sports medicine fellow at the Bodor Clinic in Napa, California, as well as being a world-class trail runner. 

Høeg suggests that we critically consider the one example most often quoted to support women’s superiority in challenging conditions; the very cold and rainy 2018 Boston Marathon. “In this event, more men dropped out (5%) than women (3.8%) for the first time in history. But this difference may not be due to female ‘aptitude’ or mental toughness, but could instead be accounted for by the reduced rate of heat-loss in women, secondary to their higher percentage of body fat,” says Høeg. “This same factor is a recognised advantage for women in long-distance open-water swimming challenges.”

Mind the gap

If women have an aptitude for endurance, you might expect to see better performance relative to men as the running distance increases. However, Høeg says: “Current evidence actually suggests that, the longer the ultra, the better men do compared to women. In the longest ultra-marathons, we see a gender gap of 15-20% in the top female finishers as compared to males.”

At the very least, one might assume the physiological disadvantage women face in endurance running is less than in shorter, faster races, where sheer power and strength are core factors. But again, the opposite is in fact true. Høeg confirms that: “Research shows the fastest men to be ~17-20% faster than the fastest women for all distances above 50 miles. But the gender gap is closer to 10% in shorter races.”

Psychological advantage

“There may be some psychological reasons why females can do better than males over long distances,” says Brewer. “As women have a tendency for more resilience and higher pain tolerance.” But perhaps it goes beyond that. Several ‘man-beating’ female athletes in the UK, including Nicky Spinks and Jasmin Paris, have spoken openly in public about the importance of traits such as self-discipline, self-preservation, organisational skills and ‘tempering the competitive spirit’ during races as key factors which might predispose women to good performances in gruelling endurance events.

“I think a woman is less likely to enter an event just because it claims to be the ‘toughest’,” says champion ultra-distance runner Spinks. “A woman would be more likely to study the event in detail and think, ‘I can do that.’ Then she would go about making sure that she is well prepared. The key is to use your competitiveness to your advantage but not let it take over and ruin your race.”

Spinks suggests that women might be better at self-preservation. “As women we are used to looking after ourselves as well as other people in daily life,” she says. “So naturally we use this knowledge to look after ourselves well on longer and harder races.”

Jasmin Paris agrees: “Perhaps it’s just the simple things. Maybe we’re more likely to put on an extra layer or gloves earlier.”

Mother knows best?

And what of motherhood? How does this physiological change affect performance? Increasingly we see images of mothers crossing finish lines with their children in their arms, or breastfeeding at refuelling stations. Just last year Sophie Power made headlines for completing the UTMB while breastfeeding her three-month-old baby. The same can also be said of Paris, who expressed milk at the first few checkpoints on the Spine Race. There is evidence that physiological changes induced by pregnancy may improve performance in the postpartum period, while some cardiovascular advantages may even result in permanently improved stamina. 

Although pregnancy and childbirth represent significant physiological changes for the female body, there are also psychological changes which commonly accompany motherhood. “Having my daughter is the best thing that has ever happened to me,” says Paris. “I feel fulfilled and have a new sense of perspective on the world. This makes me more relaxed and comfortable with myself, but at the same time more efficient and more focused, probably due to my increased time constraints. I think this translates into a mindset I can carry with me into races.”

But it is possible that this focused mindset is not limited solely to motherhood, but is rather the product of an organised mind and a busy lifestyle. In the 2018 Boston Marathon, it was noted that the second woman, Sarah Sellers (a complete unknown to the professional running world), was working as a nurse, juggling her training around a demanding shift pattern. 

“While certain characteristics might improve an individual’s performance, I don’t anticipate that ‘female traits’ will ever eliminate the physiological gender performance gap,” says Høeg. “When Pamela Reed won the Badwater 135 Mile and Courtney Dauwaulter won the Moab 200 Mile, they did not disprove that the top men are on average at least 10% faster. Their performances were phenomenal exceptions to the rule. We mustn’t forget all of the many ultra-marathons run every weekend routinely won by men. But humans tend to remember exceptions.”

Høeg believes an appreciation of this physiological basis for the gender performance gap is crucial for the future of competitive women’s running, adding: “Large ultras with money prizes should always have separate podiums and equal prizes for men and women, because physiologically and statistically women are not expected to be as fast (and certainly not faster) than men in these events. Each gender should be awarded equally and separately.” 

Paving the way

So, will we see more women smashing expectations in the future? Well the answer is (perhaps unexpectedly) yes. 

It was not that long ago that women were prevented from taking part in endurance events, and the first female to compete in a marathon was Katherine Switzer in 1972. “As female participation increases, we should start to see the gender gap close until it reaches the same ~10% we see in other disciplines, and we should eventually see this in even the longest ultras,” says Høeg.

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