Are Women Better Athletes Than Men?
When my wife and I go on long runs together, she always manages to finish strong while I fall behind. Am I just out of shape, or do women have an advantage in endurance sports?
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
Without launching a full-out battle-of-the-sexes competition between you and your wife, it’s hard to say exactly who is the better athlete. But it is true that she may have some ingrained sex-based advantage over you. Specifically, it seems that members of the fairer sex are better at pacing themselves on long runs, at least according to one new study.
Researchers from Marquette and Grand Valley State Universities and the Mayo Clinic looked at nearly 92,000 marathon performances that took place in 2011 and discovered that women were only about a third as likely as their male counterparts to slow dramatically (by 30 percent or more) during the second half of a race.
On average, men ran the last 13 miles 15.6 percent slower than they did the first 13, while women only slowed by 11.7 percent. The difference held across all age groups and experience levels, and remained even after adjusting women’s times to address men’s greater oxygen intake and typically faster performances.
Decision-making may play an important role in marathon pacing, says co-author Robert Deaner, and previous research has shown that men tend to make riskier, more impulsive decisions than women. “It can be very easy to begin the early miles with an aggressive, unsustainable pace,” he says. “We anticipated that men would be more likely to do this, and consequently, they’d be more likely to crash in the second half of a race.”
Women and men may also have different goals when running a marathon, suggests another study from 2013. In an analysis of Chicago marathon finishers, men’s times were more likely to fall around “whole-number times” such as three and a half or four hours, whereas women’s finishes were evenly spaced out. This may indicate that men aim for specific time goals while women simply try to run their best race.
And perhaps predictably, physiological differences between men and women could also play a role—specifically the fact that women tend to burn more fat and fewer carbohydrates during endurance exercise, says Deaner’s co-author, Sandra Hunter. This makes them less likely to deplete their muscles of glycogen and “hit the wall” at a certain point.
So does that make women better runners? “I think scientists, coaches, and athletes would all agree that outstanding performances for any athlete almost always involves even or nearly even pacing,” says Deaner. Still, even if you overdo the start and look a mess shuffling through the final miles, the fastest time does prevail at the end of the day—with or without smart pacing.
Bottom line: Women seem to show greater pacing ability during marathons, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Inexperienced runners—both male and female—could benefit from setting more conservative paces than might be suggested by a pace calculator, suggests Deaner. And guys, take a cue from the ladies: Don’t blow it all in the first half.