Society has believed for years that men are naturally capable of faster and stronger performances than women. But with recent trends showing a different story, I decided to read a bit more into it.
So, you’ve signed up for that endurance event, that sportive that seems just a little bit too daunting and long. Now might be the time that you start asking yourself ‘What have I gotten myself into, what was I thinking,I can never do that’, and so on and so forth! Fear not... If recent studies are anything to go by, endurance sports might just be a field where women can outperform the men.
While men might generally have stronger maximal abilities when it comes to areas like sprinting or weightlifting, women tend to become stronger as the duration of the event increases. The difference in levels isn’t so obvious at ‘shorter’ distances like a half-marathon or even a full-marathon.But when the events begin to wander up into the ultra-endurance category, that’s when female athletes start to show their strength.
To give just a few examples (albeit on the extreme end of things!), in August 2019, Fiona Kolbinger cycled 4000km across Europe to win the Transcontinental Race last year, 10 hours ahead of the next competitor. In January 2019, Jasmin Paris won the 268-mile Montane Spine Race, in just over 83 hours, beating the previous record (set by a man) by 12 hours –AND she even stopped to express breast milk along the way! In May of the same year, Katie Wright beat 40 men in an ultra-marathon in New Zealand, which meant running non-stop for 30 hours.
A distance of over 160km or more than 6 hours is typically considered ultra-endurance. In general, women have more slow-twitch muscle fibres than men. These particular muscle fibres are more resistant to fatigue; they are also the muscle fibres recruited in long, lower intensity efforts.
Females also derive more of their energy from fat, which is an advantage in moderate intensity aerobic events, as fat burns slower than carbohydrates.
Undoubtedly, one of the most crucial aspects of endurance racing is the mental focus required. Women come out on top every time when it comes to this. Women are more likely to pace themselves slowly to start and gradually get stronger – men are more likely to go out hard and have their speed decrease as time goes on.
Undoubtedly, one of the most crucial aspects of endurance racing is the mental focus required. Women come out on top every time when it comes to this.
Another reason put forward for women’s strong performances at endurance events is that females are better at handling emotions. In these long and arduous events, competitors need to deal with fatigue and the voice inside their head. Women are better at rationalising and reassessing the situation to ensure they can keep going. As well as this, research in the field has shown that woman are more likely to prepare more thoroughly for an endurance event, meaning that when the going gets tough, they are ready for it.
And if you’re looking to get back into sports after giving birth, we’ve got good news for you! Serena Williams, Paula Radcliffe, Lizzie DeignKristin Armstrong, Gwen Jorgensen. These women are all elite athletes who are at the top of their game... and also mothers. These women have come back stronger after having children then before – winning Olympic gold medals, World Championships, major marathons, Grand Slams; the list goes on.
Why is it that women can achieve a higher performance after giving birth?
Increase in red blood cells: By the end of the first trimester, a pregnant woman’s heart is pumping almost 10% more blood than normal. This increase in red blood cells mean that more oxygen can be carried to muscles. Athletes usually go to great lengths to achieve this type of increase in red blood cells, sometimes living at altitude or sleeping in an altitude tent, because it gives so much benefit!
Increase in heart size: The heart can also increase in size, although this change usually happens later in the pregnancy.As a result, more oxygen can be pumped around to the muscles. And the great thing is, these effects can last up to 12 months post-partum. Paula Radcliffe won the NYC marathon in a world-leading time just 9 months after giving birth!
For many new mothers, it obviously isn’t that easy. But there have been studies that have shown that women’s oestrogen levels increase during and post pregnancy. Oestrogen leads to the release of the hormone serotonin which, in layman’s terms, makes exercise feel less painful and also decreases fatigue. There has also been some research into the fact that, once a woman has given birth, dealing with the pain of a training session can subconsciously become less daunting, meaning that these women can sometimes push themselves to new levels in their post-partum workouts.
Instead of panicking that you might not be physically ready for the challenge you’ve set for yourself, or doubting that you should sign up for an endurance event, think of the reasons that it could go well! I hope that you’ve taken something valuable from this blog post, and it has given you food for thought. See you on the start line!