This remarkable FT article takes us into the world ultra-long distance running where the results show that women don’t just beat men, they leave the men dozens of miles behind. Why exactly this is happening has become the subject of research by scientists. Scientists at the University of British Columbia in Canada have found that men tire more quickly than women. Other scientists have found that men’s calves and thighs get fatigued more quickly than that of women. Long distance running experts say that preparation also plays a role – women seem to prepare more meticulously for races than men. Whatever the underlying drivers are, our preconceptions of which gender is stronger is taking a knock and with it the notion of what it really means to be strong.
“Men will always, on average, have bigger hearts and a greater capacity to get oxygen to their muscles, which are also leaner. These advantages don’t go away at longer distances, but they do get clouded by many other factors, making the science tricky even where it happens. “If you want to predict who will win a 5km race, you can take them into the lab and get a good sense,” says Alex Hutchinson, author of Outside Magazine’s Sweat Science blog, and the book Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance. “But if you want to know who’s going to win a 200-mile race, lab tests will tell you way less.”
More efficient storage of glycogen, a vital fuel, may slightly favour women. A lower centre of gravity may help them cover challenging terrain. Several more studies have looked at muscle fatigue. Guillaume Millet, a former endurance runner and professor at the Université Jean Monnet in France, studied male and female participants before and after the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a major ultra-marathon in the Alps. He found that the men’s calves and thighs got more fatigued than the women’s. “It suggests females are more fatigue-resistant,” Millet says. “But another potential explanation is that women have a more protective base — they decide not to damage themselves as much.”
Enter: psychology, which takes in attitude, ego and personality, and perhaps counts for as much if not more than legs and lungs in extreme races. Millet says no scientist entertains cod theories about childbirth and the evolutionary advantage that it supposedly awards women who encounter pain. (“My daughter was born backwards but I don’t think that one experience trains you for other unpleasant experiences,” Paris says.) But some suggest an instinct for preservation — and organisation — may provide an edge.”
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