It seems like an age ago, but on the weekend, we promised an upcoming series on Men vs. Women in the running events. Since then, the Chicago Marathon, and a series of posts ranging from race analysis to discussions of heat stroke and the sad death of a participant have dominated. But today we begin what will be a four-part series on this topic, looking at the following areas:
- Women in running – a historical overview and the evolution of the marathon world record
- Performance differences between men and women in all running events, and a physiological discussion of why this difference exists
- Will women ever outperform men? And more interestingly, does it already happen!
- Finally, we look at a scientific paper published earlier this year examining American women in the marathon
So we generally accept that women are not as strong and hence not as fast over shorter distances. But the theory is that as you get longer and longer, women will come into their own, because they have a greater fat reserve and hence will be at an advantage in events where the use of fat as a source of energy is important. In other words, marathons and over. So, the metabolic advantage enjoyed by women would, in theory, close the gap between men and women as one gets longer and longer. Also, strength in terms of muscle force-producing ability is less important in the marathon and ultra-marathons, so the advantage of men is eroded anyway.
And this is the context in which everyone seems to react so strongly when a women’s world marathon record is broken. It’s as though people see it as confirmation that the theory is true, and women will catch up. It’s even more the case in the ultra-marathons. In
That performance, and a few others by van der Merwe and a woman from the
The history of women in marathons - a shorter history than many realise
If you do a Google search on the topic, you discovery that the first woman to record an official time for the marathon was Violet Percy from
An interesting fact, that you won’t see on Google, is that the first woman to finish the Comrades Marathon was Frances Hayward in 1923, three years before Percy ran hers. So we might say that Violet Percy ran the third marathon for women, because
Women’s marathon running then went quiet for the next 37 years – no woman was allowed to take part in either a marathon or the Comrades, so the next “official” woman’s time came in 1963, when Merry Lepper ran 3 hours 37 minutes in
The women's boom and some misleading progress
The women's boom and some misleading progress
This started a sudden ‘boom’ in women’s marathon running, with every major marathon letting women compete for the first time. As one might expect, the sudden inclusion of talented women, together with improvements in the way they prepared and trained for the event meant that the world record fell rapidly, dropping by an hour and 12 minutes between 1963 and 1980. The graph below shows these times plotted against time. It’s quite clear that the floodgates opened and up until about 1980, the record was plummeting down.
It was at this stage that the first talk was heard of women one day beating men in the marathon. If we look at the graph above, we can see how at a basic level, people were predicting in 1980 that if the women continued to improve, they would be outrunning men by 1990! Of course, they often missed the point that comparing the times was not really fair, because the events were at such different phases in their ‘life-cycles’. Nonetheless, scientists got involved and using the data on the graph, combined with some very impressive looking statistics, managed to work out that even taking into account the difference in stages, the women’s and men’s marathon records would be equal by 1998!
That never happened (to the relief of men everywhere, no doubt!), and the times started to level off, until Paula Radcliffe moved the event forward by a quantum leap again in 2002/2003. You can see this sudden drop in the times around this point, and this was the reason for the excitement, which renewed talk that the women would soon be mixing it with the men. Previous experience has tempered that enthusiasm, and so this is likely to be premature talk as well.
As an aside, Paula’s current world record is still incredible, an opinion borne out by the fact that she could have won just about every single men’s marathon in
Looking ahead - will women one day beat men?
However, we are concerned with the prospects of women one day outperforming men in the longer distance events. So far, we’ve looked at the marathon event only. In tomorrow’s Part 2, we’ll look at the full spectrum of events, from the 100m sprint all the way to the 100mile races in the
Join us then!