The Gender Gap In Endurance Sports

In General, Movement by Mikki Reilly3 Comments

The Chicago marathon took place today. Whenever I see news of a marathon race, I check the finishing times of the male and female winners. I want to know if both genders are getting faster and if the women are continuing to get faster relative to the men.

Historically, women could not officially participate in marathon races until 1963. And believe it or not, the marathon didn’t become a female Olympic event until 1984. So women have had some catching up to do.

If you reference the chart, you can see that back in 1963, women were running marathons in about 220 minutes. Today at the Chicago marathon, Russia’s Lidiya Grigoryeva finished the race in two hours, 27 minutes, 17 seconds, or roughly 147 minutes. That’s a huge difference. Kenya’s Evans Cheruiyot won the marathon in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 25 seconds.

Obviously there are some differences between the sexes that affect performance. Men tend to have more muscle mass and a lower percentage of body fat. And men have a higher aerobic capacity and more hemoglobin when compared to women.

But women can run at a higher percentage of their VO2 max. Women can also convert more fat to energy. And when they ingest carbohydrate drinks, women can convert a higher proportion of the carbohydrates to energy (which would enable them to conserve their glycogen stores for the long race). Women also produce higher levels of growth hormone in response to training which is beneficial for training adaptations and recovery.

So with these gender differences, the obvious question is: will women ever run marathons faster than men? This study suggests that “It is likely that the current gender difference in performance will remain fairly constant because of biological differences between men and women that give men an advantage in distance running.”


  1. I get nervous when i read how much stats like this change over time. a lot of people think marathon runners are the peak of physical fitness, but they are set up for so many health problems: especially women due to low body fat and the stress and impact they place on their bodies day in and day out. Sometimes pushing further and further isnt the best way to go. Men and women are different, and no amount of training will change that.

    Kelly Turner

  2. What have you read about ultrarunners, Mikki? I hear that women’s bodies are better equipped for ultramarathons and are starting to win a fair number of them.

  3. Good point Lisa. It seems that men perform better than women in distances up to the marathon. But women can outrun men in distances greater than the marathon such as the ultramarathon. The reason is that women have greater fatigue resistance.

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