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Why Women Might Be Better at Running Marathons

Women Run Marathons Better

Photo: Pond5

It’s a battle of the sexes, marathon style. In 2013, 541,000 men and women finished marathons in the United States. Fifty-seven percent were men, and 43 percent were women — and though women may have been outnumbered, new research reveals they likely fared better during their 26.2 miles.

So why are men messing up their marathons?

In a study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, researchers revealed that men were nearly three times as likely to noticeably slow their pace as they logged miles, compared to women. Men were hitting the dreaded “wall,” the point at which fatigue makes taking even one more step feel impossible, at a greater percentage than their female counterparts—and they were hitting it harder.

While 14 percent of men experienced a 30 percent decrease in speed between the first half of the race and the second half, only five percent of women saw the same slowdown.

“It might be that men don’t know their bodies as well and they overestimate what they can do, and as a result they are hitting the wall earlier. [That] coupled with the fact that there are different fuel metabolism mechanisms between men and women,” study author Sandra Hunter, professor of exercise science at Marquette University, says.

Mike Silverman, a physical therapist who specializes in running form analysis, and running injuries at New York City’s Hospital for Special Surgery, said the study’s results rang true.

“I’ve noticed when I compare my female to male runners, women tend to follow the training programs to the T, and they do a lot of extra work in terms of prep for marathon running,” Silverman says. “Whereas the men tend to slack or go off on their own when training. I was laughing to myself reading this study, because this is totally my patient population.”

Hunter and her fellow researchers are uncertain as to why men tend to struggle more at maintaining a steady pace throughout a marathon. It could be because of their attitude: They may make a conscious decision to go out harder in the beginning of a race, or not believe they need to train as much to achieve a successful finish.

Or, it could be because of a difference in the way men and women store and burn carbohydrates and fat. According to Hunter, women tend to burn more fat and fewer carbohydrates as they run, ensuring that their glycogen stores can fuel them for longer. Men, on the other hand, tend to deplete their carbohydrate stores much more quickly. This could mean they are more likely to have their fuel tanks hit  “empty,” leaving them heading towards a medical tent with muscle or stomach cramps.

“I was surprised [the difference in pacing] was as significant as it was,” Silverman admits. “I knew there was a difference; I didn’t know it was that much.”

Marathon Training: Should Men and Women Do It Differently?

So do men need to rethink their approach to training for the big 26.2? It turns out there are things both sexes could be doing differently, when it comes to preparing to cross the finish line.

But overall, when it comes to marathoning, the tenets of good training remain consistent, with experts recommending that athletes adopt a consistent routine of running, cross training and nailing down a diet that keeps them well fueled, regardless of gender.

For men especially, Silverman says the key to training well may be to stick to a running program individualized for you by a trainer, and to actually do your long runs (yes, every mile of them).

“The best way to prevent going out too fast is by training. You’ve got to do your long runs, and that’s where people skimp,” Silverman says.

Using a pacing app, or a GPS tracking device such as a Garmin, to monitor pace can help men regulate their speed as well.

“The idea is to know what your pace is, to not get caught up in some guy blowing past you at the start,” Hunter says. “Go with a strategy based on your training, know what you can do and stick with that, rather than having to blow up at the end because you’ve gone out and overdone it.”

Women, on the other hand, should focus on incorporating strength training into their marathon prep, according to Silverman.

“For women, I would say more of their injuries come from muscle imbalances and lack of adequate muscle strength, which has led to some kind of overuse injury,” Silverman says. “Whereas, with men I often see a lot of training errors.”

Silverman said he also sees more women holding back in their training, reluctant to push their pace and increase speed.

“For women, you want to make sure you’re not going out too slow. That ends up being the case talking to women runners, where they say they had a lot left in the tank at the end of a run,” Silverman says.

For both sexes, Silverman recommends scheduling a half-marathon race four to six weeks in advance of the marathon, to determine a racing strategy that will feel neither too fast nor too conservative for the full marathon. He also recommends runners should meet with a sports nutritionist, to figure out how to best fuel.

Overall, Silverman said this new research will change the way he approaches some of his aspiring marathoners.

“I will be paying more attention to both male and female athletes,” Silverman says. “For females, making sure they aren’t being too conservative with training, particularly to push themselves a little harder. And with male runners, making sure they aren’t going out to fast in the beginning.”

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