In Top Form

Women keep on going…

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Road running
is one of the few sports that doesn’t have separate events for men and women,
except for top level races or competitions, like the Olympic Marathon, or the
Big City Marathons like New York, Boston or London, where the elite women have
a separate start and run apart from the men. In most other sports, the
competition is divided, with different leagues, tournaments, meets, matches or
races for men and women, but in running, not only do women generally compete on
the same route and at the same time as the men, but they often fare better than
men. Yes, the top men’s times are usually faster than those of the top women,
but in the long run, the two fields are actually fairly evenly matched. In fact,
some would say the women are actually stronger.

 

Dr Andrew
Bosch, Associate Professor of Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at the
Sports Science Institute of South Africa, explains that women’s physical
make-up can enhance endurance exercise and match their male counterparts. “Women
tend to have a lighter skeletal structure than men. Glycogen storage capacity
is the same in terms of amount per kilogram of muscle, but women will tend to
have less muscle, so in absolute terms will have a bit less glycogen. However, their
body mass is lighter, so in terms of glycogen used per kilometre, it will be
less than a heavier male, so it all equals out eventually,” he explains.

 

PASSING THE GUYS

So if a man
and woman with identical finishing times and PBs for a shorter distance go head
to head in the Comrades Marathon, who is likely to come out tops? “Relative to
identical short distance performance, say 10km, women will generally run a
faster Comrades than men with the same 10km time. So in that context, one might
discuss whether or not women are relatively better,” explains Dr. Bosch.

 

Although
the man and woman who are competing should expect the same Comrades time, he
adds, often it would be the woman who manages a better pace over time. “You
will find that in most cases the male runner will start far too fast, and so
the males tend to ‘blow,’ whereas the females pace themselves better and
therefore finish much quicker.”

 

WINNING WOMEN

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Female
athletes generally have a smaller muscle mass than their male counterparts,
around 20% less in the legs and up to 40% less in the upper body. However,
their muscle tissue quality and how it responds to resistance exercise is
identical to men. Women just don’t develop as much muscle mass as men because
they have less testosterone. But when it comes to endurance sport, the ‘power’
comes from aerobic function and endurance capacity, not muscle bulk.

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In
the last century, and specifically the last 30 to 50 years, the rate of
improvement in world records in endurance events has been more rapid in female
athletes than males. For example, in the 400m freestyle swimming event, the
winning time for the women in the 1924 Olympic Games was 16% slower than the
men. In 1984, that gap had diminished to just 6.9%.

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In
the 1970’s, female Comrades winners were clocking between eight and nine hours.
Nowadays they finish in just over six hours. Back then, the male winners
finished two to three hours ahead of the female winners. Now the gap is just
under an hour.

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