The Longer the Race, the Smaller the Gender Gap

Studies show that women have greater potential the longer the distance. So why do we see that the longer the distance, the fewer amount of women competing?

In 2007, Paula Radcliffe won the New York City Marathon less than ten months after giving birth.

The greatest gift I've ever received is a t-shirt with a print of the ad for the 1978 Lady Waffle Trainer, the first athletic shoe made for women. When I showed my mom, she told me she wore them on her high school cross country team and shrugged it off like it wasn’t the beautiful relic I thought it was. But it’s true: the creation of the Lady Waffle Trainer was one giant leap for womankind that lead to many small steps for women.


Women now dominate the running community: more women are running in more races every year; last year, women comprised of 57 percent of all race finishers in the United States. And, studies show that women have greater potential the longer the race; when it comes to endurance sports, the longer the distance, the smaller the gender gap.


Competitor.com’s “Running Doc” says that the physical advantages women have over men kick in when an event is “at least as long as the marathon— anything 26.2 miles or over, or its equivalent in another sport...the longer the event is, the greater the possible advantage is.” Because women have a smaller body mass than men, they are able to expel heat more efficiently, allowing for greater tolerance of overheating over long distances. And, women burn more body fat than men but less carbohydrates, meaning that they have a greater ability to endure physical feats. A biology professor at the University of Washington predicts “women might compete against men most successfully in events lasting several hours, where overheating and glycogen (storage of energy) depletion are particularly common.”


And yet with all of this progress and all of this potential, it is not likely that we’ll see a female winner of the prestigious 100-Mile Western States race or the Boston Marathon. The longer the race, the fewer women there are. Despite their dominance in 5ks, 10ks and half marathons, female participation in full marathons has remained around 40 percent for 15 years. In triathlons, women's participation has hovered around 30 percent. In ultramarathons, women are nearly nonexistent.


What will it take to get more women going the distances at which they have the greatest potential?


Gary Berard, an elite coach out of New York City, predicts the Boston Athletic Association, which puts on the Boston Marathon, makes their qualifying times for women easier than the qualifying times for men, because they have been pro-active in women’s inclusion.


“The women’s standard is exactly 30 minutes slower [than the men’s] no matter the age. My guess is the BAA has exacted this idea for qualifying based on increasing the percentage of women participants, because I don’t feel 3:05 qualifying standards for men is equivalent to a 3:35.”


If it’s true, it is proven to be working: with 54 percent men and 45 percent women in the Boston Marathon, it is one where there is the most equal representation. So perhaps, while we’re at this crossroads where women are stopping short before reaching a place where they meet their greatest potential, it takes a version of athletic affirmative action to incentivize women’s participation in long-distance events.