Why Are Women Runners Less Competitive Than Men?

A half dozen years ago a marathoning psychologist named Robert Deaner began publishing papers (find them here) that seemed to show women athletes are less competitive, on average, than male athletes. A number of his studies have looked at road-race statistics and distributions.

Deaner’s not going to win any popularity contests with this line of research, so it’s important to note the “on average” proviso. He’s not saying that top female marathoners aren’t fiercely fast and tough. He’s saying that the women who finish in 5th, 10th, and nth place behind the female race winners are often further back, relatively, than the 5th, 10th, and nth place male finishers. That is, the 10th place female might be 15 per cent behind the female winner, while the 10th place male is likely to be only 10 per cent behind the male winner.

A new study of 31 years of New York City Marathon data, published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (MSSE), has confirmed Deaner’s analysis. (Find the abstract here.) The researchers compiled and analysed all the results for the top 10 men and women from 1980 through 2010, in 10-year age-groups. They also took a stab at an explanation, which is the hard part.

Marquette University’s Sandra Hunter and Alyssa Stevens concluded that roughly a third of the difference between male and female race distributions is due to the lower participations rates of women. When more women participate, the top 10 women get more competitive. That still leaves two-thirds of the difference seeking another explanation. Most physiologists agree that VO2 max, lactate threshold, and running economy – the “Big Three” of endurance performance – are not factors in the distribution differences.

In one telling analysis, Hunter and Stevens found that the male-female distribution gap shrank over the 31 years, as more women began competing. However, it remained very high in the older age groups, which have many more male racers, by per cent, than female racers.

Deaner wrote an accompanying editorial in MSSE, agreeing and disagreeing with the Hunter-Stevens report. He agrees with their findings but not necessarily their explanation emphasising the causal influence of participation rate. Rather he says: “I have argued that the most parsimonious explanation … is that more male than female distance runners are motivated to maintain the large training volumes and intensive training needed for elite performances.”

So, the question is: Why do you think women runners are, on average, less competitive than male runners?

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