Fact: Men are faster than women. Yet research suggests that women’s physiology may render them superior endurance animals. Women burn through carbs more slowly than men, thus potentially helping them delay, or avoid, hitting the wall. And in hot temperatures, women are better able to dissipate heat. Does this mean, researchers at the University of Dayton wondered, that women are better at sustaining marathon pace than men? And would that change under hot or cold racing conditions?
To investigate, the researchers analysed data from the 2007 and 2009 Chicago Marathon. The race was chosen for multiple reasons: It provided a large sample size—a total of more than 33,000 runners; the flat course eliminated the influence of hills on pace; and the varied temperature between the two years—78 degrees Fahrenheit in 2007, 36 degrees Fahrenheit in 2009—let them factor in weather.
For each year, the researchers looked at how well pace was maintained over the last seven miles compared to the first 18 between men and women, fast and slow runners, young and old, and elite and non-elite in hot and cold conditions. The results, which were published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, are fun, if exactly what the researchers expected.
Overall, men slowed down more than women in the final miles of both marathons, leading researchers to conclude that in general women are better at marathon pacing than men. Slower runners (those with 3:40 to 4:07 finishing times) seemed less able to sustain pace than those running ahead of them. Age, however, wasn’t a factor; the pacing ability of younger and older runners was consistent across both races.
The single greatest factor influencing pace was—you can guess this—the heat. Hot temperatures in Chicago in 2007 led to an average drop in pace of 9 percent, according to the study.
But when calculated by gender, women fared better. "Women’s superiority in pacing over men increased from cold to the hot racing conditions,” the authors write. This is likely, they say, because women have a greater body surface area relative to mass than men, which allows more heat to escape through the skin.
All this changes with elites. The findings show no differences in pacing between male or female elite runners under both racing conditions. And when you compare elite and non-elite runners, not surprisingly elites were better at pacing than recreational athletes in both races.
The researchers note that the 2007 Chicago Marathon was canceled midway into the event and runners who did not reach the half-way mark by 3 hours and 35 minutes were not permitted to finish. This likely had some bearing on the findings. And other variables, like training, fueling and weather acclimation, of course also influence pace.
And while the study suggests that non-elite women may have a one-up on men when it comes to pacing, particularly in hot weather, the real takeaway is that experience trumps gender. Both elite male and female runners are excellent pacers, not necessarily because they’re fast, but because they know their bodies, are mentally tough and they practice pacing—something all runners can benefit from.