Is There a Difference Between Guys & Girls in Running?

men and women in running

Written by Dr. Daniel Shaye

[dropcap]When it comes to running, our differences transcend skirts and pants. Physically and mentally, we’re related, yet very different creatures on the run. Let’s take a look.[/dropcap]

It’s all in the hips: You can tell a human skeleton’s sex by looking at the pelvis. Men have heart-shaped pelvic bowls and narrower hips while women tend to have wider “child-bearing” hips. No surprises here yet, but let’s look at what this means for running. Women’s wider hips result in a sharper angle from the tops of the quadriceps (the muscle mass in front of the thighs), down the knee and to the shinbone where they attach. This sharper “quadriceps angle” (Q-angle) means that with every stride, a wider-hipped person will be fighting a lateral (outward) force on the knee. This anatomical fact may mean less efficient movement, and it can also mean more overuse-induced knee injuries—especially tendonitis. The answer is proper footwear—orthotic support if necessary—strong and balanced muscles and frame, and wise training decisions.

It’s also in the feet: Sure, women get excited about fashion shoes, but really, our feet are all alike, right?  No. When running coach Nicole Carson of Lace’N Up Coaching in Williamsburg, Va., recently purchased a pair of track spikes, I heard her say:  “They didn’t make these for girls when I was running high school and college track!” A woman’s foot is typically narrower than a man’s and requires a different foot bed. One size does not fit all. Do yourself a favor and be sure that your shoes fit properly. A specialty running store, complete with a staff trained in the basics of gait analysis, is a great place to start. You may save yourself some injury problems.

It’s also between your ears: Men and women may process pain and discomfort differently, and this may affect our running performances. As guys, we may puff our manly chests at this moment, but understand:  we don’t birth babies, and we’re not wired for it. Perhaps women may have some built-in advantages when it comes to endurance. Women have never come close to men in elite shot put or the sprints, but in ultra-endurance events—runs longer than the marathon distance—the ladies have been remarkably competitive. 

Testosterone and other hormones: The average male runner has built-in, physiological advantages over the average female runner. Higher testosterone levels are associated with more muscle mass, and muscle is what powers the human frame in movement. Women tend to have lower relative blood volumes, and the makeup of the blood (hematocrit, referring to oxygen-carrying red blood cells) tends to favor men. Men are genetically predisposed to process oxygen slightly better than women. Pregnancy and running is a topic all its own. Suffice is to say that a pregnant woman’s body has special physical and dietary needs, the post-partum process also has significant effects on a woman’s ability to train and compete. Finally, there’s a science to training and racing, and even diet, related to women’s monthly cycles. Though men have their cycles, they’re nothing compared to women’s, from an athletic perspective.

Size matters: There are many sports where the physically large has an advantage. Running isn’t one of them. That big frame that serves your guy-friend so well on the rugby pitch is a liability in a half marathon.  Many women are predisposed to having smaller frames, and there are elite female distance runners who are under 5 feet tall and under 100 pounds. For men, larger stature affects running efficiency.

[quote]I want to emphasize that the differences between men and women stem from their separate strengths. Let’s remember, our bodies have many functions, and running is just one of many uplifting experiences of our physical existence. — Joan Benoit Samuelson, Olympic marathon champion[/quote]

Social restrictions: Back in the 1960s and 1970s, African men—especially Kenyan—were dominant distance runners. Women were absent from the sport. Then came social changes. Today, Kenyan and Ethiopian women dominate international distance running. Social norms and rules play a large role in women’s ability to seek their athletic potential. Sadly, equal opportunity remains a challenge. The Gaza marathon, scheduled for April 10, 2013, was canceled when Islamic leaders declared that women—15 percent of the field—would not be allowed to participate.

Personal safety: It’s sad that a woman’s safety may be at risk on a solo run through the woods. Running is freedom and we all deserve to partake in it. The fact of the matter is that women need to limit or avoid opportunities for miscreants to take advantage. Women should consider running with a partner—2- or 4-footed—and never run alone in an unfamiliar area while wearing earbuds. But men take heed: You’re also at risk. Many criminals and malfeasants don’t think through their impulsive crimes. Though I’ve generally felt safe on my runs, on one rare occasion, some nut in a pickup on Henry Street in Williamsburg yelled some pretty nasty things at me and pulled over to challenge me when I (then a foolish youth) didn’t back down. And all runners remember: more and more drivers are texting and Facebooking and your gender won’t protect you from a truck doing 45 m.p.h.

I’ll close with a quote by Olympic marathon champion Joan Benoit Samuelson: “I want to emphasize that the differences between men and women stem from their separate strengths. Let’s remember, our bodies have many functions, and running is just one of many uplifting experiences of our physical existence.”