Women Outperform Men at Ultra Distances

woman running in black body suit on a track

For years the debate of which sex reigns supreme in sport has waged on, with most nods, in most sports going to testosterone-fueled males. Men are bigger, men are stronger. Recently this trend is starting to see some upheaval however, with women competing in ultra-distance endurance events.

And it’s interesting news for the people who are trying to ban transgender people from competitive sports events. They should be watching out for women! 

We all know women are tougher than men, women give birth, something no man could handle, women raise curious children, again something most men sneak away each and every day because of, and women have to put up with men, maybe the hardest of tasks on the planet!

All jokes aside, the world of endurance sports is where women level the playing field, and according to a new study by RunRepeat, actually overtake their male counterparts. 

woman running behind graffiti

In partnership with the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU), RunRepeat just published the largest study ever done on the sport of ultra running. They’ve analyzed 5,010,730 results from 15,451 ultra running events over the last 23 years, and one of the many key findings, is that at extreme distance, the data shows, that women actually are the top competitor. (See our related story, running in sprints).

Run in sprints – for your heart and perfect body, new research confirms it

The findings detailed in The State of Ultra Running 2020, cover many facets, like the exponential growth of the sport, what nations top ultra running’s performance list, differences in participant demographics, and of course they offer a unique view of the differences between the sexes. 

The key findings of this study point towards various trends that suggest as we start this new decade, more and more people are looking for a challenge, and in those new challenges, women should be seen as equals, both at the start line and at the finish line. What this means for upcoming marathons in cities like Tel Aviv, is anyone’s guess. 

 Some results this study discovered: 

  • Female ultra runners are faster than male ultra runners at distances over 195 miles. The longer the distance the shorter the gender pace gap. In 5Ks men run 17.9% faster than women, at marathon distance the difference is just 11.1%, 100-mile races see the difference shrink to just .25%, and above 195 miles, women are actually 0.6% faster than men. 
  • Participation has increased by 1676% in the last 23 years from 34,401 to 611,098 yearly participations and 345% in the last 10 years from 137,234 to 611,098. There have never been more ultra runners.
  • More ultra runners are competing in multiple events per year. In 1996, only 14% of runners participated in multiple races a year, now 41% of participants run more than one event per year. There is also a significant increase in the % of people who run 2 races a year, 17.2% (from 7.7% to 24.9%) and 3 races, 6.7% (from 2.8% to 9.5%). 
  • There have never been more women in ultrarunning. 23% of participants are female, compared to just 14% 23 years ago. 
  • All age groups have a similar pace, around 14:40 min/mile. Which is unusual compared to the past and to other distances. 

The data begs us to try to understand what’s going on in this niche part of the endurance world. As more people seek these harder experiences, these sport’s once reserved for elite athletes are now fair game for anyone with some courage and stamina. 

We were especially excited by this story on the New York Times, and the woman who does ultra-ultra marathons, without sleep. By 200 miles at a time she outruns the men.

So the key here women is endurance. If you keep going at some point the men give up. Ask any mother of young children and she won’t bat an eye, for she already knows this basic fact.

Women are competing at greater numbers than ever before, and thanks to many reasons, they are right there at the front of the pack. The Guardian recently published a piece about this as well, citing a few physiological and psychological reasons women have an edge here, but overall it comes down to mental fortitude, something women simply have more of. 

It’s an exciting new decade, and while ultra running may still be on the fringe of what most people aspire to participate in, the continued growth of this niche sector, and of the women within it, proves that endurance sports are here to stay. 

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