Lower female participation rates amplify physiological differences
Performance gaps in marathon race results based on sex increase with age and place of the finisher even at the elite level, according to research conducted at Marquette University, which was published in the latest issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. The study was done by comparing the running times of the first 10 placed men and women in the New York City Marathon between 1980 and 2010, and is the first known study to indicate that roughly a third of the difference between male and female race distributions is due to lower participation rates of women, which can amplify the sex difference in running speed due to physiological differences.
The study was conducted by Dr. Sandra Hunter, associate professor of exercise science at Marquette University, and Alyssa Stevens, a Marquette University graduate student studying physical therapy who competed on the university’s track and cross country teams. It was funded by a Marquette University Women’s and Gender Studies Program Fellowship.
“Although running speed decreases with advanced age for both men and women, the sex difference increases with age,” Hunter says. “Physiologically, the sex difference should be similar among older adults because men and women seem to age similarly in those factors that limit endurance performance.”
The results show that there is greater discrepancy, or distribution in finish times, of the top female marathon runners than male marathon runners, as well as lower-placing female and male runners, even with physiological factors taken into account. Hunter and Stevens conclude that the gap in competiveness is directly related to smaller numbers of female runners and fewer opportunities historically for female runners to compete in marathons.
“Women were first permitted to participate in the Marathon World Championships in 1983 and the Olympic marathon in 1984,” Hunter notes. “Because of the more recent history of women’s participation in the marathon, older women today have not historically been exposed to the same competitive running opportunities as young women, especially before Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972.”
While the focus of the results is on sex differences in performance, Hunter sees a broader implication for women’s health.
“The data reminds us that women are still widely reported to be less physically active than men across all age groups,” Hunter writes in the article. “Although women have opportunities to participate, there are still forces at work that translate into less active women in society, even still among young women.” Women’s health is potentially being compromised because women do not seem to experience the same protective benefits of exercise, she says.