Tag Archives: running

Women in Endurance Athletics: The Further, the Faster

In the majority of athletic events, men have long outperformed women. This is due to a combination of factors including physiological differences, societal norms, and legislation. But in the last few decades, there has been a noticeable swing in the realm of endurance athletics. Now more than ever, women are closing the gap with respect to their male counterparts in ultra-long distance races, including running, biking and swimming. In some cases, women are even outperforming men at the elite level, winning a number of top-tier events. So what are the reasons for this changing of the guard, and why is it happening now?

A woman fights up a steep hill in a mountain biking raceImage courtesy of Pixabay

One of the major reasons for this transition in endurance athletics performance boils down to athletics becoming more inclusive. Since the passing of Title IX in 1972, the number of women participating in a wide array of athletics has increased dramatically. Before Title IX, only about 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, whereas now that number has climbed to around 3.3 million annually. Many experts believe that about a third of the difference in performance between male and female athletes can be attributed to the door opening for more women to compete. But why does this effect endurance athletics the most?

In endurance athletics, there are five major factors that contribute to an athlete’s performance: heart size, VO2 max (the efficiency of oxygen delivery to muscle), lean muscle mass, central drive, and movement economy. Men are typically better suited than women when it comes to the first three. But central drive, or how well the nervous system can send continued signals to maintain muscle performance over time, and movement economy, or efficiency of form, allow women to close the gap. These two factors can be improved through practice with monumental results. In ultra-long-distance swimming, where efficient body control is perhaps most critical to building speed and saving energy, women perform better than men in two out of the three most elite races in the world.

Woman swimming in open water
Image courtesy of Free-Photos on Pixabay

There are a number of other physiological advantages for women at long distances. Women’s muscles tend to be smaller than men’s, but over long distances this means that they do not tire as quickly since their hearts do not have to work as hard to pump as much blood. Women have been found to recover faster than men, utilize fat stores for energy more efficiently than men, and hold a consistent pace nearly 20% better than men. All of these things add up over the length of high endurance races of all kinds, allowing women to perform better compared to men than they do at shorter distances.

There are still many factors in this area of biomechanics research which are unsure, but one thing is sure. As more women continue to participate in athletics and especially high endurance athletics, there is no telling the limit to how fast and how far they may go.


More information can be found at Outside Online and Active


Do Running Injuries Depend on the Running Surface?

Photo by MabelAmber on Pixabay

Imagine that you are on your typical route for a morning run when you decide to change things up. Instead of following the path of the sidewalk like usual, you take a shortcut across the soft grass and run alongside the concrete for awhile. No big deal, right?

Although this change in running surface may not seem to be a big deal, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than runners are consciously aware of. As you step from the firm concrete to the soft soil, your body automatically adjusts its stride to accommodate the change and you hardly notice the difference. Specifically, your legs calibrate their angle relative to the ground and tension in the quadriceps before taking a step onto a new surface to maintain balance and speed as you run.

Image of a person running with one leg modeled as a spring
Modified image by Kulmala et al. in Scientific Reports from nature.com

In a study performed by Daniel Ferris et al., researchers examined the mechanics of surface-dependent running. Participants ran at a constant speed across a track with both a rigid and a compliant surface, and the force of the leg, time of foot-to-ground contact, and angle of the leg at initial ground contact  were measured for each trial. The resulting data were then analyzed by modeling the legs of the runners as simple springs (left). The research concluded that runners quickly and instinctively adapt the stiffness of their legs in response to changes in surface elasticity. This allows runners to keep a constant running speed without wasting energy due to excessive vertical motion of the torso as the body adjusts to the new surface.

Leg modeled as springs moving from one running surface to another
Image by Ferris, et al. in Journal of Biomechanics

Without this intrinsic adaptation of leg stiffness, runners would have to drastically change their strides to remain upright as they ran from surface to surface (right, with stiffness denoted as kleg). In fact, leg stiffness decreases when you run on rigid surfaces and increases when you run on springy surfaces. In short, the stiffness of your legs compensates for the firmness of the ground you are running on.

So how does leg stiffness translate to injuries and injury prevention?

First of all, it is important to note that injuries to muscles and ligaments have different causes and symptoms than injuries to the bone. Knowing this, experts suggest preventative measures specific to the type of injury. For example, one article claims that high leg stiffness while running corresponds to a higher risk of bone injuries. As a result, we can use the information above to deduce that the best way to prevent stress fractures is to run on hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt in shoes with little cushioning. Conversely, low leg stiffness corresponds to a higher risk of muscle and ligament injuries and the best way to prevent these injuries is to run on dirt, grass, or a track in padded shoes. The video below explains this correlation in further detail.

See also padded shoes paradox and leg stiffness and running performance for further reading.