Difference in Endurance Training
gender differences in exercise and sport may provoke debate on the
issue of sexism but this is far from the intention of this article.
Here, I evaluate the scientific and biological differences between men
and women looking at how their bodies may be individually suited to
different training styles which can be fruitful knowledge for anyone
looking to further their performance.
Far gone are the days when women were seen as the weaker sex, now
female athletes are among the top performers in all sports and iconic
in their own right. However, there are many differences between men and
women which result in differing race times in many sports, take the
marathon for example where the current world record for men is 2.06 and
for women it is 2.21. However, let us not forget that
although most focus favours men there are many areas where women may be
seen to have an advantage.
The science bit
When comparing the physiological differences between men and women
there are three main performance areas that we can evaluate; maximum
oxygen consumption, lactate threshold and efficiency.
Maximum oxygen consumption
Generally between men and women there is a shocking 43% difference in
maximum oxygen consumption! This is mainly due to the reason that men
are bigger on average than females. Maximum oxygen consumptions are
represented by a person’s VO2 max and this is the maximal
oxygen uptake or the maximum volume of oxygen that can be utilized in
one minute during maximal or exhaustive exercise. It is measured as
millilitres of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight.
Additionally, women generally have lower blood haemoglobin content than
men (up to 10% lower!) which make the amount of oxygen a woman can pump
round in her blood lower. There is also evidence that women’s
hearts are smaller in size, again another limiting factor adding to the
considerable evidence in favour of being a man when it comes to
endurance in exercise.
It is worthy to note that these measures are for the
‘average’ man and woman and there are indeed many
women out there who have VO2 maxes which would measure against many
men’s but in general we can see the difference.
Another measure of endurance is the lactate threshold. It measures the
intensity at which lactic acid builds up in the blood stream at levels
above baseline values. So do men have better lactate thresholds than
Generally the answer is NO. When it comes down to skeletal muscles of
men and women there is hardly any difference. The fibre distribution is
no different and women and men seem to respond similarly when
exercising in this regard.
When it comes to ultra-endurance events such as marathons and ultra
marathons this then would suggest that in reference to lactate
thresholds men and women are on the same competitive level especially
as at this level both genders have pushed themselves to their highest
slow twitch fibre levels.
Efficiency can be an ambiguous measure, as it really depends on the
sport in question. Differing research has found women to be more, less
and equally efficient compared to men! When we talk about running, the
efficiency differences between men and women can be minimal as here
they are more a product of an individual’s running efficiency
regardless of their gender. This leaves the debate to focus on other
sports where body shape, body mass and anthropometric differences are
Interestingly, in sports such as running and cycling body shapes of
women would be more advantageous with narrower upper bodies meaning
less wind drag however in other sports such as football and swimming
the gender advantage may reverse.
When we talk about muscle strength and power it is obvious that men
would be assumed to have an advantage. In sports classified as
‘power-endurance events’ such as weight lifting,
men may be able to perform better, where on average upper body
strengths between men and women show a 40-50% difference.
This is generally down to men having a greater upper body MASS.
Interestingly when it comes to muscle quality, there is no difference
between men and women. So it is issue of QUANTITY not QUALITY!
So in conclusion to these three main physiological areas it can be seen
that the only consistent area where woman may have a disadvantage to
men is in maximum oxygen consumption. Even after accounting for factors
such as bodyweight, body fat percentage the gap still remains roughly
Psychological difference between men and women
First, let’s say THESE ARE GENERALISATIONS! As a woman myself
I would be the first in line to defend myself and any other athletic
woman, praising our ability to push harder, focus on the goal of our
training and therefore succeed but there are a few issues that need to
be raised ( even if only for argument’s sake!)
Generally men like to monitor their progress when it comes to training.
They are the ones calculating, comparing and evaluating their numbers
and performance whereas (apparently) us women are more inclined to
distraction with a book, magazine or the trusty iPod.
The other issue to be raised is emotional state. Men seem to have the
general ability to focus in on their training unemotionally and
therefore are less affected by outside influences on their training
performance whereas women are more inclined to let emotional matters
affect their performance. However this may not always be a bad thing!
When we are in a positive mood, this may lead to longer training and
higher endurance where our male counterparts may have just stopped
because that’s what their calculations have told them to do.
Competition - another psychological difference between men and
women. Again a generalisation but men seem to perform better
in terms of competition than women. When it comes to competitive
training situations men are relatively good and like training to
compete, thriving on the aggression and testosterone that this builds
up and yes I hear all you women cry ‘oh how very caveman
like!’. When it comes to women, we prefer to train
in non competitive groups, such as with a training partner or friend
hence the popularity of ‘classes’ amongst
women. This fellowship is seen to be more suiting to women where we
enjoy the company and this then leads us to train harder for longer.
In conclusion to the psychological determinants of training it would
seem that both men and women have conditions which favour one more than
the other. It is unfair to say men are better prepared mentally for
endurance and perseverance in training than women just as it is unfair
to say that men would not be able to train as effectively in a non
competitive group situation. Here I think the argument boils down to
‘each to their own’ and the fact that when it comes
to training and performance it is a matter of finding what suits YOU
regardless. If you train better reading your favourite novel, by
calculating each repetition or chatting with a friend then go for it!
In summary, it can be seen that the gender debate for some will rage
on, trying to for once and for all decipher who really is the supreme
sex when it comes to endurance performance and training. Yes, I will
give you that when it boils down solely to maximum oxygen consumption
men do indeed have a distinct advantage but this is definitely only one
measure and more than this - it is an average. Anyone who trains
regularly and trains hard knows that pushing yourself is not usually a
matter of physical boundaries but MENTAL BOUNDARIES. It is about
finding out how much we can take mentally, how much we can endure
psychologically. After all, 30% of training is physical and 70% is
Therefore I will leave this article with this final quote to ponder on:
‘The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets
painful is the man who will win’
- Sir Roger Banister, the first athlete to run the mile in less than
Carter who is a fully trained fitness and life coach. Visit
website at http://www.cartercoaching.co.uk
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