Women are unlikely to catch men in the marathon

Posted by Dave on June 30, 2011 | 9 Comments

Someone recently pointed to me to this misleadingly-headlined article which revisited the 1980s speculation that women might eventually prove to be faster than men at marathons.

The headline (“Catch her if you can”) and photo caption (“Do women have a secret weapon when it comes to jogging speed?”) seem to suggest that the premise has some factual basis. The rest of the article strongly argues that it does not. While I like catchy headlines as much as the next guy, to my mind this article went a bit too far: It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the fastest women can beat the fastest men in the marathon. Take a look at this graph and you’ll see what I’m talking about:

In the mid 1980s, when Joan Benoit and Grete Waitz were knocking minutes off the women’s record, it was tempting to think that women might eventually surpass men. But this was probably just an example of women finally reaching their potential after being virtually banned from the sport up through the 1960s. There wasn’t even a women’s marathon in the Olympics until Benoit memorably crushed the field in 1984.

Since 1985, the women’s record has continued to improve, but at a much slower rate—less than 6 minutes were knocked off the record by 2003, compared to over 45 minutes in the same period prior to 1985. Meanwhile, the men’s record has continued to improve as well (albeit at a slower rate than the women).

The rapid series of records in the early 2000s by Catherine Ndereba and Paula Radcliffe might also suggest that women are catching up to men, but even in 2003, women were over 10 minutes behind men, and the women’s record hasn’t improved since then.

Personally I admire the amazing athleticism of women marathoners but I think it’s a bit pointless to compare women’s performances to those of men. The best women runners are better than 99 percent of men, but there are so many physical differences between the sexes that you might as well conduct a race between different species of animals.

I think the recent trend of starting the elite women runners before the men in races like Boston and New York is a great way to highlight women’s racing. This means the women leaders really race each other, instead of getting lost in a sea of above-average male recreational runners. I also think women-only races are great for the sport, allowing all participants to share in the experience of running among equal colleagues.

Just as we have separate competitions for men and women in sports ranging from soccer to basketball to billiards, it often makes sense for elite men and women to compete separately.


9 Responses to “Women are unlikely to catch men in the marathon”

  1. Matt
    July 1st, 2011 @ 2:18 pm

    While I understand the point of this article, I take issue with one sentence: “This means the women leaders really race each other, instead of getting lost in a sea of above-average male recreational runners.” Elite male runners, yes. But “above-average male recreational runners”? That’s harsh. How are you defining “recreational”? I doubt even above-average recreational runners can beat someone like Shalane Flanagan.

  2. Dave
    July 1st, 2011 @ 2:44 pm

    Good point, Matt. Though I’d say what constitutes an “elite” versus “recreational” runner depends on the context. At last year’s Thunder Road Marathon, the big race in my area, the male winner ran a 2:24:56—he’s definitely one of our local elite.

    But that would put him well back in the pack at Boston or New York; he wouldn’t qualify for elite status. Yet he’d be very close to the top women in those races: the Boston winner ran a 2:22:36, and the New York winning time was 2:28:20.

    Update: It looks like the New York Marathon has a “sub-elite” status; maybe that’s a closer equivalent to the elite women?

  3. Adrian
    July 1st, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    There have been races where there overall winner was a woman. For example, Pam Reed was the overall winner of the infamous Badwater Ultra in 2002 and 2003. This could be due to the greater role of luck at ultra distances or fewer competitors of course.

    Before we go off saying women are like another species, it would be nice to rule out some more prosaic explanations. Many of the top men are from African countries which still have very regressive views towards women. Even though things have improved since the 50s the fields may still not be level.

    Looking at the graph of the marathon times for women over the last decade, it looks like women are now where men were in the 50s and 60s. It’s not obvious yet that today’s gap must be biological. If I were to put money down, I’d bet that the gap will narrow further and may well converge.

  4. Dave
    July 1st, 2011 @ 3:53 pm

    Good points, Adrian. You’re right, women have been overall winners in lots of races. This is more common at ultrarunning events, but the winner of this year’s Myrtle Beach marathon was also a woman.

    However, in world-class marathoning, the gap is much wider. There are hundreds of men who can run a 2:20 marathon, but that pace has only been exceeded a few times by women.

    No woman has ever run a 2:15 marathon, but men have run races 2:10:30 or faster over 1,800 times.

    But as you say, it may well be too early to tell; what’s clear is that if women are ever to regularly best men in marathons, it’s going to take much longer than it seemed like it might in 1985.

  5. Tzctscie
    July 1st, 2011 @ 4:19 pm


    Great opinion.

    Where is the science?

  6. Dave
    July 1st, 2011 @ 4:42 pm

    Hi Tzctscie. Agreed, this is a “lighter” article, but it’s based on a discussion touched off by a publication in Nature (though I couldn’t find an article in the 1980s, as the article I linked suggested. Maybe this one?)

  7. Matt H
    July 4th, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    While women may not ever beat the best men in the marathon, it is interesting to note that women are closer to men in long distance races than in middle distance races. Surprisingly, when comparing sprinting to middle distance there is no difference in the gender gap.

    lets take the 100 kilometer race for example. The mens’ world record is 6:13 (5:59 per mile) and the woman’s world record is 6:33 (6:17 per mile). So this means that the men take a bit more than 95% of the time the women do to finish the race. If you look at this percentage across all distances (no hurdles) we see a trend

    100k, 6.226 hours/6.553 hours = 95.0%
    marathon, 2.078 hours /2.257 hours = 92.1%
    10k, 26.29 min/29.53 min = 89.0%.
    5k, 12.622 min/14.186 min = 89.0%
    1500m, 3.433 min/3.841 min = 89.4%
    800m, 1.6835 min/1.888 min = 89.2%
    400m, 43.18s/47.6s = 90.7%
    200m, 19.19s/21.34s = 89.9%
    100m, 9.58/10.49 = 91.3%

    In the 100m – 10k, men consistently take 90% of the time it takes women to complete the distance. However from the marathon – 100k (about 62 miles) women are much closer to their male counterparts.

    Will the best woman ever beat the best man in a marathon? I doubt it, but it is more likely to occur in the marathon or ultra-marathon than it is in shorter distances. Note that I used the world records from each gender, it is well known that there are less female elite runners than male elite runners in all events, so it would be less accurate to compare the depth of the two genders.

  8. Dave
    July 4th, 2011 @ 5:55 pm

    Interesting analysis, Matt. It does indeed seem likely that women might offer men the greatest challenge in ultra runs. I did notice that there was also a trend towards improved performance relative to men at the shorter end of the scale (91.3% at 100 meters versus 89% at 5K). So I took a look at the records for the less-heralded 60 meter distance and came up with this:

    60m, 6.39/6.92 = 92.3%

    So perhaps women are also better suited to very short distances. Maybe if we had even shorter races, we’d see a yet-smaller difference between mens’ and womens’ times.

  9. Matt H
    July 5th, 2011 @ 10:38 pm

    Yeah, I noticed that about the 100 as well. I think the difference may be that in really short races reaction times are more important. I assume that the reaction time for men and women are going to be the same. In a 60m dash the reaction time is between 3-5% of the race. This does not explain the full difference though, so I think there may be something more to this trend than reaction time (as it would add only about 0.3% to the percentage in the 100m).

    The other possibility is that speed builds on speed in the shorter races. Basically acceleration is the derivative of velocity. So if your acceleration is proportional to how fast you are going in a short sprint (until you reach a max speed) then velocity is an exponential function in time (until max speed is reached). This means small differences in acceleration don’t manifest themselves fully early on in the race. This is why everyone looks so close together in the first 20m of a sprint (minus the differences in reaction time). The same would be true for a man vs. a woman. So you would expect the woman to do better in the 60m and 100m than the 200m in relation to the man. If that made any sense.