The improvement in female running world records has increased faster than males between 1950 until the current time. This increased rate in performance begs the question as to whether or not the performance gap that exists between genders can be closed in years to come???
There has been talk that women will run faster than men, particularly over longer endurance based events. However, this prediction appears to be inaccurate! Recent and more relevant findings show that endurance running world records are nearing their limit and consequently the gender difference of 8-14% over distances from 1500-42,000m is unlikely to decrease further. Although these differences appear relatively small, in a review by Cheuvront et al (2005) it is highlighted that the models predict women will only break the 4-minute mile barrier in 2033 if at all, some 80 years after Roger Bannister.
Reasons for differences in endurance performance are related to:
- Differences in body composition & the higher fat content of women are almost certainly related to the performance differences - however even when this is taken into account and data is expressed as lean body mass, differences still exist.
- The critical component is the lower VO2 max (maximum oxygen uptake) observed in females – most probably arising from a lower haemoglobin content. VO2 max is thought to be the gold standard measure of cardio-respiratory fitness, with a large VO2 max being a pre-requisite for endurance athletes. Vo2 max is largely genetically determined, however it can be enhanced via training. For men (18-25) VO2 max values of 40-45 ml/kg/min are common, whilst in women values around 35-40ml/kg/min are more apparent. Cross-country skiers tend to have superhuman VO2 values of anything between 80-95 ml/kg/min being recorded!
Sprinting too shows no indication that women can beat men! The current women’s 100m record stands at 10.48s compared to Usain Bolt’s lightning quick 9.78s (apologies for the awful pun).
Reasons for differences in sprinting performance are related to:
- The principle difference in sprint performance is due to differences in muscle cross sectional area which is almost certainly due to the anabolic effect of testosterone.
- Males also have a greater percentage area occupied by type 11 fibres and this is likely to contribute to the greater ground forces exerted by men. Fibre type is largely genetically determined. Type 11 fibres are known as fast-twitch fibres, more suited to power and sprint type events, due to the fast rate of power generation. Type 1 fibres are known as slow-twitch fibres and are more suited to endurance events, due to their high aerobic capacity. As the difference in fibre composition is largely due to fibre size and not number, it is unclear if sprint and strength-trained women would still show larger Type 1 fibres if compared to endurance-trained men. It is more likely that there is a continuum of fibre size reflecting the dominant usage.
An interesting yet controversial point:
It would appear evident that due to physiological differences between genders women will not ‘close the gap’ that exists. Men remain bigger, taller, stronger, faster and more powerful. However, Cheuvront et al (2005) speculate as to the future and propose that there still potentially remains one way in which women could reduce the performance gap and that is through the recent IOC medical commission recommendation which will allow athletes undergoing sexual re-assignment surgery to compete in their reassigned sex category whether re-assigned after or before puberty. The implication being that if the surgery occurs after puberty then these athletes could still have a significant advantage (i.e. more lean mass). Whether this inclusive policy is abused will be known only in the future!!! (athletes are extremely driven people, often putting their chosen disciplines before their health, will they go to the extremes of undergoing sexual re-assignment therapy in order to be at the top?)
The Female Athlete (2009). The Olympic Textbook of Science and Sport, The Encyclopaedia of Sports Medicine An IOC Medical Commission Publication. Chapter 23 382 -397 Wiley- Blackwell , Chichester, UK
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