Thirsty (for knowledge) Thursday: Why Women Did Better at the 2018 Boston Marathon

>> Thursday, April 26, 2018

There was an interesting opinion article published by the NY Times about why women did better than men at this year's Boston Marathon. It's not all based in science (although a good chunk of it is backed up with data), but it's still an interesting read.

The author, Lindsay Crouse, has ran 10 marathons, with her best time being just over 3 hours. She wrote about this the horrible conditions at Boston earlier this month, and wrote:

... In good weather, men typically drop out of this race at lower rates than women do, but this year, women fared better. Why, in these terrible conditions, were women so much better at enduring?

She noted times were slow this year (obviously), and that the mid-race dropout rate was up 50% from the year before.

But finishing rates varied significantly by gender. For men, the dropout rate was up almost 80 percent from 2017; for women, it was up only about 12 percent. Overall, 5 percent of men dropped out, versus just 3.8 percent of women. The trend was true at the elite level, too.

Crouse noted running Boston twice herself (including 2013 - the year of the bombing) and noted having the THOUGHT to drop out, but never has.

This marathon made me wonder if gender might play a role. You can find a whole range of theories on why women out-endured men in Boston — body fat composition, decision-making tendencies, pain tolerance, even childbirth — but none offers a perfect answer.

One theory is that women handle cold weather better because their bodies naturally have more fat. In general, it’s true that the essential body fat level — one you can’t medically dip beneath — hovers around 3 percent for men and 12 percent for women (when it comes to racing, breasts aren’t exactly performance-enhancing, but they’re still usually part of the deal). And the insulating subcutaneous fat layer under the skin is twice as thick in women as in men.But at the same race in 2012, on an unusually hot 86-degree day, women also finished at higher rates than men, the only other occasion between 2012 and 2018 when they did. So are women somehow better able to withstand extreme conditions?

That answer could involve psychology. Endurance may feel objective, but your ability to keep going — even if it means slowing down — is often ultimately up to you.

Crouse interviewed Alex Hutchinson, the author of "Endure," who told her that when you reach a point where you think you can not go any farther, that "it feels physical, like an immutable limit. But your physical limits are actually mediated by your brain. In most instances, dropping out is a decision."

The decision process might connect to the perception, or tolerance, of pain. Here’s a potential, if contentious, factor: Childbirth is by most accounts excruciating, and because women’s athletic and fertility peaks are close or overlap, a lot of the female marathoners who race Boston have also given birth.

I've heard arguments like this before. I read something years ago about how women were finishing closer to men in long distance ultra marathons, and that many people [experts? I don't remember] attributed it the physiology of women being "made" for the long battle of childbirth.

Differences could also lie in other decision-making traits. For example, women are known to pace themselves better than men, an advantage in any context but especially helpful in the cold, when a large shift in pace could affect one’s ability to regulate body temperature.

“Men tend to start races more aggressively and take a higher risk approach, so they’re more likely to blow up in the second half,” Hutchinson said.

Steve Magness, an elite distance running coach, noticed this trend too: "Among the athletes I’ve coached, I think I’ve had more women where when it’s bad, they can blow up but they’ll still finish the race, whereas men drop out. Women generally seem better able to adjust their goals in the moment, whereas men will see their race as more black or white, succeed or fail, and if it’s fail, why keep going?"

Crouse wraps it up with this:

Of course, the people who run Boston are a self-selecting group. Women are often discouraged from being athletic and competitive, so the female runners who made it to Boston had already overcome more social obstacles than men. They may simply be tougher, and this was a year when toughness worked.

So the simplest explanation is not based on gender at all. This Boston Marathon was ideal for people who thrive in adversity. Top spots for men and women went to amateur runners who juggle training in non-ideal circumstances around work and family.

As a parent of young kids who trains when he can, I like that last thought. :)

For more "Thirsty Thursday" posts that highlight workouts, body science, and all kinds of interesting information, CLICK HERE. As always, back with some "Friday Funnies" tomorrow.


Jumper 2.0 2:52 PM, April 26, 2018  

Not much science or data here really.

The women handling the cold better than men is funny in the context of any work environment that I’ve been a part of and how women complain about the cold so much. And this is a common joke in meme and video land. Having said that, I do realize that my experience doesn’t mean reality for everybody.

When it comes down to it, if these arguments are going to be used, you also have to ask.

1) Ok, this happened in Boston, was it the same for other colder than normal races?
2) What about women that haven’t experienced childbirth or who aren’t going to? Are they “less” of a woman?, Are they less tough?
3) The woman’s body goes through hormonal changes to help prepare the body for childbirth. I haven’t heard of that possibility for endurance events. Is there any theories to why this would help with endurance events? Has anybody looked any further into that?
4) Are women really known to pace themselves better? This can easily be backed up due to timing throughout races! Or is this just some sort of observational bias not rooted in reality? Don’t get me wrong, maybe it is true.

My bias is that women are tougher in many ways that appear to reflect in endurance events. My bias is also that they may make better decisions. But, my bias could completely be wrong. Though, if it is, I doubt that it’s that they’re less tough or make poorer decisions. It’s likely to be more individual.

In summary, are these observations shared in this article about the Boston Marathon a form of sexism? The belief that all members of a sex possess certain characteristics or abilities specific to that sex whether to distinguish it as inferior or superior is still practicing an ~ism. Right? I can twist it now. Oh, well, women only did better because it was colder, if it was hot they would’ve done worse (insert whatever sexist reason here). Or only child birthing women are tougher (or real women) because you know, they know excruciating pain.

TriNorthMN 8:53 PM, April 26, 2018  

Or it could be because there are fewer pro women and they knew a finish at a slower time was still a paycheck. With the higher quantity of male pros, they knew they were out of the money and decided to stop so they could race again sooner in conditions better suited to them. Finish the race out of the money and they wouldn't be capable of running another marathon nearly as soon if they wanted to be competitive..

Steve Stenzel 2:16 PM, May 03, 2018  

Jumper: first, the 5th word in the post is "opinion" as I noted it was an opinion article. So it won't all be hard and fast science. It's an "opinion" article in the "sports" section of an online newspaper. Not science in a published scholarly journal.

However, one of the links from the NY Times article is for a journal article about women pacing themselves better than men. That is from a scientific journal article: It's not just someone saying it's so.

The dropout rates from this year and previous years were hard and fast numbers.

The fact that women have more body fat is a fact. There's a link to that in the article too.

The points about childbirth aren't ONLY for women who've given birth; it's noting that women are physiologically different than men and that women may have more of these attributes because they are the sex that gives birth. Women's pelvises are differently shaped than men whether they've given birth or not. That's not sexist, that's just how they're made. This author is running with a common argument that women may be "made" for more endurance as well, possibly based on being the child-birthing sex.

That last point about childbirth is possibly the only "iffy" question, but the rest were backed up with hard and fast numbers in the article. So I'm not really seeing the sexism piece here.

We all have biases as you mention, but the bottom line is that this is an opinion piece backed up with facts in all but maybe one of the arguments. And that argument has been argued for years, so it's not a new one.

Steve Stenzel 2:22 PM, May 03, 2018  

TriNorthMN, the numbers cited were for the general field, not the pros:

"For men, the dropout rate was up almost 80 percent from 2017; for women, it was up only about 12 percent. Overall, 5 percent of men dropped out, versus just 3.8 percent of women. The trend was true at the elite level, too."

That could help explain the few elites that dropped, but not everyone else.

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