Women Pace Marathons Better Than Men

Gretchen Reynolds, a New York Times health blogger, summarizes a study of thousands of marathon runners. Abbreviated version:

• The researchers wound up with information about 91,929 marathon participants, almost 42 percent of them women. The data covered all adult age groups and a wide range of finishing times.

• They compared each runner’s time at the midpoint of his or her race with his or her time at the finish, a simple method of broadly determining pace. As it turned out, men slowed significantly more than women racers did. In aggregate, men covered the second half of the marathon almost 16 percent slower than they ran the first half. Women as a group were about 12 percent slower in the second half. Burrowing deeper into the data, the scientists categorized runners as having slowed markedly if their second-half times were at least 30 percent slower than their first-half splits. Far more men than women fell into the markedly slower category, with about 14 percent of the male finishers qualifying versus 5 percent of the women.

• This disparity in race pacing held true in all age groups and finishing times, the researchers found, even among the fastest runners. The difference, however, was most pronounced at the back of the pack. There, female runners were much more likely than men to steadily maintain the same, less hurried pace throughout.

• Using this data to adjust for marathon experience, the researchers found that men, however many marathons they had completed, were still more likely than equally experienced women to slow during the second half of a race.

• The study was not designed to determine why men more frequently fade during marathons. But the reasons are likely to be physiological and psychological said . . . the senior author of the study. “We know that at any given exercise intensity, men will burn a greater percentage of carbohydrates for fuel than women, and women will use more fat. Our bodies, male and female, contain considerably more fat than stored carbohydrates. So men typically run out of fuel and bonk or hit the wall earlier than women do.”

The study’s senior author also found that men are more prone psychologically to adopt a “risky strategy” in their early pacing. “They start out fast and just hope they can hold on,” she says. She points out that strategy can sometimes pay off in a swifter finishing time. “It’s not necessarily a bad thing to push yourself at the start of a marathon,” she says, “if you have not catastrophically overestimated your capabilities. And Hunter notes, “An evenly paced race is not a well-paced one, if you run slower than you were capable of running.”

Reynolds, the Times blogger concludes, “The message of the study, then, would seem to be that an approach to marathon pacing that borrows something from men and women might be ideal. Maybe go a bit harder than you think you can in training, aiming to calibrate what your actual fastest sustainable pace is. Then stick with it during the event, even if your training partners tear away like rabbits at the start. You’ll reel them in.”

Unless there’s a large percentage of women with “gas in the tank” at the end of marathons, which I highly doubt, this conclusion strikes me as odd. As the study’s authors acknowledge in the larger post, evenly paced marathons are almost always faster than uneven ones; therefore, it’s logical to conclude that women marathoners, on average, are tapping more of their potential on race day relative to men.

And why are men running out of fuel and bonking earlier then women? It doesn’t matter that men “burn a greater percentage of carbohydrates for fuel” when every race provides ample fluid and carbs every few miles. Why don’t men do a better job replacing what they’re burning? Are women more intentional then men about integrating race simulation long runs in their training? Are men more prone to winging pacing and nutrition on race day?

Even if the study wasn’t designed to address why men are more prone to run too fast too early, I have a theory. I used to run with a friend who routinely sped up whenever we came upon a female runner or two on our wooded trails. He wasn’t conscious of this quirk. That experience, plus two decades of watching mostly male marathoners start out way too fast, makes me think male runners’ egos get the best of them.

When passed by older runners, heavy runners, really young runners, or heaven for bid, female runners, the self conscious male runner is prone to pick up his pace, with disastrous results an hour or two later.

Knowing this, I always strive to run my own race based upon the quality of my pre-race training. Consequently, when you pass me at a future race, I will wish you well.

Postscript—during today’s 5.5 miler, I realized my playlist needs some tweaking. Which of these doesn’t fit?

Bonus vid for making it to the finish line.

2011 Seattle Half Marathon by the Numbers

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 .1
7:07 7:05 7:06 7:34 7:04 7:11 7:34 6:51 7:00 7:02 6:55 6:54 :43
7:24 14:31 21:36 28:42 36:16 43:20 50:31 58:05 1:04.56 1:11.56 1:18.52 1:25.53 1:32.47 1:33.30

52     degrees

6       ounces of Tillamook Vanilla Bean yogurt consumed pre-race

5       times I’ve been faster

136   seconds behind 2009 time

4       pieces of pumpkin and apple pie consumed in preceding days

3       pounds gained in preceding days

1       woman who changed out out of wet top next to me post race, posthaste

Sports Report

• USC is reportedly paying Kiffin $4m/year. Not sure whether that’s $750k a win or $1m.

• Another brilliant essay by the best sportswriter at work today. I’d like to think I coulda’ been a decent sportswriter, but I would hate to have to go mano y mano with this guy.

• Ran a half marathon Domingo with Dano, Katie, and Annie. Another beautiful morning in Paradise. I ran well and I’m supposed to credit Lance with an assist. I left the house on the mountain bike without any gel (liquid carbos). Lance and cutest daughter in the world rode by on mountain bikes, got comfortably ahead, and handed off one of their gels. Shortly afterwards, I started mowing down people. But since Lance said “Thank you though for showing me that I have at least 8 years of physical fitness left” as if I’m about to keel over, I don’t think I’ll give him the credit he otherwise deserves. He is going to tear up the mountain bike course on the Sky to Sea race in B’ham in a week and a half.

• A few questions which will only make sense if you read Simmon’s essay. What’s your “one word”, not as a baller, but as a person? Is that the word you’d use to describe yourself, the word others would use to describe you, or would the one word be the same for both? In other words, is their congruence between your self perception and other’s perceptions of you? For myself, I’m undecided between “deluded” and “balanced”.

• 1,095 peeps ran the Capital City Half Marathon. 391 M’s (36%) and 704 F’s (64%). Hypotheses?

Nearing the Finish, Pretty Dog Tired

Right After Finishing

Week that Was—11/23-11/29

Tapered for Sunday’s half marathon.

One swim, 3,000m.

First zero for cycling since I can remember in a long, long time.

Ran M, W, Th, 6.7, 6.4, 4.8. A few faster than normal miles thrown in.

Seattle Half Marathon. Perfect conditions, overcast (duh), high 40’s, breezy. New personal record by nine whole seconds. 1:31:14. Very honest effort. Unfortunately, forgot the Garmin. I remember the following splits. 1, 6:52; 2, 6:54; 4, 27:29; 8, 55:34; 10, 1:09:34 (new p.r. too). Went out faster than normal and hung on decently. Despite the hills, I think I ran every mile between 6:52 and probably about 7:05. Not bad considering I probably can’t break 6:15-6:20 for one mile. Lost the 1:30 pace setter on the down hills. I’ve asked Lance to teach me how to run downhill but he just yammers something about “proprietary knowledge” and “competitive advantage”.

GalPal said she can’t get over some of the people who finish in front of me. “What 300 pound women?!” “No, not quite, but not people who I would guess are faster than you.”

Positive morning completely overshadowed by incredibly tragic shooting of the Lakewood Police Officers. I drive by that coffee shop several times a week.

Start and Finish

Recovery nectar

Recovery Nectar

Seattle Half Marathon Report

At 7:20 a.m. on Sunday, November 30th D and I found ourselves in a serious traffic jam on the sidewalk in front of the Experience Music Project in downtown Seattle. D ran professionally for nine years beginning in the late 70’s. 2:11 marathon; 4th in the Olympic Trials; 4th in the Boston Marathon, first American. Blew his knee out skiing a decade ago and has built it back through cycling. Now that he’s able to run 25/30 pain free miles a week, he thought he’d give the half a go.

I take responsibility for screwing up pre-race. We should have approached the start from the back instead of the front. Long story short, after hoping a few barricades, it took us 54 seconds to get to the start and then we had to slowly weave our way down 5th street. In a way it was kinda funny, D has gone from Wide World of Sports to mixin’ it up with the masses and the 1:45 Half Marathon pacer.

D ran a 1:26:36 which translates to a 1:25:42  and I ran a 1:34:42 or 1:33:48. I didn’t realize D and I were in the same age group until after the race or I would have taken him. I could have easily tripped him from behind on 5th street. I’m used to D dropping me on the bike. Now I have to get used to him running away from me. Some summer day at the lake I’ll be getting T ready for an Ironperson. D will be kickin’ it on a raft and I’ll say let’s go running and cycling boy. And then T and I will swim farther and farther away from him, and then we’ll accelerate, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll have a little more compassion for us mortals, bah, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Knowing beforehand that I’d lose touch with D from the get go, I threw together a “13.1” playlist and iPoded the run for the first time ever. So being a good academic, I should credit all the people who helped me along the way:

• Mile 1, Janet Jackson, That’s the Way Love Goes, “My love is blind can’t you see my desire.” Oh yes Janet, I can see it.

• Mile 2, Jill Scott, Golden, “I’m livin’ my life like it’s golden golden.” Easy for you to say, you’re not running up hill.

• Mile 3, America, Horse with No Name, “The heat was hot. . .” Love that phrase, I’m just not sure what the cold equivalent would be, the chill was cold?

• Mile 4, Elton John, Benny and the Jets, “Oh Benny, she’s really keen. She’s Got electric boots, a mohair suit. . . ” I always thought it was electric boobs. That’s kinda disappointing.

• Mile 5, I Feel For You, Chaka Khan, “Baby, baby, when I look at you I get a warm feeling inside.” I get that a lot.

• Mile 6, Bye Bye Love, The Cars, “You think you’re so illustrious, you call yourself intense.” If I wasn’t intense would I have just drenched my contacts with Gatorade?

• Mile 7, President, Wyclef Jean, “Instead of spending billions on the war, I could use it to feed the poor.” Preach it brother.

• Mile 8, No One, Alicia Keys, “You and me together through the days and nights, I don’t worry because everything is going to be alright.” Wowa Alicia, I think we should take things a little slower.

• Mile 9, I Wish, Skee-Lo, “I wish I was taller, I wish I was a baller, I wish I had girl who looked good, cuz I’d call her.” They just don’t write lyrics like that anymore.

• Mile 10, Serpentine Fire, Earth, Wind, and Fire. “I wanna see your face in the morning sun ignite my energy.” I get that a lot too. 

• Mile 11, Whole Lotta Love, Led Zeppelin, “You need coolin, baby, Im not foolin, Im gonna send you back to schoolin,” As an educator, I thought it was important to have at least one reference to school.

• Mile 12, Country Grammar, Nelly, “I’m goin down down baby yo’ street in a Range Rover, street sweeper baby, cocked ready to let it go, shimmy shimmy cocoa what? Listen to it pound, light it up and take a puff, pass it to me now.” Who knew Nelly smoked cigars? Thanks to L for meeting me at mile 12 and handing me the stogie.

• Mile 13, Lose Yourself, Eminem, “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow. This opportunity comes once in a lifetime yo.” Enuf said.