Running: Women best at setting even marathon pace

Posted: July 22, 2014

If you're looking for another runner to pace you in a marathon, ask a woman. She's more likely to hold an even pace for the entire race than a man, according to two recent studies that looked at race performances.

The first study, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, looked at nonelite runners from 14 U.S. marathons, including the 2011 Philadelphia Marathon. In total, 91,929 people's marathons were included in the study.

They surveyed first-half and second-half times of those runners and found that women were 1.46 times more likely than men to maintain an even-race pace. They also found that 14 percent of men experienced "marked slowing," which researcher Robert O. Deaner, associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University, described as running the second half of the race at least 30 percent slower than the first.

"This kind of slowing probably means the runner was shuffling or walking the last several miles," he said. Only 5 percent of women experienced the same slowing.

Aside from gender, the biggest pace predictor was overall finishing time. "For example, among those finishing in about three hours, the typical amount of slowing was 6.9 percent for men and 5.5 percent for women." For those finishing in about 5 hours, those numbers are 18.8 percent and 14.4 percent, respectively.

A separate study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found much the same: In studying times of nonelite runners who finished in under 5 hours in the 2007 and 2009 Chicago Marathons, where runner times were recorded every five kilometers, women slowed less than men, especially between the 30 kilometer and 40 kilometer marks (a marathon is 42.2 kilometers).

The Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise paper points to a few factors that could make for the difference in gender pacing. Men are more susceptible to muscle glycogen depletion and hyperthermia than women. Women have lower respiratory exchange ratio, which means that we burn more fat and fewer carbohydrates. Women also have more of the types of muscle fibers that are fatigue- resistant than men do.

But Deaner thinks that pacing differences aren't physiological.

"I suspect the biggest reason is that, in most situations, men are more likely to be overconfident and willing to take risks," he said. "In the marathon, that means that men are more likely to start off at a very ambitious pace. An ambitious pace will pay off sometimes with a great performance, but it also makes it more likely that a runner will crash."

Deaner, who has run three marathons, says that the study focused on the nonelite runners for their research because the pros and semipros pace themselves well, and the rest of us have not been studied much at all.

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