Will Women Out Run Men in the Future?

It was once predicted that women in track and field would reach or surpass men’s performance levels. These predictions were made in the early 1980s. The examination of Olympic records demonstrates a different outcome. Women’s Olympic records were stabilizing by 1983. After more drug testing it appeared women were reducing in speed. The use of performance enhancing drugs can not be the sole explanation for the increase in performance. Women at this time were still relative newcomers to international professional sport. Women were again gaining higher times by the 21st century, which sparked interest in possibilities of performance in female runners. While it is true women and increase their speed and strength, does this mean they will out sprint men in the future ? Some exercise physiologists have made predictions based on current data. There are claims that women will outrun men by 2156. Predictions can be wrong and many times unscientific. Stating it would never happen also causes some errors. To discover the answer to this question, it must be approached through methods of biology and physiology.

       There is a point in which athletic performance between men and women is equivalent. Boys and girls are at the same level of aerobic and strength capacity. The skeletons and bone structure has not been changed due to the effects of puberty. Puberty in terms of endocrinological changes works in the advantage of males. Men will gain a significant strength spurt, denser bones, larger lungs, and bigger hearts. The changes in women result in more body fat and the development of a wider pelvis. This means girls on a high school track team would see themselves getting slower. Girls who are on high school track and field teams normally seem to peak athletically as  freshmen and sophomores. This differs for various individuals. Average female runners may struggle more with the hormonal changes, than the more genetically advantaged. It has been noted that girls who have low body fat levels and exercise strenuously  may have delayed puberty. With gymnasts and sprinters this could result in a delayed growth spurt between the ages of 17 and 18. Training has to be adjusted to account for these changes. Weight training that concentrates on the hip areas can help prevent possible injuries. Weight management will have to be incorporated to account for the change in metabolism. Estrogen allows for more fat storage and extra weight does not contribute to increased acceleration.

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Despite these changes there are girls who attain higher speeds in adulthood and even go on to international competition. Although endocrinology explains the change in performance, it should not be forgotten that girls still face obstacles in sport. Title IX may not be enforced in certain school districts as it should. This would mean that girls would not have access to training facilities or even a team of their own. Other countries may keep women out of sport completely. Biology is not the sole factor, but environment. Women were only allowed to run in Olympic event starting in 1928. Men entry in running events in the modern Olympics began in 1900. During that time many argued women simply did not have the strength and stamina to run vigorously. This has since been disproved by exercise physiology. Still the influence of hormones on athletic performance cannot be underestimated.

       The legs of the human body allow for running to be possible. Men and women’s legs differ little  structure and anatomy. They contain the same bones and muscles. While men have more upper body strength, women are closer to men in the lower body. This does not mean women by default have stronger legs than men, rather it is easier for them to build strength in this region of the body. This does not mean women cannot build powerful legs through training. Type II muscle fibers would be best for sprinters who require short bursts of power. Type I muscle fibers are best suited for long distance runners. Men have larger muscle fibers, which means this would useful to the leg muscles. A runner uses a multitude of muscles when running.

 When moving the leg in the forward motion the quadriceps are utilized. This muscle is located at the front of the thigh and is responsible for straitening the knee, while bending the hips. The quadriceps also have the ability to absorb shock from impact as one lands on the ground. The hamstrings will straighten the hips and function to lift the knee behind you. Simultaneously, the soleus and gastrocnemius will flex and extend for each foot during launch and landings. The soleus and gastrocnemius contribute to absorbing shock, but also provide the stride in the rum. The gluteus maximus plays a role in running allowing for the stabilizing the trunk of the body. The hip  flexors and extendors collaborate with the quadriceps and hamstrings to keep the legs in motion.  Runners focus on building leg strength mainly to prevent injuries. When one muscle group is weak than the other this could to one over compensating and poor alignment. This could also result in repetitive motion injuries occurring in the knees, hips, and feet.

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plyometrics can be employed to improve performance. These exercises involve using jumping and bounding. These merely use hopping motions, while alternating legs to exercise deeper muscles of the legs. A muscle when exercised will increase in size. Muscular hypertrophy can occur in women through training, but men see a higher level of gains in total muscle mass. The reason is that higher testosterone levels allow for more protein synthesis. This results in a difference in absolute muscular strength between men and women. This even effects the legs.

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The muscles of the legs include the hamstrings, quadriceps, soleus, gluteus maximus, and gastrocnemius  which are essential for running.

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It is not just muscles that are responsible for strength, but the bones, ligaments, and tendons. The skeletal structure is critical when looking at running speeds. Technically, women can have larger leg muscles,but there are other reasons they may not attain the same speed levels.

        Women have lower bone mass compared to men. One factor that causes that explains women’s slower speeds is the structure of the pelvis. The female pelvis is different from that of men. It is wider for the purpose of childbirth. This also creates a level of risks in running . Women are more likely to have knee ligament injuries, due to a wider pelvis which forms a larger angle between the thigh and the shin bones. This means the knee will experience more pressure. The pelvis consists of the hip bones, sacrum as well as coccyx. It connects the lower limbs to the axial skeleton. The symphsis pubis, which is a disc structure of cartilage separates the left and right pubic bones. The main differences between the female pelvis is that it is lighter, more shallow, and the sacrum is much  shorter. Both ilium are less sloped, which means the anterior superior iliac spines are wider apart. The coccyx is more flexible in the female skeleton. The actual hip sockets are smaller and are directed more so to the front.

These differences do not seem to be advantages in terms of increasing running speed. If women’s pelvis’ were even wider they would not be able to walk. Men’s narrower pelvis contributes to faster speeds. Besides the actual pelvis, the bones of the legs are pivotal. The femur, tibia, and fibula are support structures for the muscles of the legs. The extra angling can make women more vulnerable to anterior cruciate ligament tears. Women just like men can also suffer from overuse of tarsals, metatarsals, and phalanges. Women ‘s looser joints allow for more flexibility, but in running it could pose problems. Muscles and bones are pivotal to running. There is also the importance of aerobic capacity and its relation to the respiratory system.

      Aerobic capacity differs between men and women. The VO2max is the amount of oxygen that is used during exercise. Women have smaller hearts and lungs which means their total aerobic out put would be lower compared to a man of a larger size. The muscles need oxygen to have it form adinosine triphosphate. The larger the heart means more blood pumping through the body, while larger lungs can oxygenate tissues. Realizing these differences in both the heart and respiratory system means women would require a specific training program. Women’s ventricular hypertrophy may not increase as much as a man’s given duration and intensity. Women do have an advantage in terms of pacing. Men may be more susceptible to muscle glycogen depletion, which women’s fat reserves can contribute to endurance exercise. One would assume this means women, may not be able to run any faster. The conclusion would be to design training tailored to these specific physiological and anatomical differences.

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The human heart can pump up to 80ml of blood with each beat.
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The respiratory system consists of both upper and lower tracts. The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that contracts and flattens. The reduction of pressure on the thoracic cavity allows the lungs to expand downward. This will force air out and the lungs go back to regular position.

The heart anatomically and physiologically is the same in men and women. The heart’s structure is that of a muscular pump which is divided by the septum. It is further divided by two pivotal chambers. The upper atrium is the first chamber followed by a lower ventricle in which the blood will be pumped. The Vo2max  capacity is reliant on several factors. The heart’s total capacity to pump blood is essential. The lungs ability to oxygenate blood transported active muscles and other tissues also contributes a role in aerobic capacity. Then hemoglobin levels and the oxygen carrying capacity of the blood effect total aerobic output. Smaller lungs and hearts of women means that oxygen will be slower getting to tissues of the body. An athlete can breath up to sixty times or more per minute. The lungs are cone structured containing a narrow apex and base. There are only two, but the right has three lobes. The left lung has to make room for the heart and only has two lobes in total. The trachea acts as an airway, while the bronchi (left and right), their subdivisions,  and other lung tissues work on gaseous exchange. Besides the muscular system playing a role the cardiovascular and respiratory system are a major part of running performance.

       The anatomical and physiological traits are averages. It is important to this question to examine data of female runners. The samples are limited due to certain factors. The first problem is that women’s participation in sports are lower, which means their could still be women in the global population who would not be counted in data. Then there is the question of performance enhancing drug use. Men account for more of the users of performance enhancing drugs and women have used the same substances as well. The theory holds that women benefited more from performance enhancing drugs. Anabolic androgenic steroids some sports scientists say was the reason certain records were being set in the 1970s and 1980s. That cannot not be the only explanation for these records. It could have been a combination of training and use of performance enhancing drugs. However, if anabolic steroids were so effective women should have closed the difference in performance. The fact is that drugs would not turn an athlete superhuman. Steroids only alter the endocrine system, but will not change the individual at the genetic level.

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Women’s and men’s records as recorded in the 1980s.
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The change in records through the decades.

Testosterone is helpful in muscular hypertrophy, but not the only factor. A woman with a naturally mesomorphic body can develop muscle. A woman on steroids would not have the equivalent strength levels of a male athlete. The reason being is that the testes produce more free testosterone as compared to the estrogen produced in a woman’s body. This explains why when boys grow into men their natural strength becomes higher. The graph below shows some records of boys and girls, then men and women. The dramatic change happens around ages 14 and 15. The teenage boys seem to have higher records to adult women. This is a small sample gathered from women and men from childhood to puberty .Women do not gain a strength spurt, rather estrogen produces more fat. Whiles testosterone is a significant component it is not the only one. There was a slump in records after new testing procedures emerged, but women’s records began to rise a little once more.

record times

What can be extrapolated from this is that drug use was not the sole reason. The idea that drugs can produce victories without proper and precise training regimens is false. There are periods in which new talents emerge. Then it must be considered that there are attributes unique to an individual’s biology. An athlete would have a genetic advantage, which means other athletes attempting to break their records would find it insuperable.

       There are athletes due to their biology and genetics have an edge in competition. There are women through their performances have demonstrated this. Paula Radcliff finished the London marathon in 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 25 seconds in 2003 (running a 26 mile). This was an impressive leap forward. It also shows who records are altered by sports federations. The International Associations of  Athletics Federations declared in 2012 that they eliminated her time from the annuls of marathon records, because she was running with male pacemakers. That means women who run in mixed groups cannot have their times archived. This again is an example of how you cannot get precise data. There could be women like Radcliff running in mixed groups, but are not documented for records.Even though sexist prejudice does not recognize the record, it still is a documented time.  Florence Griffith Joyner was another remarkable talent. If we were to compare her fastest time (10.49 S) to Usain Bolt’s (9.58s). Joyner would still be slower yet the difference is only by 0.91s. That means she would still be close to him if this were a tack meet. Despite the anatomical and physiological differences Joyner was able to obtain a high level of physical fitness.

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Elaine Thompson during the Rio 2016 achieved a time 10.71s. Compared to Joyner’s record it is a difference 0.22s. Assuming that Elaine Thompson can improve her training, it would simple to reach or beat Joyner’s record. Usain Bolt’s record would be more difficult for her to reach. These are not your average track athletes, they a professional Olympic competitors. These women are not average; they are exceptional. What they achieved may not be in reach of every women who decides to compete.

This not only applies to women, but men as well. Every man would not be able to reach Bolt’s level of performance. Joyner, Thompson, and Radcliffe  are a few examples of how genes and training can develop a high performing athlete. Being female is not a limitation in terms of developing physical prowess.  There has to be consideration of biology and the physiological attributes of sex  when training. While it is clear these women can run faster than an average man, they still have yet to achieve speeds of the fastest men. One can assume that women will never do. Yet, just like making predictions it is fast conclusion. Human evolution has show that the body has changed over millions of years. The most dramatic is that humanity became bipedal. developed a more complex brain, and shorter intestines. Assuming that humanity could still be evolving physically, the question becomes more expansive.

       Oxford University produced a study in 2004 stated that in 2156 women will outrun men. This was a study led by a professor of the name of Dr.Tatem. Readers should again question material that they receive. Similar predictions were made in 1992 saying women would be out running men by 2000. The error they made was that performance would follow almost a linear model. The data shows more of a sinusoidal fluctuation. The Oxford study states that women sprinters will reach times 8.079s in the 100m. The authors then claim that 2064 will be the year in which women sprinters shall achieve higher performance levels. Their assessment was that women would not overtake men, but reduce the gap in performance. That seems more realistic, rather than the 2156 prediction of women dominating sprint performances. There is still much to be explored about sports performance. Women are often ignored in exercise physiology studies, because most are designed for men. There are efforts to change this now that women are entering this field. The mathematics of this study may not be as precise, but Elaine Thompson’s 10.71 second record makes it seem as if it is achievable. It would almost be impossible for a human being to reach a time of 4.5 seconds. There is a point in which the body reaches physiological peak. This means that there can no longer be improvements to strength, speed, or endurance because maximum levels have been reached.

         This question has several possible answers. The first could be that women will narrow the gap  and some will even overlap with men. The more conventional answer is that women will not out run men in the future and they have achieved all they can. The third answer may be that women will surpass men either by new training techniques, changes in human evolution, or changes in genetics. The third answer would be difficult to prove due to the fact evolution takes millions of years. There still genes being identified and it is still questionable which ones form a great athlete. Training techniques are revised overtime. There is considerable debate which results in the best performance. The second answer seems to just assume results will stay stagnant. Although looking at the data now shows that it seems unlikely women would out run men, one should never just assume. The situation could change, but not in this period. It was in the 1928 Olympics than many believed women were too weak for running. Now, women are running faster than the men of the 20th century. There is possibility of improvement or maybe women have reached their full physical capability. The reason men could be still improving is that they have not reached theirs yet. Examining performance from that perspective men would be behind. The more realistic conclusion is that women would narrow the gap. It would not be closed nor would women en mass outperform men. However, it it not impossible that individual women could reach male performance levels in the future.

References

Brewer,Sarah. The Human Body A Visual Guide to Anatomy.  London:Quercus, 2012.

Mcdonagh, Eileen and Pappano, Laura. Playing With the Boys : Why Separate Is Not 

   Equal in Sports. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

“UK | Women ‘may Outsprint Men by 2156’.” BBC News. BBC, 30 Sept. 2004. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/3702650.stm&gt;.

George, Brandon. “Track Skills Often Decline as Girls Mature into Women | SportsDay.”SportsDayHS. SportsDayHS, 19 May 2010. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <http://sportsday.dallasnews.com/high-school/sportsheadlines/2010/05/19/20100513-Track-skills-often-decline-as-girls-6083&gt;.
Tucker, Ross. “Women vs Men Part II: The Physiology of Difference | Science of Sport.” The Science of Sport. The Science of Sport, 27 Oct. 2013. Web. 06 Apr. 2017. <https://sportsscientists.com/2007/10/women-vs-men-part-ii-the-physiology-of-difference/&gt;.
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Will Women Out Run Men in the Future?

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