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Are women physically capable of running a marathon?


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Woman running a marathon

‘Women are not physiologically capable of running a marathon.’

The now famous words from The Amateur Athletics Union that were sent to Bobbi Gibb in 1966, who went on to become the first ever woman to run the Boston marathon. A feat that would then be echoed a year later by Kathrine Switzer who became the first woman to ‘officially’ run the iconic marathon. At the time, the Union prohibited women from running farther than 1.5 miles, and the organisers just couldn’t “take the liability” of having Bobbi Gibb and other women compete.

Since then, women have been officially allowed to run in the Boston Marathon since 1972 and the number of runners have risen from a spirited 9 runners to just under 25,000 in 2022. We also have seen women in our community taking on the major race in recent years with Marathon Girl Becki completing the race in an impressive sub 3 hour racetime. 

This continued growth of female talent has seen female runners rival the male contingent in terms of numbers and in terms of finishers, they run shockingly close despite female finishers having a number of low finish rates in the first few years. Over the 50 years of male and female participation, the finish rate for both genders has been 84%. In terms of runtimes, the gap continues to narrow with the average performance of men and women being around 10.7 percent. 

Chart showing the percentage of runners that completed the Boston Marathon since 1975. The blue bars represent male runners while the red comparison line represents female runners.

This is a fairly consistent average across most sports and the trend of women closing the gap, especially across the top 100 runtimes, is one that is matched by many of the big marathon events such as the London marathon where the difference between the two winners of the men’s and women’s events has routinely dropped below 14 minutes. 

Are women better suited for ultra endurance?

This should come as little surprise as we continually see high levels of performance from women athletes that look to not only equal the men but better them and nowhere has this been more apparent than in the world of ultra-endurance. A major example would be Camille Herron, one of the most accomplished trail runners in the world and one of the best ultra runners of all time. Her recent performance in a trail marathon event in Texas saw her break the men’s record. This came little more than a few months after her world record efforts in a 48 hour festival where she ran a mind-boggling 435.336K in just 2 days, shattering the women’s record and a feat that has only been bettered by two other runners in history, Andrii Tkachuk and Yiannis Kouros.

The world of ultra-endurance running has seen particularly high levels of success for women in general with Lululemon reporting that the average difference between male and female ultra runners was around 4-8%, according to an article in Sports Medicine. Over most distances, it’s between 10-12%. The article also suggests that the further the distance, the more the distance narrows, showcasing that women runners seem to have an advantage in terms of endurance. The research on this topic is still emerging and there are many different elements to explore in terms of female performance in ultra events but there is a compelling case that women are better suited to longer distance running.

From Fiona Kolbinger to Jasmin Paris, there is a clear rise in women not only competing in ultra-endurance races but also dominating. There are believed to be many reasons for this; from general size and shape to different mindsets and psyche. While the best male athletes still outperform the best female athletes in these more extreme categories, the gap is definitely narrower. 

If the belief in 1966 was that women’s endurance was not enough for a marathon and it would be dangerous for them to compete, it appears the very opposite is true. The longer the distance, the more they seem to flourish. In just 50 short years, female athletes have gone from not being allowed to compete to more than holding their own with the very best male athletes. So, to conclude this with a response. ‘Women are not physiologically capable of running a marathon.’ You couldn’t be more wrong.