Endurance cyclist Lael Wilcox is just one of the names whose astounding accomplishments are enlivening the debate surrounding the battle of the sexes in endurance sports. Wilcox has won both the Trans Am Bike Race and the Tour Divide, being the first woman ever to do so. She also set world records with her time on the Baja Divide route and in 2018, she became the second woman ever to finish Switzerland’s Navad 1000 bike packing race, winning second place.
She’s not the only one beating the guys either, and we’re starting to understand why. Since a study was published in 2017 showing that women’s bodies might actually be more endurance ready than men’s, the discussion around who can excel when the body is pushed to the edge, and then pushed again, has changed.
As more women enter endurance sports, more are proving they can outperform men. This is especially true for competitions involving extreme feats of endurance. It seems that the longer the race, the better chance women have at narrowing the gap with male competitors, or even overtaking them. As this phenomenon has become harder to ignore, more questions are being asked and more research is being done. Some have argued that it is a greater ability to withstand pain, a residual effect of the fact that women survive childbirth, or that it has to do with aerobic capacity or size, but the answer seems to be in the muscles.
The study headed by Dr. Brian Dalton of the University of British Columbia found that, although men may have superior strength, women last significantly longer when it comes to dynamic muscle exercise. In order to compare muscle endurance and fatigability in both men and women, the study asked participants to perform 200 dynamic plantar flexion or calf muscle contractions at a set resistance of 30% or their maximal strength. As both male and female participants performed the test, researchers were recording data on speed, power, movements and electrical activity of their muscles. Their findings had big implications for endurance athletes. Big, strong muscles simply don’t last as long.
— Trans Am Bike Race (@TransAmBikeRace) November 12, 2018
Dr. Dalton and others in the field are now working to determine the exact mechanisms behind why this is the case, and their research could prove critical in helping coaches and exercise physiologists to construct training plans that better complement an athlete’s physiology. Although there is still much to be discovered, the findings of this research make a powerful point for considering the different strengths of each sex, as opposed to always labelling women as the “weaker”.
Although this doesn’t change the fact that men are able to build muscle more easily in the first place, it is important to make the point that females, who don’t always receive as much encouragement in their athletic endeavours, have bodies that are just as (if not more) capable of achieving feats of amazing strengths and endurance. It is still said too often within the world of athletics that “women can’t,” and having solid research on hands helps dispel this myth.
As this body of research grows, coaches and consultants will be better equipped to help women athletes excel. As it stands, many athletes, coaches, and researchers start believing that women may still be far from achieving their full potential due to a lack of knowledge about how their bodies work. Not to mention that, compared to men, women have been competing in endurance sports for a relatively short amount of time and therefore scientific understanding of women athletes is unfortunately lacking.
That is changing though. We have no shortage of females who are proving that their bodies are capable of amazing things. It’s a thrilling experience to push your body beyond what you thought it could do, and more women are realizing their bodies are a lot stronger than they thought. As research continues to be done and more women discover the joy of endurance sports, Lael Wilcox will likely be in good company as other female athletes continue breaking world records and setting a new standard for what’s possible.