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Men more likely to slow down than women in marathon

Sex difference in pacing may be due to physiological, psychological reasons.

David Banks

"Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you."

No, seriously, it's true. Because SCIENCE.

According to a study published in the July issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, female marathon runners are more likely to pace themselves evenly than their male counterparts.

Researchers from Marquette University in Milwaukee, the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. collected and analyzed data on the finishers at 14 marathons of all shapes, sizes, locations and climates. They also gathered additional data from public race records for 2,929 of the total 91,929 marathon runners.

To determine every runner's pace, they identified times from the middle and the end points of every finisher at the selected marathons. What resulted was a simple comparison of each runner's pace for the first and second halves of the race. A pattern of pace revealed itself, helping researchers determine each individual's pace for the first half of the race, his or her pace in the second half and what the timed differences were. Did he slow down? Did she speed up? Did he maintain a steady stride?

The team concluded that men's overall marathon pace slowed significantly more than women's did. Over 15 percent of male finishers slowed their pace, whereas around 12 percent of female finishers had slower second halves in their respective races. Also, more men fell into the "slowed markedly" category than women--runners whose second half pace fell 30 percent or more.

Since the study focused on data collection and analysis, the researchers conducted no additional explorations of why the results came out as they did. According to Gretchen Reynolds at the New York Times:

[T]he reasons are likely to be physiological and psychological, said Sandra Hunter, a professor of exercise science at Marquette University and 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," Dr. Hunter said, 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," Dr. Hunter says.

They are also more prone psychologically to adopt what Dr. Hunter terms a "risky strategy" in their early pacing. "They start out fast and just hope they can hold on," she says.

More research is necessary to prove or falsify Dr. Hunter's postulations. Until then, male runners will just have to...