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Women have an advantage when running short distances

It has long been established that men outpace women in mid- and long-distance running. However, speed over shorter distances is determined by the magnitude of force athletes can apply in relation to body mass. Muscular force to body mass ratio is greater in smaller individuals, and women tend to be smaller than men. 

The understanding of sex performance differences for short sprint events has received little attention. The understanding of comparative strength, speed and endurance capabilities of male and female athletes has been a challenging issue for modern sport. 

In a new study, PhD candidate Emily McClelland and Peter Weyand, director of the Southern Methodist University Locomotor Performance Lab set out to investigate. The team used data from international competitions such as the Olympics and World Championships, between 2003 and 2018. McClelland hypothesized that sex differences in sprint running performance might be relatively small and increase with distance.

The data revealed that the difference between male and female performance time increased with event distance from 8.6 to 11 percent from shortest to longest sprint events (60 to 400 meters). The analysis of each 10-meter segment of the 100-meter event revealed a pattern across distance – sex differences increased from a low of 5.6 percent for the first segment to a high of 14.2 percent in the last segment.

This would suggest that women are at an advantage for shorter sprint distances compared to men. In contrast to other running species like horses and dogs, there is significant variation in size between human males and females. Body size differences result in muscular force to body mass ratios that are greater in smaller individuals.  

Since sprinting velocities are dependent on the mass-specific forces runners can apply, greater force/mass ratios of smaller individuals provide a theoretical advantage. During the acceleration phase of a race, the shorter legs of a female lead to more steps and pushing cycles per unit time. These factors offset the advantages of males (longer legs and greater muscularity) that become more influential over longer distances.

Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce is a Jamaican track and field star who is 5’0” tall, 115 pounds, and holds two Olympic and five World Championship gold medals in the 100-meter event. Her time at the 40-yard mark of a 100-meter race has been estimated to be as fast as 4.51 seconds. This was faster than half of all the wide receivers and running backs that tested in the National Football League’s Scouting Combine in 2022. Most of these aspiring NFL football players are over 6’ tall and 200 pounds.

The research is published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

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By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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