Yes, men run much faster than women — but not at short distances

DALLAS — On average, scientists say men hold a distinct advantage over women when it comes to running speed. However, a new study finds that’s really not the case in a short sprint. Researchers at Southern Methodist University have found that the male advantage over long distances and marathons almost disappears when men and women compete on a short track.

Historically, scientists have believed that the average man runs about 10 to 12 percent faster than the average woman. A lot of this comes down to men typically having longer legs and greater muscle strength. Biologically, women generally have shorter legs and a less muscular frame. Interestingly, this is why the SMU team says female runners are able to keep pace with male athletes at shorter distances.

The study notes that speed in a sprint depends on different factors than it does over a long race. One of the most important is the magnitude of the ground forces athletes are able to apply in relation to their body mass. With all things being equal, muscular force to body mass ratios are greater in smaller individuals.

Even Olympic athletes see a difference

To examine whether speed differences really are smaller at shorter distances, Ph.D. candidate Emily McClelland and the director of SMU’s Locomotor Performance Lab, Peter Weyand, quantified sex performance differences during sanctioned international athletic competitions. These races include the Olympics and the World Championships of track and field.

Looking at race data from 2003 to 2018, the study revealed that the difference between male and female performance times increased over the length of each event — from the shortest distance (8.6% at 60 meters) to the longest distance (11% at 400 meters). Moreover, the male advantage grew every 10 meters during a 100-meter race, going from a low of 5.6 percent during the first segment of the event to 14.2 percent at the finish line.

running speed
SMU Ph.D candidate Emily McClelland and Peter Weyand, Director of SMU’s Locomotor Performance Lab, determined that the between-sex performance gap is much narrower at shorter sprint distances. (CREDIT: Journal of Applied Physiology)

So, how do women keep pace in short sprints?

Unlike other species that commonly compete in races, like horses and dogs, scientists say there is much more variation in size between men and women. Holding all other factors equal, differences in body size lead to muscular force-to-body mass ratios which are greater when the individual runner is smaller.

Since sprinting speed relies on these mass-specific forces that runners apply during the foot-to-ground contact of their stride, having greater force/mass ratios actually give the smaller athlete the edge.

Additionally, study authors say that the typically shorter legs of a female athlete lead to them taking more steps during the acceleration phase of a race. These factors all contribute to women canceling out the male advantage on a short track.

A key example of this is the success of Jamaican track and field star Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. She is just 5’0” tall and 115 pounds but holds two Olympic and five World Championship gold medals in the 100-meter event.

When the team broke that race down and examined her performance at the 40-yard mark, Fraser-Pryce completed that segment in 4.51 seconds. That time is faster than nearly half of all the wide receivers and running backs participating in the NFL’s 40-yard dash at the 2022 Scouting Combine. The majority of those pro athletes are over 6’ tall and weigh more than 200 pounds.

The findings are published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

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