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Lady champions
May 15, 2014 5:07 PM   Subscribe

In what sports (especially endurance sports) do women perform better than men? And biomechanically speaking, why?

I watched this TED talk about biomechanics in sports and how different body types channel into different athletic specialties. Cool! Then later I read that women hold the world record in some sort of open water marathon swimming event and it got me wondering in what other sports do women hold records over men, especially timed or endurance events. Given the phenomenon that marathoners tend to be shorter and more diminutive than your typical athlete, it seemed that there must be other athletic events where things like average height, Q angles, etc. come into play in a way that confers the advantage to women more generally.
posted by mermily to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The two sports I can think of are ski jumping and ultra running. Those links are just what came up first when googling. The ultra running one credits it to women's ability to suck it up and suffer through pain; however, I always thought it was that women have a higher body fat percentage and thus have more to draw on once they switch to burning fat as you would in long races. Here's a blog post about it, although I know nothing about this blog so judge for yourself.
posted by carolr at 5:25 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

But ski-jumping isn't the same for both sexes--from the linked piece:

"It’ll be impossible to make such a one-to-one comparison in Sochi, given that female ski jumpers start higher on the ramp than their male counterparts. If men and women were jumping from the same place, the men would certainly soar farther. This isn’t so much for physiological reasons—though men may have a physical advantage when it comes to pushing off at the end of the ramp—as it is that male ski jumpers have been plying their trade on an elite international level for longer than women have, and they certainly benefit from all the added practice, support, and experience. As more women take up ski jumping, the gaps between male and female jumpers will decrease. "
So, maybe yes, but not really.
This piece says open water swimming. "Women do appear to perform better relative to their male counterparts, especially as the distances increase."
posted by Ideefixe at 5:53 PM on May 15 [2 favorites]

Balance beam.
posted by Melismata at 5:53 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Rock climbing. Better muscle to body weight ratio, IIRC.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 6:06 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

Of the people who set out to run ultras, a much higher percentage of women are able to finish the race. There's discussion about it in the book Born to Run (pg 79: "Every year, more than 90 percent of the female runers come home with a buckle, while 50 perent of the men come up with an excuse.") The topic is also covered in this article from Runner's World.
posted by pie ninja at 7:08 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

Women don't actually hold the edge in ultra-running. There is no distance at which a woman has the outright record and I'm not aware of any ultra event where one holds the course record (I did read something somewhere about a deca-ironman event where a woman is the overall world record holder, but something was suspect there, IIRC).

Open water swimming might be a body fat thing. Particularly in cold water.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 7:34 PM on May 15

Rock climbing. Better muscle to body weight ratio, IIRC.

This is not true of speed climbing or free climbing. The men's 15m speed climbing record is 5.88s. The women's is 7.85. Women have free climbed 5.14d routes, whereas men are up to 5.15c.

I'm not sure about non-speed sport climbing (i.e. regular indoor climbing), but frankly I would be surprised.
posted by jedicus at 8:17 PM on May 15 [3 favorites]

This is tough to answer because there are far more men than women competing in each sport, so even if the bell curve is a little biased in favor of women, the top performers are still more likely to be men.
posted by miyabo at 8:31 PM on May 15 [13 favorites]

This is not true of speed climbing or free climbing. The men's 15m speed climbing record is 5.88s. The women's is 7.85. Women have free climbed 5.14d routes, whereas men are up to 5.15c.

Fair enough. I have no data to back my assertion up, and am happy to be corrected.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 8:59 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

Note Ideefixe your article also says;

Among world-class athletes, the world's fastest men are faster than the world's fastest women. Several comparisons of the average time of professional marathon swimmers at the Olympics and professional marathon races of various distances demonstrate this fact.

The article points to women on averages across events women tend to outperform men, but not at the elite level (which seems to be the point of the question). It seems similar to the ultra-running scenario. It seems like at extreme distances women, in general, have an edge.
posted by bitdamaged at 10:06 PM on May 15

How about Lynn Hill as the first person to free climb The Nose in Yosemite?

It was considered a new benchmark in climbing at the time, it took years before anyone duplicated her effort. As much as anyone led the world in an activity like climbing she was leading the way in the early '90s, there is room for women to get to the top there.
posted by N-stoff at 10:24 PM on May 15

"Open water swimming might be a body fat thing. Particularly in cold water."

From what I've read it is also a matter of bouyancy. Thorpe or Ledecky would obviously win in the short distance but in the longer distances they would spend too much energy staying afloat.

People misunderstand ski jumping. Even during competition they adjust the launch point so that the jumpers don't land too short or worse, too long on the flat. There is a picture of the adjustable launch point here. It is sport that is judged on form as well as distance and isn't quantifable in the same way that, say, track and field events are.

The hills are different sizes and the ramps different lengths. Nineteen of the top twenty one ski jumping distance records have been set on Letalnica Bratov Gorišek and the two longest jumps were at Vikersundbakken - at the absurd distance of 246.5 meters. That distance would put you in the stands or beyond at the Vancouver Olympics.
posted by vapidave at 1:46 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]

As far as I know, it's not true of any running events at all, at least at the elite levels where one is comparing men's and women's records. Generally, from the shortest sprints all the way through the 1000 mile distance, men's records are consistently about 10% faster than women's. Of course, some of that difference could be due to participation levels.

I hadn't really considered the question from a "who finishes more often" standpoint though. Interesting. Maybe there should be a "fortitude" metric along with a "fastest" metric.
posted by bepe at 1:34 PM on May 20

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