After several awkward minutes of skiing (littered with discomforts I'd rather not detail) I remember thinking to myself, "Man, my being a woman is really getting in the way of my athletics." For someone like me, impure thoughts like this belong in the deepest nooks and crannies of blasphemy. However, sometimes those dark thoughts do appear, and this one got me thinking.
I've considered the societal elements that work against female athletes, but what about the scientific? After doing a little research, I've found that while there are major physiological differences that separate male and female athletes, the gap isn't as big as we tend to think. Most research focuses on areas of strength and cardiovascular fitness.
In most respects, men have the competitive edge over women, but the female body has advantages where one may not expect.
I've always struggled with a feeling of inadequacy in the weight room. In particular, when it comes to pull ups and heavy lifting, I've always told myself that I needed to overcome the "mental block" that kept me from doing the same sets as the boys. Turns out, I should give myself more credit; it may be more than a mental block.
According to studies published by Livestrong, male athletes have a higher ratio of muscle mass to body weight, which explains why women tend to have about 30 percent less lower body strength and 50 percent less upper body strength. Men's wider frames and looser ligaments allow them to support greater muscle mass and remain injury free.
However, because women have the same amount of muscle fibers as men, when viewed from a cross-sectional sample, female muscle content is equally as strong as male, men just have more of it. Additionally, because of their lower center of gravity, women tend to be better at balance-oriented activities which explains why my one legged squats seem easier than my pull ups. Taken from this perspective, women deserve quite a bit more recognition for the feats they've attained in the weight room.
For example, when observing Olympic lifting records, you'll find that strength ratios are not all that distant between men and women. The lightweight clean and jerk record for men is 168 kilograms, while for women weighing eight kilograms less it is 117 kilos. Meaning, that for the clean and jerk, a full body exercise, women are doing about the same amount of work with their smaller muscle makeup. When the studies investigate cardiovascular efficiency and endurance, things get interesting. Men have larger bodies and therefore have larger oxygen carrying capacities.
The Olympic level VO2 Max (the point at which an athlete's oxygen consumption remains the same despite increased activity) for men is above 80, while for women anything over 70 is considered elite. Smaller hearts and less hemoglobin keep women from pumping as much oxygen through their systems as men, so says research across the board. However, studies in endurance athletes suggest that a smaller frame and lack of testosterone actually make women excel in distance arenas.
In order to make up for less testosterone, the female body has become exceptionally efficient at processing glycogen, the secondary energy source used when glucose levels drop. So although men have testosterone-laden hot starts out of the gate, they are more likely to hit the wall when their primary energy sources expire. The advantage is clear, as more and more women are breaking into the top podium spots in ultra marathon running.
When I first began studying for this column, I was slightly disheartened by my findings. Yes, men are bigger; therefore they are stronger and almost always faster. However, as I read on, I gained an even higher respect for women who compete with men. The female athlete overcomes not only societal but also physical barriers in order to pursue sport, which puts the feats achieved by women into a much more celebratory perspective. I hope that soon we'll get that recognition.