Ultra-trail: women no longer run behind men

The trail season is open. And this year again, a woman could invite herself at the head of one of these very long distance foot races scheduled on the calendar. If the phenomenon still surprises, it has been coming back with insistence for about twenty summers. In 2019, the Scottish Jasmin Paris was well ahead of all the contenders – men and women – on the Montane Spin, a race of more than 400 km, by improving the record for the event by twelve hours… while breastfeeding her baby. . Before her, the French Corinne Favre had arrogated the CCC, little sister of the 86 km long ultra-trail of Mont-Blanc, even relegating François D’Haene, one of the best ultra-trail, to almost an hour. -trailers in the world. Americans Lisa Smith-Batchen and Pam Reed had paved the way for them by each raising their arms on two consecutive editions of the Badwater, the steepest route on the globe, drawn over 217 km in the Californian desert, at the end of the 1990s then in the early 2000s.

While women are systematically beaten on what insiders call a “short” distance, that of a marathon (42.195 km), it is clear that the podiums are no longer quite the same once the course is stretches beyond 80 km, the frontier towards ultra-trail. From there to imagine an advantage of women over their male counterparts? “Although there are several examples each year, women’s victories remain rare compared to the total number of races, rectifies Guillaume Millet, researcher in sports physiology at the interuniversity laboratory of motor biology at the University of Saint-Étienne. These results were each time linked to particular conditions, either in the absence of the best men, or because they had been below their usual level that day. »

“Always below the men in the race”

Surveyed, several trail runners also line up behind the explanation of a circumstantial advantage. “In the middle of this less competitive field, the few women to win were already special themselves, and they had arrived better prepared than the men. But at the same level of preparation, they will always be below the men in the race”, says Marion Delespierre-Mauppin, sports doctor and second best woman in the last Diagonale des fous, the ultra-trail on Reunion Island.

The explanation is mainly due to two elements: their reduced ability to bring oxygen to their muscles, since their blood is less rich in red blood cells. And the disadvantage of a larger fat mass, which one might think forms a better energy reserve but which “still represents a disadvantage, including over very long distances”, sweeps away Guillaume Millet.

However, the women’s repeated victories have aroused the interest of the scientific community. Despite the caution of the body of studies to have looked into it, a consensus is beginning to emerge: as the running distance increases, the performance gap between men and women narrows. “The best way to examine this finding is to construct thousands of male and female pairs that have the same speed over short distances, and look at the differences as the distance increases,” says Guillaume Millet. In ultra-endurance, the observation is not only verified by running. A team of researchers was able to extend it to cycling two years ago, based on 45 competitions held between 1996 and 2018, where “no more difference” was not noted beyond 640 km.

Better fatigue resistance

This comparison is based primarily on female physiology and anthropometry, whose muscle fibers are, on average, more resistant to fatigue and the body less prone to cravings thanks to its better ability to use lipids, one of the key resources over long distances. “The mental dimension also comes into playadds the runner Corinne Favre, figure of the ultra-trail in France. Before the competition, women tend to prepare better. There is less room for challenge as can be the case with men, with the risk of overconfidence and overestimating one’s level. And during the race, they show more moderation in managing their effort, starting more cautiously, which explains why they give up less. »

Despite this rebalancing in performance, fewer women line up at the start as the race distance increases. From 26% recorded in 2019 by the International Trail Running Association on classic trails to an average of 10% on ultras of more than 100 km organized in France in recent seasons. “There was a feminization of ultra-endurance in the early 2000s, but since then we have seen a stagnation”, abounds Olivier Bessy, sports sociologist at the University of Pau.

The researcher sees in this the proof of “the internalization of an inability to defy the social norm: adventure and heroism have long been seen as a male property. And preparing a trail represents between eight and fifteen hours of training per week. Women may not yet dare enough to ask their spouse to fill this void in the organization of their family life and the distribution of daily tasks. »


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