When it comes to sport, men and women aren't (always) equal. Why? What are the differences? We explain all!
WHAT ARE THE PHYSIOLOGICAL DIFFERENCES
BETWEEN MEN AND WOMEN IN SPORT?
When it comes to sport, it's a fact of life that men and women aren't (always) equal. But why is this? What are the differences between the sexes? We explain all below!
Let's start at the beginning and think back to our school biology lessons.
Each person is composed of billions of cells. Each cell contains a nucleus (the cell's "brain"), and each nucleus contains 23 pairs of chromosomes: long, spiral-shaped molecules where our genes are housed.
As you know, our genes are what make us who we are: short, tall, brunette, ginger, etc. In 1959, researchers discovered that, out of the 46 chromosomes that each cell contains, two determine our biological sex: men have an X and a Y chromosome, while women have two X chromosomes.
So essentially, the difference between men and women all comes down to a tiny little chromosome…
According to Israeli doctor Ira Hammerman, women's performances are on average 90% of men's in disciplines such as athletics, cycling and swimming. This is because of the following physiological differences between the sexes.
> Heart rate
Women's hearts are generally smaller than men's, and their cardiac output is therefore lower. Consequently, for the same physical effort, women's heart rates will be much higher (174 beats per minute in women versus 169 beats per minute in men), and so fatigue sets in sooner.
> Muscle mass
Muscle represents on average 35% of a man's total weight, compared with 28% for a woman. As for fat, it accounts for 13% of men's body weight compared with 20% for women. Consequently, women tend to have less strength and endurance.
The VO2max is the maximum capacity to store, transport and consume oxygen during physical exertion. The higher it is, the more the body is able to produce energy. As women have less haemoglobin, their average VO2max is 35-40 ml/kg/min, compared with 45-50 ml/kg/min for men.
> Blood pressure
Blood pressure is lower in women, which is another reason why women feel fatigued faster.
> Iron reserves
Iron reserves are lower in women than in men, due in particular to menstruation. This means that women transport oxygen less efficiently in the blood.
> Female hormones
Female hormones fluctuate throughout the menstrual cycle. From day 1 to day 13, oestradiol (the main type of oestrogen at this stage in the cycle) enables better use of sugar: the perfect fuel for the muscles. As for the second phase of the cycle, from day 14 to day 28, progesterone takes over and helps the body to better use fat.
Of course, if you were to sum up these main physiological differences, you couldn't deny that men are luckier than women on a physical level!
To help give you an idea of the sports performance differences between men and women, here are some stats. These are the male and female records in a range of disciplines. As you'll see, in certain cases, the difference is slim. ;)
> 100 metres: Men's record: 9.58 / Women's record: 10.49 / Time difference: 0.91 / Percentage difference: 9%
> 200 metres: Men's record: 19.19 / Women's record: 21.34 / Time difference: 2.15 / Percentage difference: 10%
> 400 metres: Men's record: 43.03 / Women's record: 47.60 / Time difference: 4.57 / Percentage difference: 10%
> 1500 metres: Men's record: 3:26.00 / Women's record: 3:50.07 / Time difference: 24.07 / Percentage difference: 10%
> 5000 metres: Men's record: 12:37.35 / Women's record: 14:11.15 / Time difference: 1:33 / Percentage difference: 11%
> Marathon: Men's record: 2:00:25 / Women's record: 2:15:25 / Time difference: 15:00 / Percentage difference: 11%
> High jump: Men's record: 2.45 m / Women's record: 2.09 m / Height difference: 0.36 m / Percentage difference: 17%
> Long jump: Men's record: 8.95 m / Women's record: 7.52 m / Distance difference: 1.43 m / Percentage difference: 19%
OK, so we've seen that men are better equipped than women in terms of muscle mass, power and endurance. And now we know why! But actually, there are a few areas where women are ahead of the guys.
For example, all experts would agree that women are mentally stronger, and cope better with stress and pressure. Even if it's difficult for the blokes to admit it.
Flexibility is also a strong point for women. This is because female hormones make the joints and muscles looser. This effect is stronger in the middle of the menstrual cycle and during pregnancy, when oestrogen levels increase.
Lastly, strategic thinking is better developed in women, who are less impulsive, more poised and more likely to think before acting.
We've more or less covered this question in our other answers, but if you had to sum up in 3 main points why men have an advantage in sports, it's because they have more muscle, which leads to them having more strength and endurance than women!
Of course, it goes without saying that all of these statements are generalisations and should therefore be taken with a pinch of salt: everyone is different and unique, no matter their gender!
Some high-level female athletes, who are at the top of their game in their field,
have tried to take on their male counterparts. In vain. Because there are real differences between men and women. And it's impossible to ignore them.
But if you believe the sports coaches, the majority of women don't want to put all their effort into catching up with the men and achieving the same records. Each gender is focused on performance, without worrying (much) about what their counterparts are up to.
The aim is to be the best in their class, nothing more. And that's just fine.
We couldn't round off this article without a shout-out to the Decathlon Sportslab: the research and development laboratory that's always there for us whenever we need precise, verified information about a subject concerning athletes' bodies!