Women Pace, Men Race and Crash

15 questions for Robert Deaner, whose new research suggests women are smarter at pacing marathons than their male counterparts
Chris Brown. Licensed under Creative Commons

Men are more likely than women to run the second half of a marathon slower than the first half, according to a new study* led by Robert Deaner, associate professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University, and published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & ExerciseDeaner's findings suggest that women are better than men at making pacing decisions, the implication being that they will thus be more likely to run marathons closer to their optimal times. The study was based on 92,000 competitors in 14 marathons run in the U.S. in 2011.

The Active Times: Elite marathon runners tend to run negative splits, i.e., they run the second half of the race faster than the first half. Recreational runners, your study finds, tend to do the opposite, with men showing a greater disparity between their first- and second-half times than women. Why is that?
Robert Deaner:  Actually, I don’t think that most elites tend to run negative splits. That occurs in some races, especially if the leaders are initially playing a waiting game. But many races aren’t like that, especially if there are pacemakers.  So many elites do start off with aggressive paces and then crash but you usually don’t see interviews with those runners after the race! Related to this, I think elites are more likely than recreational runners to drop out of a marathon when they aren’t performing well. They’ll save their legs for another opportunity to race later in the season. Most recreational runners are determined to finish and usually do, even if they have to walk or shuffle for the last few miles.

All that being said, yes, I do think elites who do finish generally run fairly even paces, much more even paces than most recreational runners. There are many reasons for this including that elites are better trained and better coached so they have a much better idea of their capabilities. They may also be very good at monitoring their bodies and knowing how to dial things back before they get into trouble. So elites are very unlikely to run the first half of the marathon much faster than they should. Recreational runners do this all the time.

Is it just a question of men, typically less risk-adverse than women, assuming they can run faster than they really can, and getting it wrong, or of being swept up in the adrenaline rush of the moment and abandoning their race plan (if they have one)?
I suspect it could be both. Men may be too aggressive in their planning their pace before the race and too willing to abandon their plan if they feel good in the early miles. I don’t know of any research that has assessed this in running, although I’d love to see this topic studied.

Is there any evidence that non-elite women prepare more thoroughly for marathons than men, are more diligent in their training and race planning, for example, and thus are more disciplined when it comes to race day?
Another great question but, again, there is apparently no research bearing on it yet.

Is there any evidence that women are better than men at making race-day decisions around factors that affect pacing such as the heat, humidity, terrain or the pace of the field?
There’s no direct evidence for this. However, there was a recent paper showing that the sex difference in marathon pacing in non-elites was larger in the 2007 Chicago marathon, which was hot (low 80s), than in the 2009 Chicago marathon, which was cool (high 30s and low 40s). My guess is that when that when women heard about that forecast, most drastically altered their race plans whereas many men figured they might still be able to meet their time goals, which was completely unrealistic. Again, this would be a great topic for more research.

Are there physiological differences between male and female runners that would account for the differences your study found?
Women seem to be better at sparing glycogen during prolonged exercise. This would make them less likely to crash or bonk, which might be a big contributor to our results. However, a key way to avoid bonking is to avoid running too fast, so there’s a bit of a chicken or the egg issue at play.

To what extent does experience of running marathons make a difference? Do men and women get better at pacing their races more evenly the more marathons they run?
We found that runners, both men and women, who had completed more previous marathons did pace more evenly. But controlling for the experience effects didn’t make the sex difference in pacing disappear. And the experience effects were considerably smaller than the effect of being a man or a woman.

Does your study point to the age or speed of runners having an effect on their decision making?
Older runners also paced more evenly but this was also a fairly weak effect. On the other hand, faster runners, both men and women, definitely paced more evenly and this was a very strong effect. We don’t have direct evidence that decision making plays a role in this, but that would certainly make sense. Faster runners generally have prepared much more thoroughly. They’ve trained more, trained more thoughtfully, perhaps trained more intensively, and they’ve probably made more effort to communicate with other runners and coaches so that they can make a realistic race plan.

Is there evidence from other racing distances to support you notion that women make better pacing decisions in races than men?
No, our study and the other recent ones on pacing in non-elite runners have all been with the marathon distance. I’ve got a fantastic dataset ready to look at 10K races but I haven’t found the right collaborator for it yet. The preliminary picture is that people pace much more evenly in the 10K, and, although there might be a sex difference, it is probably smaller than in the marathon.

An evenly paced marathon doesn't necessarily mean an optimally paced marathon. Is there any evidence that women runners are too conservative in their race goals, just as men seem to be too aggressive in theirs?
No, this is speculation based on decision making in economics and other areas.  Anecdotally, I’ve known runners who set very conservative race goals given their earlier performances at other distances. Of course, these runners aren’t always women.

What is the takeaway for non-elites from your research?
Don’t be discouraged if you don’t pace your marathon evenly. Most of us don’t! Of course, try to begin more conservatively so that you can finish strong.

Do you have any tips for non-elites about learning to pace themselves properly while training for and running a marathon?
I’ve done a few marathons, but I’ve never nailed the pacing, so I’m no expert. I’d suggest working with coaches and other runners to plan long training runs that will train your body and give you the proper feedback so that you can make a successful race plan and have the confidence to stick to it.

What prompted this research in the first place?
I’ve done several studies looking at sex differences in distance running. My big conclusion is that although most researchers tend to focus on men’s and women’s physiological differences, which are real, the sex differences actually extend far beyond that. My research indicates that men are generally more competitive than women, and this shows up in all kinds of ways, from what they say on questionnaires to the kinds of races in which they participate. So this led me to hypothesize we’d find sex differences in marathon pacing because being more competitive and likely to take risks can lead to all kinds of bad decisions. [Co-authors] Sandra Hunter of Marquette University, Rickey Carter and Mike Joyner, both from the Mayo Clinic, were all game to find out if this would be true, so we teamed up to do the study.

Your study is based on participants in U.S. marathons. Is there any evidence that your findings would apply worldwide, or might this be a particularly American male phenomenum?
Men tend to take more risks than women across societies, so I’d bet dimes to dollars our results will occur at most or all marathons across the world. But I don’t think this has been studied yet. 

What is the next step for your research into runners' decision making?
We’d love to do a pacing study where we focused on a smaller number of runners but gathered much more detailed info on their physiological capabilities, training, goals, nutrition, pacing plans, and so on. We haven’t started that yet.

Are you a marathon runners, and if so how even is your own pacing? Knowing what you now do, will you be pacing your races differently?
I’ve done three marathons and my best is 3 hours flat.  But I didn’t pace it very well.  I think I was a bit too aggressive in the early miles and didn’t taper enough. I’d be more conservative next time. Unfortunately, I’ve been dealing with plantar fasciitis for the past few years so I’m won’t be doing another marathon for a while. I think Sandra, Mike, and Rickey have all done marathons or triathlons. Mike is the most accomplished of us, a 2:25 marathoner when he was a bit younger.

*Sex Difference in Pacing by Robert O. Deaner, Grand Valley State University, Department of Psychology, Allendale, MI; Rickey E. Carter, Mayo Clinic, Department of Health Sciences Research, Rochester, MN; Michael J. Joyner, Mayo Clinic, Department of Anesthesiology Rochester, MN; and Sandra K. Hunter, Marquette University, Exercise Science Program, Department of Physical Therapy, Milwaukee, WI. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine, 2014.

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