- Experts say men still outperform women in many sports due to greater muscle mass and other physical attributes.
- However, new research indicates women can perform better in longer distances and in colder temperatures.
- Experts also note that women are entering sports at younger ages, a factor that also helps close the competition gap.
It’s been nearly 5 years since tennis legend John McEnroe ignited controversy by saying if Serena Williams — arguably one of the most dominant tennis players in the sport’s history — would “be like 700 in the world” if she competed against men.
McEnroe said this when an interviewer asked why he described Williams as “the best female player” rather than “the best player in the world, period.”
“Maybe at some point, a women’s tennis player can be better than anybody. I just haven’t seen it in any other sport, and I haven’t seen it in tennis. I suppose anything’s possible at some stage,” McEnroe said.
We may be getting closer to that “anything” being possible, at least in some sports valuing extreme endurance and extreme conditions, according to studies published since McEnroe made his remarks.
Women closing some performance gaps
Since those comments in 2017, more studies are showing that women are closing performance gaps in ultramarathons and ultra-cycling events.
In addition, some women have already equaled or surpassed men in older age groups when it comes to long-distance swimming.
It seems that men, with frames built for bigger and more explosive muscle mass with lower percentages of body fat, are built for better speed in shorter races.
However, the longer the distance and colder the conditions, the better women do in comparison.
According to research published in 2020: “In open-water long-distance swimming events of the ’Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming’ with the ’Catalina Channel Swim’, the ’English Channel Swim’ and the ’Manhattan Island Marathon Swim’, women were about 0.06 km/h faster than men.”
In addition, researchers wrote, “when factoring in pool swimming as well, while females gained ground on superior male swimmers during middle years, younger age groups (up to 10 years old) and older groups (older than 75 to 80 years old) often exceeded men.”
“Two main variables may explain why women can swim faster than men in open-water swimming events: (i) the long distance of around 30 km, (ii) and water colder than ~20 °C.,” researchers concluded
Ultra-cycling is another sport in which the longer the race, the better women do versus men.
An April 2020 study looked at data from 1996 to 2018 from the Ultra-Cycling Marathon Association (UMCA), including races of 100, 200, 400, and 500 miles. A total of 12,716 race results were analyzed in age groups of 18 to 34, 35 to 44, 45 to 59, and 60 and older.
“Men were faster than women in 100 and 200 mile races, but no sex differences were identified for the 400 and 500 mile races,” researchers concluded.
The performance ratio of cycling speed was smaller in the 200-mile races than the 100-mile races and remained stable in the 400- and 500-mile races.
“In all race distances, the difference in average cycling speed between women and men decreased with increasing age,” researchers wrote. “The gender gap in performance was closed in several distance-limited ultra-cycling races, such as the 400 and 500 mile races.”
Researchers said in “distance-limited ultra-cycling races (100–500 miles) held from 1996 to 2018, men were faster than women for all race distances. Men showed greater participation than women.”
However, as the races got longer, the women performed better.
“The gender gap decreased in distance-limited ultra-cycling races when race distance and age increased. This finding may empower women to compete in longer race distances to keep up with male competitors,” according to the study.
The same conclusion has been reached in studies examining running competitions, although the gender gap decreases with increasing age but not necessarily with increasing event length.
A June 2019 study examined the physical attributes allowing women to do better at longer distances or in colder environments.
“Men have shown to have better values of physiological performance determinants, such as higher VO2max, lower external load at anaerobic threshold, and better running economy,” researchers wrote.
“However, women normally accumulate more body fat and also have an increased efficiency to produce energy through oxidation of this substrate during endurance performance, which could be an advantage in events with a longer length.
“Furthermore, the natural decline in sex-specific hormones in men while aging may affect their performance, possibly leading to the recently observed sex difference reduction as athletes age,” researchers wrote.
Nonetheless, the physical differences at what most sports consider “peak” athletic age remain.
“Sex differences between the world’s best athletes in most events have remained relatively stable at approximately 8 to 12 percent,” Øyvind Sandbakk, Ph.D., managing director of the Centre for Elite Sports Research at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, told Healthline in 2017.
Many women also face sociopolitical barriers that affect their opportunities to train and participate in elite-level sports.
“In many countries, there are cultural restrictions, religious restrictions, and organizational restrictions,” Laura Capranica, MSc, a professor of sports sciences at the Foro Italico University of Rome, told Healthline.
“So you will not have the same athletic base from which you can have the best, the most talented women proceeding through sports careers,” she said.
Girls and women continue to receive fewer opportunities and less economic and social support in the world of sports.
But those social conditions are improving, some say, and may also help close the performance gap.
“What motivates girls and women to engage is changing over time, and the factors that influence involvement have individual, cultural, and social origins, as well as a number of other consequences,” Jake Dickson, a certified personal trainer and Barbend magazine contributing editor, told Healthline.
“Although, I think there are many ways in which program designers and providers along with government support can encourage girls and women to participate in sports and physical activity programs,” he said.
Nature and nurture impact performance
Sex-related hormones can also influence performance gaps between genders.
Some women with intersex conditions and other differences in sex development have unusually high levels of testosterone.
But on average, women tend to have lower levels of circulating testosterone than men.
This likely contributes to lower average muscle mass and cardiovascular capacity among women, which in turn affects their athletic performance.
Transgender athletes are also being recognized earlier and have options to transition earlier, which affects physical development.
“A transgender man who went through a female puberty should be unable to beat a cisgender man because he would lack the structural characteristics of someone who has gone through a male puberty such as broader shoulders, bigger hands, greater cardiovascular capacity, more muscle mass, etc.,” Robert Herbst, a 19-time world champion powerlifter and a member of the New York State Bar Association Task Force on Transgender Youth in Sports, told Healthline.
“A transgender man who transitioned earlier would be closer depending on the hormone therapy, especially the amount of testosterone and human growth hormone he received, although he may still lack other attributes such as competitiveness or mental toughness, which are drilled into boys as they are raised in sports,” Herbst said.
He said the good news is that early training for girls is becoming more common.
“Non-trans women are getting closer to men because more girls are being exposed to sports such as in youth leagues, private instruction, and travel teams at an earlier age,” Herbst said. “This increases the pool of potential athletes and also gives more girls an athletic background similar to that of boys.”
“Also, more girls and teens are following harder and more sophisticated training regimens similar to that of males such as weight training and nutrition,” he added. “Girls are being encouraged to be competitive, so they are not being limited by societal concerns of not being feminine. This results in more female athletes coming closer to realizing their genetic potential, which brings them closer to men’s performances.”
Comparisons may be misplaced
Given the average differences in physiology and opportunities, some experts question the usefulness of comparing the sports performance of men and women.
On the one hand, it’s possible to acknowledge differences in biology without devaluing the efforts and achievements of women athletes.
“Part of the reason that we divide a lot of sports by gender is because the ability level is, just on average, fundamentally different between men and women. It’s not that different in some ways than when we segregate wrestling by weight class,” Alice Dreger, Ph.D., a sex researcher and historian of medicine and science, told Healthline.
“I don’t know why that has to be seen as an antifeminist claim,” she said. “There are lots of ways to support women in sports, while not denying the reality of hormones mattering, and height mattering, and oxygen processing mattering, and all that kind of stuff.”
On the other hand, overly simplistic comparisons may contribute to inequitable attitudes about women and distract from more useful conversations.
“Why are people interested in comparing women and men? It often has a sort of discriminatory philosophy underneath,” Capranica argued.
“I would stop doing that kind of comparison, which is quite useless. Instead, I would focus on social opportunities for sport,” she continued.
“I want women to have our own opportunities to play, to compete, and to use sport as a springboard, as a social and personal tool for empowerment,” Capranica said. “How can we bridge the gaps in opportunity? In my opinion, that should be the question we focus on.”
This story was updated by Tony Hicks on March 16, 2022.