women runners

Running’s Gender Divide

Women have started to claim the once male-dominated sport of road racing.

Road races were once reserved for men only—women weren’t officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon until 1972, five years after Kathrine Switzer became the first to run the race as a numbered entrant. For decades, male competitors continued to crowd the start lines, far outnumbering their female counterparts.

But more recently, women began showing up in larger numbers. In 2010, for the first time ever, they made up the majority (53 percent) of race registrants, says Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA based in Wichita, Kansas.

In recent years, the gender divide has only grown, with women accounting for 59 percent of the pack at U.S. road races last year.

The shift can be explained in part by the economic downturn around the late 2000s, Harshbarger says, when many people gave up country club events and took up running instead, “where all you really need is time and a pair of shoes,” he explains. Plus, he adds, it pivoted from a solitary activity to something far more social, with more women turning to it for its movement and social elements. 

There may be a physical component at play, too, says David Siik, Los Angeles-based creator of Equinox’s Precision Running program. For women, cardio performance often peaks later in life than it does for men. “They naturally can take on a longer running life, signing up for races far into their golden years,” he explains.

But if men are training less on the road, they must be turning to other fitness feats instead.

To be clear, men aren’t missing entirely: Last year, they wore 56 percent of marathon bibs, Harshbarger says, and other feats like completing a marathon in every state are still male-dominant. 

That said, men could be turning away from traditional road races and toward newer iterations of the sport like obstacle courses and mud runs, says Angela Moore, studio manager for the Precision Running Lab at Equinox Chestnut Hill in Boston. (By some estimates, women make up an average of 32 percent of obstacle course race participants.)

While the shift is happening for women as well, an even greater emphasis amongst men on building muscle has made lifting and HIIT more popular than longer-distance running and long-duration cardio, Moore says. Plus, “the majority of men’s workout plans online include lifting routines and don’t stress the importance of cardio.” 

Siik adds that more and more men voice concerns that running will cause them to lose muscle: “Society has provoked further extremes, causing pressure for women to be leaner and men to be more muscular.”

But when done correctly, the sport calls for full-body engagement and works the core, arms, legs, and mind. Here’s how men can get back on their feet, whether on the treadmill, on the road, or at the start lines. 

1. Sign up for a short race.
Training for long-haul races is time-consuming, and it’s common for men (more so than for women) to overtrain and risk injury, burnout, and a loss of interest in the process, says Michael Olzinski, CSCS, a Precision Running coach at Equinox Sports Club San Francisco. So it’s a good thing that shorter race distances like the mile are making a comeback, he says.

Sign up for a mile-long course and follow the hashtag #BringBackTheMile. “Finishing one mile as fast as you can is one of the greatest and most athletic things you can do,” Olzinski says. To accomplish it, “you have to be strong, mobile, powerful, and skilled.” 

2. Follow an all-encompassing program.
Some men may refrain from racing because they don’t understand that you need to be strong to be a runner, says Olzinski.

In fact, running and lifting are complementary: The former burns fat and builds muscle, helping you in the weight room, and strength training also improves your performance on the road, Moore says. Relying on a holistic program that includes running, strength training, mobility work, proper nutrition, and adequate recovery can improve results both on and off the road. 

3. Train on the treadmill.
If you’ve never been a runner or you’ve lost your passion for the pavement, consider starting on the treadmill in a class environment. Balancing outdoor runs with indoor ones changes your environment and helps you customize your workouts. In programs like Precision Running, “people come to get in better shape and accidentally discover the athlete within them,” says Siik. And as with road races, there’s an element of camaraderie in the group fitness environment as well.

Photo: Getty Images