Is there a Gender Difference in Exercise?
by Gemma Carter


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Men vs. Women
The Difference in Endurance Training

Discussing gender differences in exercise and sport may provoke debate on the issue of sexism but this is far from the intention of this article. Here, I evaluate the scientific and biological differences between men and women looking at how their bodies may be individually suited to different training styles which can be fruitful knowledge for anyone looking to further their performance.

Far gone are the days when women were seen as the weaker sex, now female athletes are among the top performers in all sports and iconic in their own right. However, there are many differences between men and women which result in differing race times in many sports, take the marathon for example where the current world record for men is 2.06 and for women it is 2.21.  However, let us not forget that although most focus favours men there are many areas where women may be seen to have an advantage.

The science bit

When comparing the physiological differences between men and women there are three main performance areas that we can evaluate; maximum oxygen consumption, lactate threshold and efficiency.

Maximum oxygen consumption

Generally between men and women there is a shocking 43% difference in maximum oxygen consumption! This is mainly due to the reason that men are bigger on average than females. Maximum oxygen consumptions are represented by a person’s VO2 max and this is the maximal oxygen uptake or the maximum volume of oxygen that can be utilized in one minute during maximal or exhaustive exercise. It is measured as millilitres of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight. Additionally, women generally have lower blood haemoglobin content than men (up to 10% lower!) which make the amount of oxygen a woman can pump round in her blood lower. There is also evidence that women’s hearts are smaller in size, again another limiting factor adding to the considerable evidence in favour of being a man when it comes to endurance in exercise.

It is worthy to note that these measures are for the ‘average’ man and woman and there are indeed many women out there who have VO2 maxes which would measure against many men’s but in general we can see the difference.

Lactate threshold

Another measure of endurance is the lactate threshold. It measures the intensity at which lactic acid builds up in the blood stream at levels above baseline values. So do men have better lactate thresholds than women?

Generally the answer is NO. When it comes down to skeletal muscles of men and women there is hardly any difference. The fibre distribution is no different and women and men seem to respond similarly when exercising in this regard.

When it comes to ultra-endurance events such as marathons and ultra marathons this then would suggest that in reference to lactate thresholds men and women are on the same competitive level especially as at this level both genders have pushed themselves to their highest slow twitch fibre levels.


Efficiency can be an ambiguous measure, as it really depends on the sport in question. Differing research has found women to be more, less and equally efficient compared to men! When we talk about running, the efficiency differences between men and women can be minimal as here they are more a product of an individual’s running efficiency regardless of their gender. This leaves the debate to focus on other sports where body shape, body mass and anthropometric differences are more important.

Interestingly, in sports such as running and cycling body shapes of women would be more advantageous with narrower upper bodies meaning less wind drag however in other sports such as football and swimming the gender advantage may reverse.

When we talk about muscle strength and power it is obvious that men would be assumed to have an advantage. In sports classified as ‘power-endurance events’ such as weight lifting, men may be able to perform better, where on average upper body strengths between men and women show a 40-50% difference.  This is generally down to men having a greater upper body MASS. Interestingly when it comes to muscle quality, there is no difference between men and women. So it is issue of QUANTITY not QUALITY!

So in conclusion to these three main physiological areas it can be seen that the only consistent area where woman may have a disadvantage to men is in maximum oxygen consumption. Even after accounting for factors such as bodyweight, body fat percentage the gap still remains roughly 10-15%.

Psychological difference between men and women

First, let’s say THESE ARE GENERALISATIONS! As a woman myself I would be the first in line to defend myself and any other athletic woman, praising our ability to push harder, focus on the goal of our training and therefore succeed but there are a few issues that need to be raised ( even if only for argument’s sake!)

Generally men like to monitor their progress when it comes to training. They are the ones calculating, comparing and evaluating their numbers and performance whereas (apparently) us women are more inclined to distraction with a book, magazine or the trusty iPod.

The other issue to be raised is emotional state. Men seem to have the general ability to focus in on their training unemotionally and therefore are less affected by outside influences on their training performance whereas women are more inclined to let emotional matters affect their performance. However this may not always be a bad thing! When we are in a positive mood, this may lead to longer training and higher endurance where our male counterparts may have just stopped because that’s what their calculations have told them to do.

Competition - another psychological difference between men and women.  Again a generalisation but men seem to perform better in terms of competition than women. When it comes to competitive training situations men are relatively good and like training to compete, thriving on the aggression and testosterone that this builds up and yes I hear all you women cry ‘oh how very caveman like!’.  When it comes to women, we prefer to train in non competitive groups, such as with a training partner or friend hence the popularity of  ‘classes’ amongst women. This fellowship is seen to be more suiting to women where we enjoy the company and this then leads us to train harder for longer.

In conclusion to the psychological determinants of training it would seem that both men and women have conditions which favour one more than the other. It is unfair to say men are better prepared mentally for endurance and perseverance in training than women just as it is unfair to say that men would not be able to train as effectively in a non competitive group situation. Here I think the argument boils down to ‘each to their own’ and the fact that when it comes to training and performance it is a matter of finding what suits YOU regardless. If you train better reading your favourite novel, by calculating each repetition or chatting with a friend then go for it!

In summary, it can be seen that the gender debate for some will rage on, trying to for once and for all decipher who really is the supreme sex when it comes to endurance performance and training. Yes, I will give you that when it boils down solely to maximum oxygen consumption men do indeed have a distinct advantage but this is definitely only one measure and more than this - it is an average. Anyone who trains regularly and trains hard knows that pushing yourself is not usually a matter of physical boundaries but MENTAL BOUNDARIES. It is about finding out how much we can take mentally, how much we can endure psychologically. After all, 30% of training is physical and 70% is mental.

Therefore I will leave this article with this final quote to ponder on:

‘The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win’
- Sir Roger Banister, the first athlete to run the mile in less than four minutes.

Article by:
Gemma Carter who is a fully trained fitness and life coach.
Visit her website at or email her at:

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