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Why Are So Few Women Running Ultra-Marathons?

As a female ultra-runner and running coach, I was intrigued when I stumbled upon a study titled “Enablers and barriers in ultra-running: a comparison of male and female ultra-runners.”

Ultra-running has seen exponential growth in the last decade. However, considerably more men than women toe the starting lines of ultra-marathon races.

Why is this so?

And should we change it? Should we encourage more women to sign up for races?

The study tries to answer the first question. I will give my opinion on the second question in the conclusion of this article.

So how did the authors conduct the study, and what did they find? Let’s find out.

Study Methods

The research team from the University of the West of Scotland looked at two Scottish Ultra-marathons – the Scottish Jedburgh 3 Peaks ultra (JP3, 38 miles) and the Highland Fling race (HFR, 53 miles). 

The researchers tried to discover gender differences in motivation, barriers and enabling factors to participate in ultra-marathon races. To do that, they used a constraints model that described three main aspects of constraints for leisure activities: 

  • intrapersonal (psychology and preferences)
  • interpersonal (relationships with others)
  • structural (social factors)

Closely related to this constraints model is the concept of “negotiation efficiency.” This concept describes how good you think you are to be able to negotiate around those constraints.

For example, if your significant other doesn’t like the idea of you being away from home, running, that would be an interpersonal constraint. How well you negotiate around it to still be able to go running is your negotiation efficiency.

The researchers theorized that men and women had similar constraints – or barriers – that made entering races difficult for them. Men, however, had a greater negotiation efficiency and hence could make it to the start line more often than women.

Was this theory confirmed? Let’s look at the results of the study.

Study Results

Through the analysis of the online questionnaires and the one-to-one interviews, the research team was able to identify the following three themes and subthemes:

  1. internal context (age, injury history, time management)
  2. external context (nature, community, race environment, family & friends)
  3. internal dialogue & intrinsic motivations (challenge, self-belief, enjoyment, achievement, adventure)

Within the context of these themes, the following enablers and barriers to ultra-marathon running emerged:

1. Internal Context

Age
While some runners regarded ultra-running as a means to “stave off aging,” most interviewees saw age as a limiting factor. Runners feared that their increasing age might slow them down and increase their risk for injury.

Time
A lack of training time was cited most often as the limiting factor for training for an ultra-marathon. Men and women alike saw juggling training with work and family commitments as the main limiting factor.

However, negotiating around time restrictions was easier when more than one family member was involved in training. For example, runners reported running with their partners or taking turns regarding running and childcare.

The researchers note that while both men and women saw a lack of time as the main limiting factor for training, there were differences between genders in negotiation around that constraint.

For example, women reported delaying the training until their children were of a certain age and thus prioritizing family time. There were no such reports from men who participated in this study.

2. External Context

Nature
Runners cited having to train in cold and rainy conditions as a challenge to prepare for ultra-marathons. On the other hand, spending time in nature was a significant enabler and contributed to the joy of ultramarathon training and -racing.

Friends and family
Friends and family were often cited as enablers to ultra-marathon training. Both males and females reported that having friends in the ultra-running community or a partner who also pursues ultra-running are huge factors that keep them in the sport.

In some cases, having family members who ran were the catalyst for the study participant to start running themselves.

3. Internal dialogue and intrinsic motivation

Many study participants cited that they wanted a challenge as a reason for entering ultra-marathon events. While both genders want to “explore their limits,” one female respondent mentioned why females are likely to be less confident going into those longer events: 

“I think the tougher the races are, the less women you see as well and I think part of that is it’s a bit of a natural thing that I definitely felt myself which is that as women we are a little bit more cautious and I think we kind of think we almost need to have done something before we are ready to do it, so I think a lot of us think I couldn’t to do this so I’m not willing to try.”

Interpretation Of Study Results

I think it becomes pretty clear that trying to discern a limiting factor that is unique to women and their ability to enter ultra-marathon races is an exercise in futility.

In this study, women and men reported the same constraints, and both genders had to negotiate around time constraints.

However, we need to be aware that the survey is biased because it only included women who already successfully negotiated barriers, especially family commitments.

A higher percentage of men (60% for both races) than women (50% and 38%) had dependents could mean it is easier for fathers to make time for training than for mothers.

The authors of the study hint at this as well, reporting that previous studies show a higher percentage of women racing the half-marathon and marathon distance were living without a partner and children than men who were running the same events.

The researchers mention that women are thought to have a lower sense of entitlement to leisure activities than men. This, in turn, is the result of our societal structure, where women are traditionally seen as the primary caregiver and homemakers.

And even though traditional family roles have undergone a shift in recent decades and both genders equally contribute to childcare, many women still struggle to negotiate effectively around family constraints.

The researchers argue that this has become apparent in their study where both men and women reported needing to negotiate around family time.

Still, only women said that they delayed training due to having young children.

The study’s authors also point out that many women may have less confidence to negotiate time away from their family to train due to internalized societal expectations of what it means to be a good mother.

Do We Need To Increase Women's Participation In Ultrarunning Events?

As a passionate ultra-runner, I am biased. I would love to see more women running ultra-marathons.

But then, I would like to see more people pursuing a physical hobby in general. It is no secret that our societies in industrialized countries are increasingly becoming sedentary, and fewer of us are experiencing the wonderful outdoors regularly.

I think promoting equal media coverage of men and women winners of races is essential, as are equal opportunities and sponsorships contracts.

However, some measures have been proposed by coaches and runners alike that I don’t like – such as reserving a certain percentage of lottery entries in premier races for women or giving women double the chances in lotteries in male-dominated races.

I am against introducing this bias for two reasons.

First of all, registering for most races is on a first-come-first-serve basis, which means you can register as long as there are spots left and you have met any qualifying criteria your chosen race requires.

Reserving a certain percentage in those races for women would discriminate against men since it introduces a bias where everyone had an equal chance.

Secondly, rejecting gender-blind lotteries doesn’t solve the real underlying cause of the low participation of women in ultra-marathon races.

Instead of asking, “how can we increase the percentage by reserving spots exclusively for women” we need to ask, “are women interested in ultra-running but don’t do it because family commitments or societal expectations keep them from pursuing this sport”?

Because the real issue is not that race directors “allow” so few women to enter their races but that fewer women than men have the resources to put in enough training time that would enable them to get to the starting line in the first place.

And since there has been a gradual increase in female participation over the last decade and we’re seeing more women getting media coverage and sponsorship deals, I think it is only a matter of time that female involvement will catch up.

The same has happened in the marathon distance.

I prefer that women are granted equal opportunities as men regarding taking time for training rather than artificially introducing a gender bias when allocating starting places.

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