Sex Differences in Athletic Performance

in Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal
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  • 1 Department of Exercise & Sport Science 250 S. 1850 E., Room 251 University of Utah Salt Lake City, UT 84112
  • 2 Department of Exercise Science and Physical Education Arizona State University
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Do women out-perform men in endurance sports? Are women as strong, pound for pound, as men? Many questions have been raised about the ability of women and men to perform physical tasks equally well. The issue of sex differences and similarities in performance has considerable significance today as women seek physically demanding careers in police-work, fire-fighting, the military, industry, and athletics. As more women participate in recreational and career opportunities formerly open only to men, knowledge about sex differences in response to physical exertion and training becomes increasingly important. In this paper we describes differences between the sexes in athletic performance.

Most performance differences are due to variations in morphological (structural) or physiological characteristics typical of women and men (Wells, 1991). Nevertheless, variations in these characteristics are often as large or larger within each sex as they are between the sexes. The same is true of physical performance. Thus, when the entire population is considered, there are extensive differences in performance within each sex, and considerable overlap in performance between the sexes.

We will base our examination of performance differences on the most outstanding performances of each sex: those exemplified by World Records in athletic events. We seek to answer such questions as: How large are sex differences in world record performances? Can existing performance differences be explained entirely by biological differences between the sexes? Or, are a large portion of these performance differ-ences attributable to sociocultural factors?

We will analyze sex differences in performance relative to the human energy system. This system allows an extraordinary range of mechanisms for neuromuscular coordination and metabolism. Because of this, the human has a virtually unlimited movement repertoire and is capable of movements requiring large bursts of energy over very brief periods of time, as well as movements requiring low levels of energy production over very long periods of time. We will progress from sports that require very high intensity and explosive quality movements such as jumping and power lifting, through the “energy spectrum” to feats of endurance such as marathon running, ultra-distance triathlon, and open-water distance swimming.

Due to our desire to focus this paper on a reasonable amount of data, our analysis will be limited as follows:

1) for sex differences in high intensity-brief duration, explosive per-formance, we will discuss the high jump, long jump, and various mea-sures of strength (powerlifting),

2) for sex differences in high intensity-short duration performance, we will present data on sprint running (100m, 400m) and swimming (100m),

3) for sex differences in moderate intensity-moderate duration performance, we will discuss middle-distance running (1500m, 5000m, 10,000m), and swimming (1500m), and

4) for differences in low intensity-long duration performance, we will discuss the marathon, the "Ironman Triathlon," and open ocean distance swimming.

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