Does Science Explain Why So Many More Women Than Men Collapse At The End Of Races?

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by LetsRun.com
April 5, 2017

At the end of the women’s U20 race at 2017 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, there was a familiar sight to distance fans: scores of women collapsing on the ground. We weren’t the only ones to notice. Take a look at this photo of the finish line area after the girls’ U20 race from a Ugandan paper.

women-collapse-world-xc

In the past, the phenomenon of a slew of women collapsing at the finish of xc races has been noticed by many of our visitors and discussed multiple times over the years on the messageboard:

2016: Do women runners fall, collapse, trip, flop etc. more than male runners? Watching trials, makes me wonder.
2014: Collapsing at the 6km XC finish? A new thing? Theatrics or real exhaustion?
2007: Hilarious [email protected] pre-nats
2007: Do Women Push Themselves Harder Than Males?
 2002: WOMEN ARE TOUGHER THAN MEN

Now we know that several of you may think that all of the women collapsing together is largely histrionics (we’ve been at meets where even women’s distance coaches have pointed out this phenomenon to us, and not in a flattering way), but we wondered if there might be a scientific reason as to why women collapse more often than men after races.

After all, we already know that women are biologically more likely to shed tears than men (they have smaller tear ducts; thus tears shouldn’t be viewed as a sign of weakness) and we’ve never believed that women’s distance runners are less tough than men – physical therapist Gerard Hartmann, who has worked on the likes of Bob Kennedy, Khalid Khannouchi, Moses Kiptanui, and Haile Gebrselassie during his career, told us 15 years ago that of all the athletes he ever worked with, the one with the highest pain tolerance, by far, was Paula Radcliffe.

So we reached out to sports scientist Ross Tucker and asked him if there might be a biological reason as to why women collapse after races more often than men. He responded quickly by saying it was an interesting question and that he knew off the top of his head that women have a “lower sweat capacity” than men. He then promised to look into it and he fulfilled that promise as he wrote back a few hours later with a detailed explanation saying we were on to something:

OK, so I found out a little bit more on the women vs men issue.  It has been clearly documented that women have what is called a lower “orthostatic tolerance”, which is basically saying that they have less ability to cope with a drop in blood pressure.
 
That drop in blood pressure can happen when a runner suddenly stops running, because blood has been sent to the legs during exercise, and if there is not enough constriction in those blood vessels, then the athlete faints because blood pressure drops (it’s not dissimilar to what happens when people faint on hot days standing in parades, or when they get up suddenly and feel light-headed).
 
When you exercise on a hot day, this problem is exacerbated because blood is being sent to the skin to help cool the body, making that blood pressure/cerebral circulation challenge even greater.
 
So anyway, it’s been documented that this is more likely to happen in women, probably because they can’t do that constriction response as well as men.

More: Photos from Gerard Hartmann’s Clinic
2016: Do women runners fall, collapse, trip, flop etc. more than male runners? Watching trials, makes me wonder.
2014: Collapsing at the 6km XC finish? A new thing? Theatrics or real exhaustion?
2007: Hilarious [email protected] pre-nats
2007: Do Women Push Themselves Harder Than Males?
2002: WOMEN ARE TOUGHER THAN MEN

PS. One other possible explanation for women collapsing more often than men would be if they are able to push themselves harder than men. Tucker said there isn’t any scientific evidence supporting that theory.

There have been studies looking at how men and women perceive exercise.
 
In one, they had men and women do knee extension exercises to fatigue, and they actually found that women’s perceived exertion rose slightly faster than the men’s.  Which suggests that doing relatively the same task, women actually report slightly higher effort perception.  That would argue against a theory of women having higher thresholds, though there’s some fine-print there because pain is not necessarily exertion, it’s just part of it.
In another, men and women ran to exhaustion on a treadmill, and they found that the perceived exertion was similar at the same relative intensity.
 
In other words, there doesn’t seem to be any basis for a theory that women perceive exercise as easier and thus go harder, and nor is there any evidence that women can tolerate higher pain or exertion to push harder.
 
Also, elite athletes are a different ballgame, as you know.  I think a common trait they all share is the ability to tolerate pain, and push well into a very high perceived exertion.  So I don’t think men and women will be any different within an elite population.

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