An extraterrestrial making its first landing on our planet might easily form the opinion that the seemingly larger-sized human male is biologically superior to the average smaller-sized female. But, upon closer study, they might find that biological disadvantages and advantages can also be equally distributed between the sexes. For instance, while men may be generally be physically larger or stronger than women who have, on average, less total muscle mass, what women lack in physical strength they seem able to make up for in psychological (emotional and mental) strength!
Amazing Woman Spotlight: UltraRunner Courtney Dauwalter
Take 33-year-old Courtney Dauwalter, for example. A female ultrarunner with a reputation for outrunning men and shattering course records, her claim to fame includes winning 11 ultramarathons and finishing second in seven other endurance races, beating out men and women alike. Dauwalter specializes in extremely long races, but her successes have opened a debate about how men’s emotional and mental strengths apply to endurance sports.
A former science teacher from Golden, Colorado, Dauwalter says, “The race is set up perfectly to test your limits. You just go until you reach your own finish line.” And this means going mile for mile against bigger and physically stronger men — and winning. For now, elite ultrarunning is one of the few sports in which women appear able to hold their own with men, and this much is clear: As the distance lengthens, the physical advantages that men have grows smaller.
Evolutionary biologist Healther Heying says, “We know that men are simply bigger and have more muscle mass and are more powerful and faster, [but] this is about stamina, and stamina is some combination of, yes, strength, but also psychological will. It begs the question, ‘Is there something going on for women, perhaps given our very long evolutionary history as mammals who spent a long time gestating and then giving birth, that gives us a psychological edge in extremely long-term endurance events?'”
When thinking about what drives her and allows her to win, Dauwalter believes that, as her threshold for pain increases, so does her ability to run farther. She says, “I put myself in situations where suffering is going to be involved and hope to be able to tap into the mental piece every time that physical pain becomes too much.”
Mental Strength vs. Physical Strength
That mental piece Dauwalter is referring to may be the key to understanding why women might be stronger than men in certain arenas. As a society, we spend a lot of time talking about physical strength. Workout videos generate more than 300 billion dollars a year, newsstands are filled with fitness and weightlifting magazines, and television commercials are dominated by the latest weight loss supplements and fad diets. On the other hand, mental strength has never attracted that much attention. Yet, without mental strength, we probably won’t reach our physical fitness goals — or any other goals, for that matter.
When it comes to ultrarunning, or sports in general, having mental strength is nearly as important for athletes as physical fitness — for both men and women. Being able to battle through the pressure and not bottle it up by being affected by the noise of the crowd or the size of competitors helps athletes to focus on their goals. If the mind is tired, the body will follow no matter what you want to do. If the mind is strong, it can convince the body to keep going.
However, when it comes to high-pressure situations, studies have shown that women could have a psychological advantage over men. For instance, in one study, researchers analyzed more than 8,200 men’s and women’s tennis games and found that men consistently choked under competitive pressure, but with regard to women, the results were mixed. Furthermore, researchers asserted that, “[E]ven if women show a drop in performance in the more crucial stages of the match, [that drop] is still about 50% smaller than that of men.” While tennis is not quite in the same ballpark as ultrarunning, it does lend the question of: Are women psychologically stronger than men and, if so, why?
Some scientists feel it’s biological. According to Alex Krumer, an author of the study and behavioral economics researcher at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland, “If you look at the literature on cortisol, the stress hormone, you’ll find that levels of it increase more rapidly in men than in women — in scenarios from golf rounds to public speaking — and those spikes can hurt performance.” Krumer continues, “Physically speaking, men are still stronger than women, on average. But if you’re talking about mental toughness, maybe in certain circumstances, it’s women who have the edge.”
Could this be the reason why Courtney Dauwalter is such a successful female athlete? We believe so! Kim, owner of SportPort™, says, “We love to see and work with women who are determined and passionate about what they do. We are passionate about fitness and health. Passion motivates. That’s what drives us to succeed.”