How Heat and Gender Affect Running Performance

In running, better pacing usually translates into better overall performance. A recent study investigated the role of gender and heat stress in pacing during a race.

Pacing is one of the keys to successful running. Simply put, pacing is the ability to independently maintain a particular velocity. I say independently because a lot of runners set their pace based on others around them. Many beginners spend the first few minutes of a race trying to separate themselves from the pack and burn out right off the bat. This would be an example of bad pacing.

Although pacing takes practice, it’s also affected by other factors. A recent study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shed some light on the role of two of those factors, gender and heat, in pacing.

You might wonder what gender could possibly have to do with running performance and pacing in particular. The relation isn’t well understood, but there is one interesting theory that involves the interplay between gender and heat stress. When we get too hot, our bodies don’t work as well as they do in optimal temperatures. When we apply this phenomenon to running, it would mean our pace suffers.

Surface area is one biological factor that affects heat stress. More surface area relative to body mass means more heat lost to the environment from the body, and thus better cooling when it’s hot. In general, women tend to have more surface area relative to mass, which means they are more effective at tolerating heat. Therefore, it would seem women would also be better at pacing themselves during a race.

Indeed, in this study the researchers found that the non-elite women were much better pacers than the non-elite men. This was true in a race that took place in near-freezing temperatures, and the difference between genders predictably grew in a race that took place on a hot day. The difference diminished as finish times increased. Elite runners, male or female, were still affected by the heat but were each equally good pacers as the other. Not surprisingly, the elite runners were also better at pacing than the non-elite runners.

All non-elite runners should practice pacing, as it will ultimately improve run times. In fact, based on the results of this study, it seems pacing is one of the things that separates the elite from the non-elite. For those who are still working on pacing, and especially for the guys, one trick the researchers recommend is to slow down at the start of the race. The group of racers at the starting line combined with the adrenaline rush will make you want to run fast, but resist the urge, especially on a hot day. You’ll be glad you did at the end of the race.


1. Nicholas W. Trubee, et. al., “Effects of Heat Stress and Sex on Pacing in Marathon Runners,Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000295

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