There has been a lot of recent discussion around the low levels of female participation in ultrarunning. Although some races are seeing more women take part (57% of the upcoming Grimreaper Ultra 40 mile field is female; 42% of January’s Hardmoors 30), the majority of ultras still have comparatively few female participants, particularly at longer races of 50+ miles. My focus is currently on this week’s Lakeland races, where women will make up 34% of the field in the Lakeland 50, but only 16% in the Lakeland 100.
It is easy to make assumptions about why this might be, but I wanted to find out from female runners themselves. 1,272 women, ranging in age from 18 to 70, responded to my internet survey about female participation in ultrarunning. 534 (42%) of them had already run an ultra, while the rest had not. The survey was shared via Facebook running groups (both ultrarunning specific and general running groups), on my own Facebook page and via Twitter. Here’s what they thought.
Would you like to run an ultra?
It is often assumed that women are not running ultras because biological predisposition means they just don’t want to. Recent Facebook discussions I have seen have included several variations on these lines put forward by both men and women that “endurance sports appeal more to men because of their more egocentric mindset” and “most women just don’t want to do it”. However, based on this survey it would appear that this is a false assumption. 82% of those surveyed had either already run an ultra or would like to run one. Now, I appreciate that there may be some bias in this, in that those surveyed probably included a disproportionate number of those who already had some interest in ultra running, but it also demonstrates that there are a significant number of women out there (39% of those surveyed) who would like to run an ultra but have not yet done so.
What factors stop you running an ultra?
The overwhelming factor that stopped women running an ultra was lack of time to train, which may be reflected in the fact that the majority of those surveyed (72%) are running fewer than 30 miles a week. Among those who had already run an ultra this weekly mileage was slightly higher. The women surveyed did not have excessively high views of the mileage needed to prepare for an ultra marathon, with 30-40 and 40-50 miles being selected as the ideal training mileage (admittedly a question very dependent on the distance you are training for, but I wondered whether women were being put off by an unrealistic view of the amount of training required).
Confidence also appears to be a considerable obstacle to female participation, with significant numbers believing that they are not good enough to run an ultra (38%) or feeling intimidated by other runners (24%). Some women also felt they lacked knowledge about how to prepare for an ultramarathon and felt intimidated about asking ‘beginner’ questions: “Ultra runners come across as very ‘bullish’ and can be quite sarcastic about new runners and almost unkind about their initial questions and issues.”
Reasons put forward under the “other” response included injury problems (both managing existing injuries and the fear of injury) and the cost of entry to races. A recurring theme was also concern about being too slow and failing to meet cut off times; one runner explaining “I feel I’d be too slow even if I can make the distance”.
What is the biggest obstacle to your training?
When asked about the biggest obstacle to their training, time related factors again featured very highly, with work being the single biggest obstacle. Under the “other” responses, family commitments and other responsibilities were frequently mentioned, as well as the difficulty of fitting in both running and other hobbies. The word ‘guilt’ featured in many responses: “my biggest barrier is that the training (particularly long runs) makes me feel guilty about time away from the family and doing chores. Shorter runs I fit in before work and before they are awake”.
What would make you more likely to run an ultra?
It would appear that many women are put off running ultras because of anxiety about cut off times. 38% said that more generous cut offs would make them more likely to try an ultra. One runner explained that “Ultras seem scary and elite. Not really for plodders like me,” while another said “I am too slow to run an ultra although I wish this was not so”.
Role models among friends and peers can also help, with 36% feeling they would be encouraged by friends who have run an ultra. One woman described that “it took me a long time to think I was capable, but having friends taking on such challenges inspired me and made me think if they can, so can I…” Other respondents felt they would like someone of a similar level to train with, or would like to see more representation of ordinary (and especially older) women: “There is a distinct lack of representation of female runners in the media and those that there are seem to be so far away from an ‘ordinary’ runner like myself.”
More skills courses and recce runs were also seen as helpful, with some women keen to attend women only courses and others happy to attend mixed courses. A small number would like to see female only races, but many felt that this was not necessary, with ultras generally being praised for their friendly, inclusive and welcoming environment: “The ultras I’ve done have been super friendly and inclusive, and often the fastest runner on the course has been a woman.”
A few individual respondents also raised other factors around female participation that I had not previously considered.
Several respondents mentioned menstruation and particularly the lack of toilets at some ultra marathons, which can make it very difficult for women to participate in races during their period.
Another factor raised was body image and anxieties about judgements over body shape and size, such as in the two examples below:
“There’s an assumption that, because I’m in a bigger body and seen as ‘overweight’, I’m not serious about my running.”
“I have a history of eating disorders … There’s an assumption that I’m trying to lose weight, or that I’d do ‘better’ (go faster?) if I was smaller, which is very discouraging and a dangerous idea to be around.”
On the basis of this survey it does not appear that the assumption that women do not want to take part in ultra marathons is correct.
The biggest obstacle stopping women running ultras was identified as lacking time to train as a result of work, family and other commitments.
There was a general theme of a lack of confidence and self belief, with large numbers considering that they are not good enough to run an ultra and feeling intimidated by other runners. This ties in with the suggestion that many of the women would be encouraged to run an ultra by more generous cut off times and by knowing someone who has run one. It seems that providing role models of ordinary women who run ultras may help to give more women the confidence that they do not need to be superhuman athletes to run an ultra; in the words of Geena Davis “if she can see it, she can be it.”
Once women had actually participated in an ultra marathon the majority were extremely positive about the welcoming and supportive environment at races. For many it seems that their perception of what it takes to be an ultrarunner is more intimidating than the reality of ultra races.
It would be interesting to see how men respond to the same survey, so if you are a male runner please take a moment to complete the survey here (it takes about 3 minutes).