How The Gender Gap In Research Is Preventing Female Runners From Reaching Their Full Potential

And how initiatives like Lululemon's FURTHER is helping create parity

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All aspects of running, from super shoes to training methods, have been driven forward by one thing: research. However, female athletes often find themselves on the sidelines, overshadowed by a vast body of literature focused predominantly on their male counterparts. Despite the remarkable strides made in women’s sports, a glaring discrepancy persists in the attention and resources allocated to studying female athletes. 

This gender gap in research not only perpetuates inequality but also undermines the health, performance, and overall well-being of female athletes.

An examination of existing scientific literature reveals a pervasive lack of female-specific data across various domains of sports research. From medical investigations to performance optimization strategies, the overwhelming majority of guidelines and protocols are derived from studies conducted primarily on male athletes. 

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Photo Credit: Lululemon

Why Is The Research Gap So Important?

This lack of parity in female-focused research poses significant challenges not only for the athletes themselves but also for healthcare professionals and sports scientists tasked with designing training regimens, injury prevention programs, and rehabilitation protocols tailored to the unique physiological characteristics of female athletes.

One notable area where this imbalance is particularly pronounced is in the study of hip and pelvis-related injuries, which are prevalent among athletes of both genders. 

However, due to anatomical differences, female athletes are more susceptible to certain types of hip injuries, such as early-onset osteoarthritis, compared to their male counterparts. Yet, the scarcity of female-specific data hampers efforts to develop targeted interventions and preventive measures to mitigate these risks effectively.

What Is Being Done To Bridge The Gap?

Recent initiatives, such as those undertaken at the Lululemon FURTHER Six-Day Ultramarathon, have sought to address this disparity by conducting focused research on female athletes. 

Collaborating with the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, one overarching goal of the event was to collect a wealth of data on female ultrarunners in order to help bridge the gender gap in research.

These endeavors underscore the critical need for more extensive and inclusive research efforts dedicated to understanding the nuances of female athleticism.

The urgency of closing the gender gap in sports research was also a focal point of discussion at the biennial Female Athlete Conference, which was held in Boston last June. 

Experts from diverse fields convened to confront the persistent challenges and advocate for greater investment in female-focused research initiatives.

Despite the significant progress in women’s sports, the disparity in research funding and attention remains a pressing concern, requiring concerted efforts from stakeholders across the sports landscape.

What Are The Implications For Female Athletes?

The implications of this research gap extend far beyond academia, impacting the competitiveness and sustainability of women’s sports on a global scale. 

The absence of evidence-informed practices tailored to female athletes not only compromises their performance potential but also jeopardizes their long-term health and well-being. 

As evidenced by the alarming rate of injuries, such as ACL tears, among female athletes, when compared to male athletes, the consequences of neglecting female-specific research can be stark and detrimental to the integrity of the sport.

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Photo Credit: Lululemon

What Kind Of Research Needs To Be Done?

With Lululemon’s most recent initiative to bridge the gender gap in research, the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific spent time before, during, and after the event, creating a vat of data to help propel female athlete research.

For female-specific sports research, especially in disciplines like ultra running, it’s essential to collect a wide range of data that considers the unique physiological, psychological, and performance-related factors that affect female athletes. 

Although Lululemon hasn’t disclosed exactly what research they are conducting or what data they are collecting, here is a non-exhaustive list of data points the sportswear giant may be reporting on.

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Photo Credit: Lululemon

Physiological Data:

  • Hormonal Profiles: Tracking menstrual cycle phase and hormone levels (e.g., estrogen, progesterone) to understand how hormonal fluctuations impact performance, recovery, and injury risk.
  • Body Composition: Assessing body fat percentage, muscle mass, and bone density to understand how variations in body composition affect performance and injury risk.
  • Metabolic Parameters: Measuring resting metabolic rate, substrate utilization during exercise, and energy expenditure to develop personalized nutrition and fueling strategies.
  • Cardiovascular Function: Monitoring heart rate variability, cardiac output, and aerobic capacity to assess cardiovascular health and fitness levels.

Performance Data:

  • Race Performance: Recording race times, distances, and terrain profiles to analyze performance trends and identify factors influencing race outcomes.
  • Training Load: Quantifying training volume, intensity, and frequency to assess training adaptations, monitor fatigue, and prevent overtraining.
  • Biomechanical Analysis: Using motion capture technology to analyze running mechanics and identify biomechanical factors contributing to injury risk or performance limitations.

Psychological Data:

  • Mental Health Assessments: Administering surveys or questionnaires to evaluate psychological well-being, stress levels, mood, and coping strategies among female ultra runners.
  • Motivation and Goal-Setting: Understanding the motivational factors, goal orientations, and intrinsic/extrinsic motivations that drive female athletes to participate in ultrarunning and pursue specific performance goals.
  • Body Image and Self-Esteem: Examining body image perceptions, self-esteem levels, and attitudes toward body weight and shape to address psychological factors influencing performance and well-being.

Injury and Recovery Data:

  • Injury History: Documenting past injuries, injury types, and recovery timelines to identify injury patterns and risk factors specific to female ultra runners.
  • Recovery strategies: Collecting data on recovery practices, such as sleep quality, nutrition habits, foam rolling, and stretching routines, to assess their effectiveness in promoting recovery and reducing injury risk.

Social and Environmental Factors:

  • Sociodemographic Information: Gathering demographic data (e.g., age, ethnicity, socioeconomic status) to understand how social factors influence participation and performance in ultrarunning.
  • Environmental Conditions: Factors like temperature, altitude, humidity, and terrain characteristics are considered to analyze their impact on performance and recovery among female athletes.
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Photo Credit: Lululemon

By collecting comprehensive data across these various domains, researchers from the Canadian Sport Institute Pacific can better understand the unique needs and experiences of female ultrarunners and develop evidence-based interventions to support their performance, health, and well-being.

Efforts to bridge the gender gap in sports research must extend beyond academia and involve collaboration among policymakers, sports organizations, sponsors, and other stakeholders.

Investing in female-focused research initiatives is not only a matter of equity but also a strategic imperative for advancing the field of sports science and promoting the growth of women’s sports worldwide.

Achieving parity in sports research demands a concerted and sustained commitment to prioritizing the study of female athletes. By addressing the systemic biases and barriers that perpetuate the gender gap, we can unlock the full potential of female athleticism, enhance performance outcomes, and ensure a level playing field for all athletes, regardless of gender.

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Jessy has been active her whole life, competing in cross-country, track running, and soccer throughout her undergrad. She pivoted to road cycling after completing her Bachelor of Kinesiology with Nutrition from Acadia University. Jessy is currently a professional road cyclist living and training in Spain.

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