The Widdershins

Women’s physical and athletic abilities

Posted on: August 15, 2019

One of the side effects of all the discussion around including transwomen in women’s sports has been the regular repetition that women are slower and weaker and can’t compete with the male-bodied. I wanted to add a biologist’s view on that and then mention something I saw about ultramarathoners.

So I’ll start with women being smaller, weaker, and all the rest.

When I was young and foolish I once asked my biology teacher why it was that way. It seems to cause nothing but problems. She pointed out that female physiology and anatomy puts its first priority on producing the next generation. Take for instance menstruation. If you have that level of internal bleeding in any other organ, male or female, you’re in the emergency room. Women’s physiology can withstand it to the extent that some women can even run marathons at the same time.

Males, on the other hand, expend very little physical capital in producing the next generation. In nature’s cold calculations, that means they’re expendable. You don’t need very many of them and you’ll still have a next generation. The tribes that survived the most were the ones where males used that expendability in the service of the tribe: they did the dangerous jobs of defense against other people and wild animals. Obviously, for that task, you’ll last longer if you’re big, fast and strong.

But wouldn’t women last longer too, by the same logic, if they were big and fast and strong? No, for a very simple reason. All that muscle and large skeleton and higher basal metabolism takes calories to maintain. For most of human history, calories were in short supply.

A pregnant or nursing woman with male athletic abilities would have a physiology that required way more calories per day, on the order of over 4000, instead of the 3000 or so she needs if she’s woman-sized. Interestingly enough, athletic men have caloric requirements of around 3000 too.

So the system as evolution worked it out for us is that both sexes have similar peak needs and can survive under similar conditions. Some of the peak work they do differs, but the overall requirements are the same. That allows them to live together in groups, which has lots of survival value itself, instead of living like two different species that have different requirements.

As for the problems caused by strength differences, it’s worth remembering that from an evolutionary standpoint, no tribe would last very long if the bear-fighters in it decided to use their strength to damage the next generation instead of help it. Hurting the mothers of it does exactly that. Evolutionary biologists call that reduction in offspring “reducing evolutionary fitness,” and a very small reduction is enough to wipe out a species.

Misogyny is a luxury available only to rich species.

Point 1 is that women push their bodies and physical abilities to a level like that of elite athletes, with the difference that most women do childbirth and nursing, but plenty of men don’t put large demands on their bodies at all. The weakness people keep yammering on about is pretty much limited to a few specific activities that men excel in.

Point 2 is that the usual solution to significant differences in sporting ability is to segregate the participants into different classes. There are youth leagues and seniors’ events. There are eight (8!) classes in boxing separated by approximately eight pounds, just a bit over three and a half kilos. And there are men’s sports and women’s. Only in the latter case do some people claim that large differences in bone and muscle mass don’t matter. They’ve decided only testosterone levels must approach those found in women. That’s particularly odd given that, for instance, in a sport like boxing fighters will try to dehydrate themselves to pass as a lower weight class and then have the advantage of an extra few pounds of mass (not muscle, just water) during the fight itself.

It’s actually more than odd since scholarships, prize money, or college tuition can be at stake. Taking those away from women on grounds that aren’t applied in any male classes of sport smacks of misogyny.

And, last, point 3. The much-ballyhooed business of being weaker. Turns out that’s not true in some very demanding sports. Are women better ultra-endurance athletes than men? asks Sophie Williams.

“He [Dr Nicholas Tiller, a senior lecturer in applied physiology at Sheffield Hallam University] said that in ultra-endurance races, athletes are never working close to their maximum capacity. It is much more about peripheral conditioning, oxygen efficiency and mental toughness.” …

Fiona Oakes, an ultra-marathon runner and holder of four world records [said,]

“Certainly from when I’ve done races, women manage themselves in a completely different way,” she told the BBC.

Let’s see … tougher, better able to cope with emotions, more stamina … not your usual definition of “weaker,” is it?

Sometimes — well, all the time — I dream of a better world in which we’ve dropped all the stupid boxes nobody really fits in anyway. Instead we’re in awe of the amazing diversity of strengths we have.

Fiona Kolbinger, winner, 2019 Transcontinental Race

Fiona Kolbinger, whose day job is cancer research, wins the 4000km 2019 Transcontinental (Europe) Race 10 hours ahead of the guy in second place. (Photographer unknown)


[This started as a comment on a post about this topic. It’s since expanded.]

71 Responses to "Women’s physical and athletic abilities"

As Ann Richards said:

After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels

While on the evolution thing, I wanted to say a few things re Steve King’s vomitworthy bullshit.

Don’t worry for a sec about the vomitoriousness of it. By nature’s rules the only thing that counts is how many offspring you have that reach reproductive age and themselves produce lots of progeny.

Women are fertile for some 18 hours after ovulation, 24 at most. As with everything biological, it varies between people. So, if sex happens purely by chance, the likelihood of fertilization is around 3%.

A rapist is less than uninterested in what a woman wants, so his chances of paternity are just that: 3%.

However, a woman’s desire for sex goes way up around ovulation. If she’s the one deciding on when, chances of pregnancy are nearer 30%.

That doesn’t even get into increased survival of offspring with paternal contributions or any of that good stuff. Just purely based on sex ending in pregnancy.

So, attractive man, good lover, target of ovulating woman’s wandering eye, has a 30% likelihood of passing on his genes.

That is an overwhelming evolutionary advantage. With those odds, a three-percenter’s genes will very likely be gone in one (one!) generation.

Steve “I don’t know nuthin about good sex” King is clueless, although we knew that already.

I miss Ann Richards. And Molly Ivins!

@3: Oh me too and especially Molly.

Molly had a book signing at an uptown bookstore that I went to. Afterwards, the store owner asked a few of us to hang around after the signing was over (I bought a LOT of books from Britton at his bookstore). So after it’s over and the bottle of bourbon comes out, Molly lets loose with some stories I know could never have made it to print. At least back then.

Don’t worry for a sec about the vomitoriousness of it

Well I do have to wonder why the people in his district keep sending him back to Congress unless they figure it’s better to have him there and not inflicting himself on the people back in Iowa.

I recall when a woman climber, Lynn Hill, 5’2″, free-climbed a route in Yosemite which had never been free-climbed by anyone before. The route has long sections of thin cracks. Some of the men were whining that it wasn’t fair, because she had smaller hands and fingers for crack-climbing. Loll!

@7: Boys, you can’t have it both ways. Lol

Speaking of rape and incest, this judge in New Jersey must be related to Steve King.

Judge: Rapist From ‘Good Family’ Deserves Break Because He Goes To Good School

Advocates: Mississippi plant fires workers left after raid

@9, Why the hell can’t they haul away the plant owners in handcuffs?

Fascinating post Q!

I always thought if men had to deal with menstruation or childbirth, the human race would quickly become extinct. 😉

If anyone here is going to donate to candidates, would you consider sending a few bucks to Jay Inslee? He got a bounce after the last debate but needs more. Not that I think he’ll be the nominee, but it’d be good to have him in the next debate to keep a focus on climate change. Also — if the moderators allow — he’s got lots of successes in WA state to brag about — 1st public health option in the US, fastest-growing jobs here are in clean energy, gay rights and women’s rights/bodily autonomy protection, and more. Real accomplishments, unlike a few of the others who are current media darlings. What’s he’s done in WA state can be done for the whole US.

@11, and abortion would be a sacrament, as the saying goes!

The strongest muscle in the human body is … the uterus.

@4, you got to sit around with Molly Ivins and listen to her stories?

@14: And drink bourbon with her also!
She wasn’t only a great story teller but a great listener too.

Seriously, can we get a competency hearing on tRump?

Trump has privately talked about U.S. purchase of Greenland: sources

The original story on this was from the WSJ and is behind the paywall.

The Greenland thing …. First I laughed and said the Onion is getting too nutty trying to keep up with reality. Then the inevitable, “Wait. What?”

But there might be a bright side. I’m thinking of pitching a platinum asteroid to this guy. Cheap! Because buyer has to pick it up.

@17: Yeah but quixote he’d probably wouldn’t pay the bill.

Mexico will pay for it!

Trump aides look into U.S. purchasing Greenland after directives from president

The presidential request has bewildered aides, some of whom continue to believe it isn’t serious, but Trump has mentioned it for weeks. The two people with knowledge of the presidential demand spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to reveal such White House planning.

As with many of Trump’s internal musings, aides are waiting for more direction before they decide how seriously they should look into it.

Among the things that have been discussed is whether it is even legal, what the process would be for acquiring an island that has its own government and population, and where any money to purchase a giant landmass would originate.
Greenland’s foreign minister said Friday that the island is not for sale.

Also, the kingdom of Denmark, of which Greenland is a part, is pissed. Ya think? Perhaps during Trump’s visit there next month they can manage to drop him off on a melting iceberg.

“melting iceberg” is redundant. They’re all melting.

Administration officials aren’t preparing for a recession because they don’t expect it, and they worry that planning for one would fuel a negative narrative and cause a crash, said people involved in the discussions.

(frustrated scream) Planning is sooo Democratic Party-ish.

Greenland, (The Danes) told Dump to take a hike on his Greenland dream.
Sure, he wants the ice to melt so he could rape and profit from that country’s natural resources and put up his fatMen golf courses there too.

Luna and shadow: He’s supposed to visit Denmark later this month and Sept.

Trump will travel to Poland, Denmark from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3

What do you want to bet he’s gonna bring it up?

@18, “Yeah but quixote he’d probably wouldn’t pay the bill.”

Dang. You’re right. Another get-rich-quick scheme down the toilet.

I don’t know how the various anonymous aides manage not to do a Beto and say, “What even is this question? You know he just blathers.”

The press and their asinine performative naiveté.

@26: Speaking of Beto, I’m royally pissed that he decided to resume his futile Prez run. C’mon man, do yourself, Texas, the Senate, and the country a favor and run for John Cornyn’s Senate seat. You’re just taking up space on an already crowded stage.

Fredster @27, Lordy, yes. Yes, yes, and yes.

@27 & 28, I saw something today about Beto saying he would definitely not run for Senate.

Boggle. Mind.

Well-ell-ell! (chortle)

@23, yes, I said he was visiting Denmark next month.

@31: Sorry, didn’t see it.

@29: Well good. Let him turn into the political equivalent of a one hit wonder.

Beto, you certainly aren’t doing anything to benefit anyone other than yourself. Reminds me of tRump’s “Only I can…”.

I’m going turncoat to help Denmark take over the US! Who’s with me?

Do we get a Plumrose Danish Ham? Never mind the ham currently in the White House.

@32, it’s ok, everyone’s concentration is shot these days, except for the Rs who only concentrate on whiteness, straightness, and $$$.

@37: You got that right.

Oh and btw I donated the princely sum of $1 to your guv. Hope he makes it to the stage.

Why not? A Plumrose Danish Ham in every pot!

Fredster, Thank You!!! Yes, just $1 will count.

Re: Beto.

@40: I saw a snip of Inslee on some news show and he said even a dollar will help. Fingers crossed.

And speaking of your guv and climate issues:

I would totally believe it.

Good WaPo article. Aaron Blake is good; I’ve seen him a few times on Nicolle Wallace’s show on MSNBC.
Good money quote from the article:

As an encapsulation of a flawed political strategy, it’s tough to do better than that.

I officially have no respect for him now. I’m sure that’s gonna tear him apart.

Hey, I just found out that if you buy a bumper sticker, mug, or whatever from a candidate’s webstore, it counts as a donation! Sounds like a good reason to get a She Persistedsticker or a Mt. Rainier mug or a For the People T-shirt.

Argh, I made a comment with 3 links so Spammy has me in his clutches. Help!

Luna, give me a sec.

Okay, it’s out.

@43, I’m with you, and that is a good article. Beto used to impress me, but he’s showing his vanity, superficiality, and just plain lack of common sense. I want to smack him with a copy of the Constitution. A President O’Rourke with a Republican-majority Senate wouldn’t be able to get much accomplished.

Having a high-profile figure like O’Rourke say the Senate isn’t “good enough” for those looking to make change in Washington is a terrible message for other would-be recruits.

Thanks, Fredster! I really don’t expect you to be watching the blog every minute in case one of us screws up and needs help out of spam jail, lol!

Beto said the Senate wasn’t good enough? Beto? The boy wonder?

John Quincy Adams called from the 19th century and would like to speak to him.

@49: No biggie because I was around at the time.

@50: It appears that being one of only one hundred Senators in the entire U.S. of A. isn’t quite good enough. Otoh, perhaps he’s not good enough to be one of those select few.

Alexandra Petri savages Beto’s claim that the Senate is beneath him.

McConnell realizes with horror that Beto is right: The Senate is not enough

He sighed a great sigh and pushed several bills on gun reform he was personally preventing from coming to a vote this month off the desk in a gesture of pique. “The Senate is not good enough! Oh, what a fool I have been!“

In a fit, he trashed a plaque he had made for himself to commemorate confirming President Trump’s 107th judicial nominee, a record that will linger for decades after he is gone, and tore up another Senate procedural rule, making the process still more vulnerable to partisan stalling, just for good measure.

He ripped off his flag pin and shredded yet another request to pass a bill to secure future elections or prevent campaigns from accepting foreign assistance, which he had been allowing to fester on his desk. “No, I am running for president”

@53: Luna, I kept getting a 404 when I went to that link.

(There were a couple of extra characters at the end. Fixed now, I think.)

To go all British on you for a sec, Petri is an absolute unit!

@55/56: thanks q. I’m so lazy today just didn’t feel like delving any further into it. And I agree on Petri!

Thanks, quixote!

More satire, this time from the Guardian.

‘Friends, you’re going to love Greenland. I was there on 9/11’

Donald Trump tweeted today he had purchased Greenland from the Kingdom of Denmark for $15bn plus Kanye West and the state of Massachusetts.

Still, the announcement has been questioned abroad. Prime minister of Greenland Kim Kielsen, reached this morning before the sun set for the winter, commented: “Clearly, the president’s mind is melting faster than our ice sheet.”

“The Green people – such fine, wonderful upstanding people. They’re all eager to become Americans – not like Democrats! And the country – so clean. Reykjavik, what a city. Not like Londonstan and Stockholmbad. No crime, no rats, no dwarf Islamist mayor! And don’t let that name confuse you, Greenland. The fact is, my friends, it’s not very Green. In fact, it’s white – very, very white.

@59, this is the correct link:

Looks like I must have a quotation mark or something like that missing in the template I use for posting quotes with links.

@60: Oh that was hilarious.

(Luna, just so you can check your template if you want, the problem upthread was the two extra characters at the end before the close quote:

<a href=””/”>link text</a>

i.e. at the end, there should be only one /”

Charlie Pierce to the rescue in all the human awfulness (2nd story, after the biblical loons):

This is an extraordinary development. In the middle of an Ebola outbreak in Africa that was complicated by murderous political violence, we get this news from Wired:

On Monday, the trial’s cosponsors at the World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health announced that two of the experimental treatments appear to dramatically boost survival rates. While an experimental vaccine previously had been shown to shield people from catching Ebola, the news marks a first for people who already have been infected. “From now on, we will no longer say that Ebola is incurable,” said Jean-Jacques Muyembe, director general of the Institut National de Recherche Biomedicale in the DRC, which has overseen the trial’s operations on the ground…

The results were most striking for patients who received treatments soon after becoming sick, when their viral loads were still low—death rates dropped to 11 percent with mAb114 and just 6 percent with Regeneron’s drug, compared with 24 percent with ZMapp and 33 percent with Remdesivir.

In the middle of the worst possible environment for miracles, some researchers working in the middle of a war zone supply one. We all should keep an eye on what Very Large Pharma does with this breakthrough but, for the moment, let’s all just be amazed by what people can still accomplish.

@64: I regret that even Charlie Pierce can’t give me a lot of solace these days. Plus add in that I either have to go to a private tab/window or clear the cache to be able to read him. Like the politician who is term limited, I’m now article limited when it comes to Pierce.

However, this did crack me up from another article:

My favorite part is when the president* talks about it being quite a crowd for an 11 o’clock rally, and it’s actually 2:40. Draw a clock-face, sir.

@64, very good news! Unfortunately now the president* will cut the NIH’s budget even further.

@65, snort! I take it you know about the clock-drawing test. It’s highly accurate at screening for cognitive impairment.

Hey folks, I am back from vacation. Love the comments and links!

I am really not sure what Beto thinks he’s doing. I saw him on Lawrence O’Donnell’s show and I was very unimpressed with his response on the topic of the Senate. My only hope is that he is running for VP. He could bring some Southern horsepower to a Harris or Warren ticket, and if we carry Texas, that is the ballgame.

Interesting. Will Lindsey’s dangerous liaisons be exposed on Twitter on Monday? Or is this guy just blowing smoke?

@66: I had heard/read something about that.

@67: Didn’t even know you had gone on vacay.

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