Going for Gold: Studying the performance of male and female athletes

10 February 2010

While many of us will watch the athletic performances in the 2010 Winter Olympics in admiration, MSFHR-funded researcher Dr. Jordan Guenette will be watching with a slightly different take on things. His research is helping to demystify some of the physiological factors that could predispose an elite athlete to win, and the results are surprising.

In 2008, Dr. Guenette received an MSFHR Research Trainee Award to study respiratory muscle fatigue in men and women during whole body exercise. "As a respiratory and exercise physiologist, I am interested in determining how the respiratory system might influence exercise capacity and performance," says Dr. Guenette, of UBC’s School of Human Kinetics.

His research revealed important differences between men and women that may predispose women to greater respiratory limitations during exercise. For example, women have airways approximately 20 to 30 percent smaller than men, even after matching men and women for lung capacity.

"From an evolutionary perspective, we don't know why women have smaller lungs and airways," says Dr. Guenette. Apparently, there's not a lot we can do about it. Our lungs and airways do not adapt or respond to exercise training. "In other words, you're stuck with the lungs and airways you were born with," he says.

So how does this affect female Olympic athletes? It turns out that despite the smaller lungs and airways, women may have adapted to go the distance.

Based on his initial findings, Dr. Guenette hypothesized that the female diaphragm may be more susceptible to fatigue than the male diaphragm. He put his theory to the test in a large group of elite endurance athletes from across Canada.

"To our surprise, we found that women develop less diaphragm fatigue than men," Dr. Guenette says. "Perhaps the female respiratory muscles have adapted in such a way as to resist fatigue, which acts as a protective mechanism against some of the other respiratory limitations they face during exercise."

The results from this study may help explain, in part, why the performance gap between men and women decreases as the distance of the event increases. "In fact, women may even outperform men in ultra-endurance events such as 100km running races," Dr. Guenette said.

Despite his current focus on high performance athletes, says Dr. Guenette, there is every possibility his findings will benefit non-athletes as well.