Gender differences and footwear... Yes folks, there really IS a difference!

Gender differences and footwear... Yes folks, there really IS a difference!

Have you ever noticed that men and women are different? I mean.. really different! At all sorts of levels I have noticed this for some time, but despite my many years at the coalface of technical athletic footwear; it still seems the big manufacturers are a little slow to catch onto this fact.


So now is an ideal time to outline some of the basic differences between male and female runners, and explore exactly what options are available to tech retail to help place the right foot, male or female, into the right shoe.

First, what ARE the basic differences between men and women? Well, I shall limit my discussion to the biomechanical contrasts (it would be a brave man to tackle any other components!) and these are many and varied. Despite the fact that there are now more women running than men (and there have been since 2002 Taunton et al 2009), most manufacturers still build women’s shoes on downsized men’s lasts. This is problematic at many levels, not the least of which is that the shape of a female foot is completely different to the male foot. Typically the female foot has a relatively narrower heel to forefoot ratio compared to men. Many women have major issues with fit and stability, with downsized men’s shoes causing slippage and discomfort. Blistering is a particularly common issue for female runners and invariably is related to poor fit.

Next, women have very different injury demographics, not MORE injury, just different injury to their male counterparts:

  • Women are twice as likely to develop lateral knee (iliotibial band) pain compared to men (Ferber et al 2003)
  • Women are three times as likely to develop gluteus medius injury (butt pain), compared to men (Almeida et at, 2001)
  • Women runners are between 2 and 9 times as likely to develop anterior knee pain compared to men (Almeida et al, 1999; DeHaven + Lintner, 1986)
  • Women runners are twice as likely to develop lateral knee pain compared to men (Almeida et al, 1999; DeHaven + Lintner, 1986)

These are damning statistics but why do these differences occur?

Well, because the female skeleton is structurally different to the male skeleton, women athletes run  differently to men. This leads to different loading patterns and over a period of time and many repetitions, this can contribute to injury. Some of the differences include:

  • A wider pelvis to leg length ratio to men, which leads to a more “knock kneed” appearance. If you take a look at female runners, especially sprinters, this can easily be demonstrated.
  • A tendency for greater internal rotation of the femur (thigh bone)
  • Greater hip joint internal rotation

These three things combined go a long way toward explaining the specific injury demographic of female runners.

However, aside for the structural differences, there are also substantial loading differences between male and female runners:

  • In walking, the frontal plane excursion is similar between genders however, females exhibit 11° more valgus throughout the stance phase.
  • During running, in the frontal plane, there is a significantly greater peak hip adduction angle and hip frontal plane negative work for running in females compared to males. Women also demonstrate greater peak hip adduction velocity but similar peak hip adduction moments to men (Ferber et al, 2003).
  • Most importantly, women demonstrate less peak knee flexion and less knee flexion excursion compared to men (Malinzak et al, 2001) and this has a profound effect on shock attenuation.

Now the thorny issue of footwear: What should we be building into women’s running shoes?

The key areas are:

  • Women need more shock attenuation (cushioning) than men, because they have less knee flexion and knee flexion excursion than men (Malinzak et al, 2001)... i.e. they run “stiffer” and do not attenuate shock as well.
  • There must be particular attention to the last shape for women compared to men and the midsole/outsole configuration is especially important, particularly in relation of the touch-down contact area (which is different in women to men).
  • There is now good evidence to suggest a higher midsole platform for women than men based on our research into tendon compliance in female athletes (Bartold et al 2009).

In conclusion, I think women runners have been hard done by and despite many manufacturers claiming gender specific footwear, there is still much work to be done.

♀We need to concentrate on systems that deliver load effectively

♀Adapt to touchdown position

♀Stabilise the midfoot

♀And improve the takeoff position

Something to ponder!


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