More Hong Kong women take up competitive running, helped by women-only races
As a new women’s 5km running race gets set to launch in April, race directors, elite runners and Olympians discuss the women’s running scene in Hong Kong and the challenges faced by women runners
Hong Kong’s health and fitness scene continues to grow in 2017, with new businesses, events and races springing up, especially for women. A Women’s Five race series has been announced for April, following last year’s opening by Alex de Fina, formerly of Bikini Fit, of Pherform, a women-only gym in Central, and an eight-week Epic MMA programme developed exclusively for women.
“Among the growing variety of races and events in Hong Kong, there used to be only one women-only race in Hong Kong out of hundreds per year,” says Women’s Five founder David Tanner, referring to last year’s launch of the Lantau Base Camp annual Ladies Race. “Some women I’ve spoken to are not comfortable joining regular gyms or running with guys and would prefer training in women-only groups. The race and the weekly training runs give them a comfortable environment to work on themselves.”
“At the moment in Hong Kong, on average 20-25 per cent of trail-running participants are female,” says Echo Gong, manager of Lantau Base Camp. “We are seeing more women coming into our store asking about gear, nutrition and trail running. We would love to see the number continue to grow, as we’ve heard so many positive, life-changing stories from women who have taken up trail running.”
While there are big variations in the number of trail racers registering for the annual King of the Hills race series in Hong Kong, the proportion of male and female competitors has remained constant since 2013 – 24 per cent have been women and 76 per cent men, according to Andrew Patrick, of athletic event service provider Racing Timing Solutions.
“While there has been remarkable little variance in the female/male ratio in the past four years, the most impressive thing I have seen is the continuing improvement in female competitor times across all of the age categories,” says Keith Noyes, race director of the King of the Hills series. “The marked jump in women’s times was propelled by a reasonably large group of women passionate about trail running who pushed each other.”
The proportions of men and women entering popular trail-running races Moontrekker and the Oxfam Trailwalker have also changed little in the past four years. On average 33 per cent of Moontrekker’s participants have been female in that period, while 12 per cent of Vibram Hong Kong 100 entrants and 19 per cent of Trailwalker runners over the past five years have been women.
Olympic marathon runner Christy Yiu Kit-ching thinks physical challenges may prevent women from running or at least enjoying the sport. “Discomfort, pain, oedema and anaemia owing to menstruation as well as [less] muscle strength [than men] may discourage women [from running]. Men are born to have more muscle fibre, which is the key to running faster, or at least more easily.”
Elite runner and trainer Vlad Ixel says when it comes to distance running, women have certain physical constraints when compared to men.
“Significantly more testosterone is produced in men than women, and conversely, significantly less oestrogen is produced in men than in women,” he says, explaining that testosterone aids recovery, allowing for more kilometres with less chance of injury, while oestrogen leads to a natural increase in fat and weight gain. This can make a significant difference in a sport where the power-to-weight ratio significantly affects performance.
“Also, women naturally have a larger Q angle [at the knee between the quadriceps muscles and the patella tendon]. This puts undue pressure on joints distal to the hips, potentially leading to over-pronation [running with most of the weight on the inside edge of the feet] and medial knee pain. And there’s an increased chance of anaemia in women – leading to lower iron levels, but this can be managed with supplements.”
To level the playing field, Ixel says women can supplement with iron, vitamin B12 and C, and follow a controlled diet to ensure minimal body fat.
Exercise scientist and gait specialist Jessica Phillips feels that women are at an advantage when it comes to ultrarunning (races over distances of more than 42km), as they are more resilient and better adapted to withstanding psychological stress.
“Studies have shown that women perceive equal levels of exercise as less stressful when compared with men,” she says. “I have also witnessed first hand that female resilience to pain while running long distances increases even more post childbirth, but this is my personal observation, not a scientific conclusion.”
This was not the case for Charlotte Cutler, one of Hong Kong’s fastest mid-distance runners and an independent political analyst. A runner for 33 years, Cutler continued to run while pregnant 39 weeks into both of her pregnancies. “I found that being pregnant changed my body fundamentally. I lost a lot of strength from the lack of intensive workouts and took a long time to regain that strength post-birth,” she says. “As a result, I have suffered a series of injuries since the birth of my second child, which has severely hampered my progress. But I have learned a lot through the journey, and now have a much better appreciation of what I need to do to keep my strength and fitness up.”
Race director of the Vibram Hong Kong 100 Janet Ng feels that the struggles women may face while running go beyond the physical. “Juggling work and family life can be a challenge, especially for those with a young family, and it can be difficult for females to find ultrarunning role models of the same sex,” she says. “However, because women’s participation is low, I think it’s good for women to race with men so that they can push themselves harder performance wise. Equally, a lot of men are desperate not to be ‘chicked’ in an event and so probably push themselves harder as well.”
Christine Fung, Nike Hong Kong’s women’s lead, shares the view that both men and women benefit from training and racing together, not separately. “After hosting two Nike 10km women’s races, we saw an increasing number of females committed to running and racing. The trend is rising, and we are at a point where women are ready to start training together with men.”
This year, Nike Hong Kong will shift its focus from gender-focused apps, and 10km annual women’s training runs, to more inclusive goals for their community of fitness enthusiasts in the city. And 2017 will also mark the start of its four-year sponsorship of the Hong Kong marathon.
For many people, running a half or full marathon is not realistic, and women trail-running enthusiasts such as Tanya Bennett recognise the need for shorter and more inclusive races in Hong Kong. “I wish I had an event like the Women’s Five when I started running a few years ago.
“The five-week training schedule before the race provides runners with an opportunity to learn different aspects of the sport such as strength, flexibility, technical trail and road running tips, while they run with other like-minded people. I’ve met some of my best friends while trail running and I’d love for other women in Hong Kong to experience the same joy as I do when I run.”
The first race in the Women’s Five series takes place on April 1. For more details, go to raceresults.com.hk/event/23