“Sex makes you happy. Happy people do not run a 3:47 mile.” – American Running Legend Marty Liquori
The debate is as old as the Olympics themselves. What impact does sex have on athletic performance? The supposed answers are about as contradictory as any debate out there, which is in part why the subject is just so darn interesting. Plato urged athletes to abstain before competition as early as 444 BC, whereas Pliny the Elder famously proclaimed in 77 AD that “athletes when sluggish are revitalized by lovemaking”. Mohamed Ali would famously abstain from sex in the weeks leading up to a fight, whereas Ronaldo has claimed that sex before a match makes him better. I won’t even bother talking about the supposed sexual exploits of the likes of Joe Namath and Wilt Chamberlain. The opposing strategies seem to both end up working pretty well, but these stories leave us no closer to answering the question.
For years, coaches in all sports have urged their athletes to abstain from sex before competition. If you’ve ever been on an organized team, you’ve no doubt heard the recommendation (or mandate), and perhaps even broken it! It turns out that this bedroom tapering isn’t quite so cut and dry. In truth, this discussion is part psychological and part physiological. Luckily for us, there are always intrepid researchers out there exploring these burning questions (pun intended!).
The endurance-related effects of sex on men and women are quite fascinating. Generally, research has found that having sex the night before a race has no noticeable impact on fitness measures, such as VO2 max, heart rate, or oxygen pulse. A study of 2,000 London marathoners found that those who “stretched” more vigorously the night before the race performed better than those that abstained. Additional research has uncovered increases in longevity, increased levels of immunoglobulin A (essential for the immune system), and decreases in heart-disease.
In women, researchers have discovered that two of the areas of the brain that are active during orgasm are the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula, both of which are associated with pain. This may suggest an analgesic effect. Perhaps the take-away message here is that the best recovery technique is a good orgasm. I’ll leave the method up to you, but will add that only 1/3 of women are capable of orgasm via penile-vaginal penetration. Other than that, I’ll refrain from pointing you in the right direction. In men, the impact on maximum workload has been shown to be minimal. There has also been plenty of discussion about testosterone as a performance-enhancing drug. Just ask Floyd Landis. Researchers have found significant increases in testosterone levels following sexual intercourse. Interestingly enough, the study also found increases in testosterone resulting from watching others engage in sexual intercourse. Did I mention that the researchers collected their data at a swingers club in Las Vegas? I can only imagine how that IRB meeting went down!
Running is clearly a mental game, as we all know. Mental training is sometimes the hardest aspect of endurance sports to master. For years, much of the conversation around abstaining from sex related to the perceived distraction it may cause for the athlete. The other “bonus” associated with abstaining prior to competition was added frustration and aggression, which could be released during the event. However, research has shown no impact on mental concentration. The same study also showed a decrease in attention two hours after sex, however, so plan accordingly! Other researchers have found limited self-reported negative impact among long distance runners who engaged in sexual activity prior to an event. Ultimately, everyone’s brain responds to sex differently but it only really has the potential to have a negative psychological impact on your performance if doing so is out of the ordinary, and stresses you out in some way. These are decisions I’ll leave up to you.
You may have noticed that I left out perhaps the most glaring physical concern- fatigue. Well, I hate to break it to everyone (ok, mainly men), but this isn’t really something to be worried about. The average sexual encounter lasts about 5 minutes, and burns about 50 calories. A 2013 study did, however, indicate that sex may burn as many calories as 30 minutes on the treadmill, so don’t abandon hope just yet. Not surprisingly, 98% of those studied also felt that sex was more pleasant than their time on the treadmill. I’m shocked!
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