By Kelly O'Mara—For centuries, athletes have been suspicious of enjoying a roll in the hay before competition. Muhammad Ali famously would abstain from sex for weeks before a match and countless college and professional teams advise their athletes against intercourse the night before a game. Marty Liquori, an Olympic runner in the 1960s, reportedly summed it up quite simply: “Sex makes you happy. Happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile.”
But, just as many athletes subscribe to a philosophy that encourages sex before races—and, sometimes, lots of it.
“If athletes have engaged in sex prior to athletic competitions for years (which they have and continue to do), what is the point of abstinence? Clearly, sex is part of life—including the athlete’s life,” said Dr. Tommy Boone, a fellow with the American Society of Exercise Physiologists and author of the book Sex Before Athletic Competition: Myth or Fact?
Boone conducted a study that found no differences in treadmill tests between men who had sex 12 hours earlier and those who didn’t. Other studies have supported these findings, showing no difference in aerobic power or VO2 max between athletes who had sex the night before and those who didn’t. One test in 2000 was conducted on men when they didn’t have sex beforehand and after they did. It found no changes in mental concentration, either. That study did find elevated heart rates two hours after sex, however, but not ten hours after.
Boone also points out that, generally, even aggressive sex burns just 250 calories per hour. Average intercourse, which lasts significantly less than an hour, burns about the same amount of calories as walking up two flights of stairs, he said. “How can walking up two flights of stairs hurt an athlete prior to his/her competition the next day or even one hour before the competition?” asked Boone.
That hasn’t resolved the issue for athletes, though, who are eager for any edge they can get.
The question is still so persistent that Olympic triathlete Samantha McGlone studied it for her thesis project as an undergrad at McGill University. McGlone and Dr. Ian Shrier, a past president of the Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine and a PhD at McGill University, did a comprehensive overview of all studies on the topic. They published an editorial, Does Sex the Night Before Competition Decrease Performance?
The answer was: not physically.
Study after study, they found, has shown no physiological changes on tests of grip strength, VO2 max, balance, reaction time or aerobic power as a result of having sex the night before. But, Shrier and McGlone pointed out, that doesn’t mean there aren’t psychological changes—which haven’t been thoroughly studied and which are just as important in a race.
“In competition, psychology plays a much more important role than it does during ‘tests of performance,’” said Shrier.
Athletes need to be at an optimal psychological balance of relaxation and stress in order to perform best. How sex plays into that balance depends on the athlete. Boone believes sex can have a relaxation benefit for most athletes and plenty of people agree with him, but the research on psychological effects is lacking.
There may be additional benefits, however.
A survey of 2,000 London marathoners found that those who had sex the night before performed better on average than those who didn’t. Sexual activity has also been linked to longevity, said Boone, as well as increased levels of immunoglobin A, essential to the immune system. Chemicals released during orgasm may be associated with decreases in the risk of heart disease in middle-aged men. And, a study from Beverly Whipple, a professor from Rutgers and an expert in female intercourse, found a woman’s pain threshold briefly increased by up to 107% following orgasm.
Having sex before an event, then, becomes a question of each athlete’s preference. The important thing may be—as is often the case—not to try anything new right before a race.
“There are many who say it helps them and many who say it hurts them,” said Shrier.