Sex and Athletic Performance
Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that athletes should refrain from sex before competition – that they should keep their togas cinched and their knotted loincloths dry. Does that belief hold up to modern scrutiny, though?
Consider the case of Mike Tyson. It was recently disclosed that prior to a bout, the boxer would have sex so that he could vent, geyser like, some of his aggression. He supposedly did this so he wouldn't end up, as he once explained, driving his opponent's "nose-bone" into his brain, killing him.
According to his former bodyguard, a seething Tyson would "bang the shit" out of women that had been procured and tucked away in bathrooms and changing rooms. After he'd had his sexual fill, Tyson would twist his head to snap the neck vertebrae back into a more harmonious state and say, "Okay, this guy is going to live tonight."
Tyson's approach, contrary as it seems, actually supports what many athletes, coaches, and trainers have believed since ancient Greece – that sex before competition (or even before training itself) is detrimental, that it robs an athlete of aggression, energy, and ultimately, success.
Only, unlike Tyson, most athletes want the aggression and energy that sex supposedly robs them of. Maybe Mickey, Rocky Balboa's trainer, captured the idea the best: "Women weaken legs."
But is it true? Clearly, the issue isn't settled. If you want a little bit of empirical evidence, the organizers of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro allocated 450,000 condoms for the 10,000 or so athletes that participated. That breaks down to 350,000 male condoms, 100,000 female condoms, and 175 thousand packets of lube. Breaking it down further, it means roughly 42 condoms per athlete. That's a whole lot of presumed fornication.
Apparently, a lot of athletes didn't believe in the whole abstinence before competition thing, and, as proof of their disbelief, a whole lot of World Records were broken.
I'm skeptical of this empirical evidence, though. To be brutally honest, it's unlikely that so many of those athletes, men or women, could have been 42-condom bone-able. Are we supposed to believe Olympic ping pong players got laid that much?
No, it's more likely that a lot of athletes still believe in the abstinence-before-competition thing and most of the condoms, emblazoned with the Olympic logo, were probably grabbed as souvenirs and taken home to molder in wallets or to hand out as quirky gifts.
But never mind about Tyson, Rocky Balboa, and supposedly super-horny Olympians. What's science say about sexual activity before competition?
The basis for most of the hesitation about having sex before competition or even heavy training is a fear that ejaculation "draws" testosterone away from the body. The research on whether sex raises or lowers testosterone levels is a little mixed, but the preponderance of evidence suggests that sex increases T levels. However, the amount we're talking about is so small and so transient that it wouldn't have any effects on performance.
The converse is true, too. Even if sex caused testosterone to drop, the amount is so small as to be insignificant. Testosterone isn't like the glowing potions seen in sci-fi movies where you drink it and suddenly get all muscley and bust out of your Hilfigers.
Nope, you could even shoot some directly into a vein before a competition or workout and it wouldn't much help you. It just doesn't work that way. The visible or noticeable effects of testosterone occur over time – days, weeks, or months, not minutes or hours.
But let's look at some of the studies anyhow. One study conducted on sedentary males in 1995 (Boone and Gilmore) found that sex didn't affect performance on cyclo-ergometry if it took place 10 hours before exercise. There was, however, a slight negative effect – in the form of a slightly elevated heart rate – if it took place less than two hours before exercise.
Another, conducted in 2000 (McGlone and Shrier), found that sexual activity conducted the night before testing didn't affect hand-grip strength, which, I guess, is reassuring to sexually active professional arm wrestlers and mountain climbers.
One study compared the effects of different sexual behaviors in baseball and soccer (Fisher, 1997). Soccer players, more than baseball players, practice abstinence before matches and the researchers theorized that this abstinence had some positive effects on their performance, like allowing them to fake injuries with much more gusto.
Likewise, a study involving amateur runners (Sztajel, 2000) seemed to indicate that pre-race sex had positive effects on performance.
Only one decent study involved women (Johnson, 1968). The participants were all former athletes (ages 24 to 49), and they were all tested twice, once the morning after sex and once six days after. Neither situation had any effect on strength, as measured by a dynamometer (a device that measures grip strength).
As far as post-sex testosterone levels, the results of studies are conflicting. Hengevoss, et al. (2015) found no changes in T levels after sex. But another study, this one involving four heterosexual couples, found that test levels increased on evenings when the couples had sex and decreased when they didn't.
If we based our conclusions on the studies, we might conclude that sex before competition doesn't really have much of an effect on strength or VO2 max.
However, we might also conclude that sex before competition seemed to help athletes who were involved in matches where endurance was a factor (running). Maybe it's like rowing. In that sport, a single piece of seaweed, stuck to your scull, can create just enough drag to affect the outcome of the race. Maybe testicles and prostates that are still carrying a full load of spunk create drag, too. Nah, I'm kidding. Probably.
Instead, the researchers assumed that perhaps the slight increase in post-sex testosterone might have helped the runners endure the rigors of a long race, but that seems unlikely as any rise in post-sex testosterone would be insignificant and transitory.
One thing that chafes my mental ball-sack, though, is that "sex" is rarely defined in any of these studies. As most any non-incel knows, there's routine husband and wife, "Honey, hurry up and finish please because I've got an early morning" sex, which burns up about three calories, and there's just-picked-up-a-Hooter's-waitress-sex that may or may not involve a bed and more likely involves lots of hoisting and carrying and Cirque du Soleil type moves in general.
The latter, it surely can be concluded, potentially elevates testosterone levels significantly more than the former. However, it's also more exhausting, which will likely affect sports performance.
It seems that the lack of this type of clarity in the definition of sex in these many studies is a confounding factor.
Nowhere in the studies did I see a consideration of the hormone oxytocin, commonly known as the "love" or "cuddle" hormone. Oxytocin is a hormone neurotransmitter that's thought to be a driving force behind attraction and caregiving. It's released in both men and women after sex. It makes them want to snuggle.
If research is to be believed, it's not something you want to have an abundance of during a boxing match, cage match, or football game. Too much and a defensive lineman, after taking down a quarterback, might feel an inclination to spoon him, which might result in a 15-yard penalty for personal encroachment.
Of course, new research indicates the oxytocin might act like the volume dial on an old radio, amplifying whatever activity someone is already experiencing, be it love-making or pounding the snot out of an opponent. Even if that's true, though, the rise in the hormone is too transitory to have much of an effect, unless of course sex took place immediately before competition, like between the National Anthem and the kick-off, face-off, jump ball, or opening bell.
But oxytocin introduces another possible variable – post-sex relaxation.
Plenty of sports aren't about aggression, power, or drive. Many are finesse sports where calmness and steady nerves rule – things like sharpshooting, archery, or golf. Sex might serve these activities well. There are also instances when an athlete might want to quell aggression, as in exceptionally aggressive boxers who want to avoid killing someone, ala Mike Tyson.
Conversely, prolonged abstinence might fuel frustration and, ipso facto, aggression, which in many sports can lead to better results. This is half of the "inverted U" sports psychology hypothesis. Lack of sex equals better performance, while sexual fulfillment can reduce the desire for sports success. In primal terms, why work hard for the rewards of victory, i.e., nookie, if you've already had some nookie?
There's a faction of trainers and scientists that believe that weight training keeps testosterone levels steady and thus makes lifters immune to the alleged T-robbing effects of sex. Maybe, but a decent amount of research shows that weightlifting causes a decline in testosterone levels, sometimes for a couple of days, post-workout.
Of course, this might stem from the steroid receptors actually "sopping up" a lot of serum testosterone, thus making it look like the blood sample of a lifter is testosterone sparse.
Regardless, it seems that non-competitive lifters and strength athletes shouldn't pay much attention to the sex and performance issue, anyhow, unless they're preparing for an especially heavy lifting day or are hoping to break some personal records.
It may be different for strength athletes who compete, though. In their case, they're probably asking the same questions as any other competitive athlete: to screw or not to screw?
If we consider the research, what we know about hormones, what we know about the emotional consequences of sex and the inherent variables of individual sports, we can come up with the following generalizations about sex before competition or even a hard training session:
- If you're involved in a sport where calmness and a steady hand is paramount, sex in the hours before competition might give you an advantage.
- If you're involved in a sport where aggression and hatred of your opponent is the equivalent to a performance-enhancing drug, then abstinence might give you an advantage. (And by abstinence, I'm talking about days or weeks.)
- However, if you can't help yourself and the lure of the animal is just too strong, probably try to refrain from sex – at least Flying Wallenda sex – for at least 10 hours before competition.
Maybe the most logical advice comes from the late Casey Stengel, who expressed that it wasn't so much the sex that weakened athletes, but staying up all night looking for it. Even more salient is an athlete's individual beliefs. If they believe that sex will affect their performance, it invariably will.
- Exton, M.S., et al., "Endocrine response to masturbation-induced orgasm in healthy men following a 3-week sexual abstinence," World J Urol, 2001. 19(5): p. 377-382.
- Jiang, M., "Periodic changes in serum testosterone levels after ejaculation in men." Sheng Li Xue Bao, 2002. 54(6): p. 535-538.
- Stefani, Laura, et al."Sexual Activity before Sports Competition: A Systematic Review," Frontiers in Physiology, 21 June, 2016.
- Sztajzel, J., et al., "Effect of sexual activity on cycle ergometer stress test parameters, on plasmatic testosterone levels and on concentration capacity. A study in high-level male athletes performed in the laboratory," J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2000. 40(3): p 233-239.