Does Sex Affect Sports Performance? Dunno.
We’ve all heard what happens to athletes who don’t abstain from sex before the match: they lose. We don’t know how we know or when we first heard it, but we know it and somehow, it seems to make sense. Is it true? The media has been having a field day with this question, especially after digging up a review from the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine from 2000 (um, slow news day?). We can’t be sure they actually read it, given their conclusions.
Let’s go through the studies and summarize. Muscular Performance Following Coitus described the results of 14 male former athletes who were given a strength test the morning after sex, showing strength and endurance were not affected.
An unpublished follow-up study (cited in J. Thornton’s Sexual activity and athletic performance: is there a relationship?) conducted by researchers at Colorado State University tested 10 fit, married men, with ages ranging between 18 and 45 years, for grip strength, balance, lateral movement, reaction time, and given a stair-climbing and treadmill endurance challenge. Sex was deemed to have no impact on performance.
In Effects of sexual intercourse on maximal aerobic power, oxygen pulse, and double product in male sedentary subjects, researchers described a cross-over study that showed that sex — as little as 12 hours prior to testing — had no effect on aerobic power, oxygen uptake per heartbeat, or measure of workload on the heart.
The science seems to say sex doesn’t make a difference either way, but before you jump to that conclusion, consider that these tests deal with physiological factors when a competition involves both physiology and psychology. Review authors Samantha McGlone and Ian Shrier agree, writing:
Based on the results of these studies, one might conclude that sexual activity the night before competition would not affect performance. However, each of the above-mentioned studies focused on the physiological effects of precompetition sex, which would only be expected to decrease performance if the activity led to exhaustion. Considering that normal sexual intercourse between married partners expends only 25-50 calories (the energy equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs), it is doubtful that sex the previous night would affect laboratory physiological performance tests.
Remembering that the original hypothesis suggested that performance would only be affected through a change in aggression, researchers really should have measured variables that are affected by aggression (e.g., motivation, alertness, and attitude toward competition). According to the current inverted U sport psychology hypothesis, there is an optimal level of alertness/anxiety before a competition, and a poor performance will result from either being too anxious or not alert enough. If athletes are too anxious and restless the night before an event, then sex may be a relaxing distraction. If they are already relaxed or, like some athletes, have little interest in sex the night before a big competition, then a good night’s sleep is all they need. This theory predicts that the results will be dependent on individual preferences and routines. The night before an important race is not a good time for drastic changes in routine. Consistency is the key.
Clearly there is a need for more research on the topic of sexual activity and athletic performance. However, any research will have difficulty controlling factors related to such sexual behavior such as the time of day, frequency and duration of sexual activity, behavior of subjects between data collection, diet, fatigue, stress, and individual response to sexual activity.
Now remember: this review was published in 2000 and does not include newer studies, which surely exist. We would look for them but we are mad about the fact that no media outlet rehashing the information in this review took a moment to cite any sources — sources which were at the end of the review, ready to be mulched the same way everything else had been! Worse — apparently oblivious to the admission that the researchers had not measured impact on psychology, nearly all outlets ran with a title that was some variation of “IT’S A TRIPLE-X OLYMPIAD ALL RIGHT!!!1!ONE! SCIENCE CONFIRMS SEX DOESN’T HURT PERFORMANCE!11!” Ugh.
Forgive us if we don’t feel particularly willing to give up this gorgeous sunny day to nosedive into scientific literature on their behalf. When we do get around to it (which we will, because this is a great topic), we will be sure to link all the studies within the text — maybe then media outlets rehashing the story will cite studies despite themselves while churnalism-ing.
Header image by Shawn Carpenter.