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Does having sex decrease athletic performance?

Scientific studies show that sexual activity is not directly related to performance, but it can be detrimental in some circumstances

Sex reduces anxiety levels and has a relaxing effect, which could help performance.
Sex reduces anxiety levels and has a relaxing effect, which could help performance.iStockphoto / Getty

At the beginning of the summer, it was announced that a European Sex Championship would be held in Sweden, although the competition was ultimately canceled. The event was highly anticipated, both because of the activity it featured and because sex was equated with sports, once again highlighting the complicated relationship between sex and sports performance. Sexual activity could be considered another physical activity, since doing it can expend about 100 calories or its equivalent of about four to six METs (metabolic units of energy consumption of a subject at rest; six METs is equivalent to six times the energy consumption than if a person were at rest). It also means a heart rate between 90 and 130 beats per minute, with peaks of up to 170 beats per minute. It is also worth remembering that exercise improves sexual appetite and function, so sexual activity can be considered a form of physical activity that is beneficial for health and well-being. Indeed, there is a complex relationship between exercise and sexual activity when analyzing athletic performance.

Boxer Muhammad Ali abstained from sex for six weeks before a fight so that he would not lose energy. In the famous Rocky movie, we were introduced to a trainer who believed that his legs weakened after sexual intercourse. On the other hand, there are countless athletes, including the soccer player Ronaldinho, who have openly stated that having sex before a competition has never posed a problem. The sports footwear brand Brooks Running even conducted a survey of male and female runners, in which the athletes reported that they felt that they competed better after having had sex.

The matter goes back a long way. In ancient Greece and Rome, people believed that sexual abstinence prevented testosterone loss from the body through ejaculation, thereby maintaining aggressiveness and muscular strength. This reasoning was related to the Sperm Conservation Theory that posited the danger of losing sperm, which could be mentally and physically counterproductive. Traditionally, abstinence has been associated with increased aggressiveness in competition; it was not a good idea to lose energy before a competition... However, there were also positives: sex reduces anxiety levels and has a relaxing effect, which could help performance.

Never two hours before a competition

That’s what myths and opinions say. But what does science tell us about the matter? Although it could be argued that scientific evidence suggests that having sex causes a physiological change that decreases competitive ability, research is inconclusive as to the physiological, metabolic or psychological (positive or negative) effects of performing strenuous activities after sex.

Scientific studies show that sexual activity before competition is not directly related to strength or aerobic endurance performance. Here, the time between the sexual act and the moment of competition is crucial: sex can have a negative effect if it occurs less than two hours before competition. Some studies anecdotally show that, if it happens at least 10 hours before the competition and individual routines are not interrupted, sex could have a positive effect. However, if sexual activity is combined with alcohol or tobacco intake, it could have a negative effect. Therefore, the impact on sports performance comes not so much from having sex as from reduced and poorer quality sleep.

In terms of psychological effects, researchers have analyzed variables related to aggressiveness, such as motivation, alertness and attitude toward competition. The well-known inverted-U hypothesis suggests that an adequate level of alertness/anxiety is necessary for performance, and having sex could facilitate that readiness. However, for other athletes who are less interested in sex, adequate and restful sleep is more beneficial for competition.

Pelé preferred to rest

In the end, this issue has more to do with individual preferences and routines. As legendary soccer player Pelé indicated, some players need to have sex to relax, while others do not; it is a personal decision. As we have already noted, the issue is not sex but rather rest before a game or competition, which depends on the athlete. Pelé preferred to rest.

It should be noted that athletes are very active young people, and they generally have a greater sexual appetite than non-athletes, which means they may have more sex, as the Olympic Village has demonstrated in the most recent Olympic Games. Since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, organizers have been providing all delegations with condoms: 70,000 condoms were given out in Sydney 2000, 100,000 in Beijing 2008 and 150,000 in London 2012. Another striking example is that of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, where all the coaches of the national teams participating in the quarterfinals of the tournament answered the question of whether they allowed their players to have sex the day before the match in the affirmative. Again, the key is being able to rest for 10 to 12 hours prior to competition to avoid a negative impact on competitive performance.

Scientific studies show that having sex with a stable partner does not imply a change of routine, while casual sex in unusual contexts that disrupt the athlete’s routine could have a negative effect. Let us recall what Pelé said about fellow soccer players who went out to the club and drank the day before the game to have casual sex, altering their routine and affecting their performance in the match. “The sex itself is not a problem, but the warm-up is. The only problem for the players is that first they have to meet the girl, then go to the disco, have a drink; then they have sex and then they have to train or play the next day,” he explained.

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