For many athletes, the idea of sex the night before an event is taboo. Muhammad Ali was said to have abstained for up to 6 weeks prior to a big fight. Just a few months ago, several teams competing in the World Cup gave sex the boot. “There will be no sex in Brazil,” Safet Susic, Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national soccer team coach, told reporters. “I am not interested what the other coaches do. This is not a holiday trip; we are there to play football at the World Cup.” Matt Chan, CrossFit Games competitor, also advocates refraining. When questioned on the matter, he answered, “From what I understand, there’s something called ‘chi.’ You can’t give it away to everybody every day or else you lose your chi and all of a sudden everything falls apart. I hold on to my chi until the Games are over.” Some older readers may even remember the 1970’s professional football mantra on the matter, “Nothing after Wednesday if you’re playing on Sunday.” And, going back even further, Plato wrote in 444 BC that Olympic competitors should avoid sex before the races.
Sounds like a lot of work and no play to me. But, is abstaining really necessary for optimal performance? Or, was the Roman philosopher and writer, Pliny the Elder, on to something when he said in 77 AD, “Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by lovemaking.” Let’s take a look at what happens to the body during sex, specifically orgasm, and then see how that relates to athletic performance. Hint: there is light at the end of the tunnel. No pun intended.
Sex feels amazing. Well, duh. But, there’s a chemical reason why it feels so great. Sex modifies the hormonal balance in the body. The four main chemicals released from your brain during sex are Dopamine, Serotonin, endorphins, and Oxytocin. To start with, sex releases lots and lots of dopamine, a pleasure hormone, in the brain. Known as the happy hormone, dopamine induces feelings of anticipation of joy of the imminent bliss to come. In addition to the release of copious amounts of dopamine, the body also releases serotonin and endorphins. Serotonin is a mood enhancing neurotransmitter involved in restful sleep and endorphins act as natural pain inhibitors, interacting with opiate receptors to reduce the body’s perception of pain. According to research performed by Dr. Barry Komisaruk, a professor at Rutgers University, the body’s pain threshold becomes the equivalent of up to 3x a pain-relieving dose of morphine after an orgasm. And, for women, it has been found that this benefit can last up to 24 hours! But, the wonders of orgasm don’t stop there. For men, hormones released during orgasm, specifically serotonin, induce relaxation and sound sleep. The male orgasm results in a state of relaxation that is the equivalent of having a 2 to 3 mg shot of diazepam (Valium)! Oxytocin is another hormone that is released as a result of physical contact and intimacy with another person. Also known as the “cuddle hormone”, Oxytocin powerfully induces feelings of closeness, belonging, and contentment. In addition, for both males and females, an orgasm releases immunoglobin A into the body, which plays a role in immune system boosting and healing.
With all these amazing benefits, why aren’t we indulging in sex more before a big event? Could it be that the idea that sex hampers athletic performance archaic and unfounded? In a recent Oxford study, 2000 Flora London marathon participants were surveyed post-race. The study revealed that those participants who made room for sex in their pre-race routines ran faster than the ones who abstained. In fact, the average time difference was 5 minutes. Dr. Tommy Boone, a fellow with the American Society of Exercise Physiologists and author of the book Sex Before Athletic Competition: Myth or Fact?, conducted a treadmill study, which found men who had sex the night before (12 hours earlier) and men who abstained showed no difference in VO2 Max or aerobic capacity. Similarly, Samantha McGlone, an Olympic triathlete and undergrad at McGill University and Dr. Ian Shrier, a PhD at McGill University and former president of the Canadian Academy of Sports Medicine, published an editorial based on their research on the subject entitled, Does Sex the Night Before Competition Decrease Performance? in which they concluded that, no, it does not decrease performance. Dr. Shrier commented that “Sex the night before doesn’t affect the strength, endurance, or capability to utilize oxygen.” And, intercourse only burns on average 25 to 50 calories per session, which is the equivalent of walking 2 flights of stairs. That’s hardly enough exertion to compromise athletic performance the next day. This is good news. No, this is great news.
So, there you have it. There is no solid evidence that sex inhibits athletic performance, but rather plenty of evidence to the contrary. If sex can allay our pre-race jitters, relax our bodies, give us an overall sense of happiness and wellbeing, and induce restful sleep, then why not indulge a little the night before your next big race? Your finish time might just thank you.