The idea that sex alters sports performance originated thousands of years ago. Ancient Greek, Roman and Chinese civilizations already spoke about the negative influence of this variant of physical exercise before a competition. This idea, in one way or another, has reached our days, but is it true that having sex the night before an event has a negative impact on the performance of athletes? Here’s the controversy.
The negative effects of sex on athletes are rooted in mythology and religion, which gave semen a supposed divine energy. Their retention, for this reason, would enhance strength, endurance and virility in the case of men, three good allies for sports competition. Their loss would cause just the opposite: a temporary loss of physical faculties.
As a starting point, we must emphasize that research in this field is very complex due to the multiple variables that condition the relationship between sport and sex (couple, duration, effort made, emotional implications and a long etcetera).
The largest review of studies on sex and sport
The most important research on this subject, which is very recurrent when we reach the end of each Olympic cycle, does point to a position contrary to myths. More than 500 of these studies were analyzed in a review published in 2016 in Frontiers in Physiology (Sexual Activity before Sports Competition: A Systematic Review) with a clear conclusion: science has not found negative effects on the sports performance of athletes (men and women) who have had sex before an event, at least 10 hours in advance (see more). On the other hand, specific studies have even pointed to positive effects.
It should be pointed out that there are investigations that have pointed to cases in which sex is detrimental to performance. This was the main conclusion of a group of researchers in Geneva who tested 16 top-level athletes on ergometers under two conditions: 10 hours after sexual intercourse and two hours after sexual intercourse.
The results showed that sexual activity did not induce changes in stress test maximum values or athlete concentration, but did indicate higher heart rate values during the two-hour stress test. (see full study).
Lucía Vargas, a psychologist and sexologist at Centro Vitaria, insists that “there is no definitive scientific proof” that sex harms sports performance. “It cannot be affirmed that having sex on the night before a competition can negatively impact the athlete’s performance on the physical level, much less weeks before”.
Sex and performance: hormone production
Yes, we can list some positive effects of sex on sports performance, both psychological and physical, in both male and female athletes. Focusing on sports, frequent sexual relations favour the production of testosterone, a hormone closely linked to strength and muscular power. In the case of men, after ejaculation, there is a momentary decrease in testosterone, but its normal levels recover quickly. This is why it is not advisable to have sex for two hours before a test, as pointed out in the study by Swiss researchers. In women, the increase in testosterone does not imply any decrease, so the effects on the amount of this hormone are much more noticeable.
Sexologist Lucía Vargas points out another benefit: “Pleasure discharges increase the release of oxytocin and endorphins, substances that significantly reduce the sensation of pain. For this reason, sexual practice can be considered as a natural analgesic that helps relieve muscle and/or joint pain.
Sex and sport: a psychological plus
One of the secrets of sporting success is to have a mind totally focused on the proposed goal. In this respect, sex also has a lot to say: “Sex increases the segregation of serotonin (the hormone responsible for well-being and pleasure) and lowers the level of cortisol in the blood, the hormone responsible for stress. All this can make it easier to go to the competition with less anxiety,” clarifies Lucía Vargas.
Actions such as sleeping better and getting a proper rest can benefit from sexual practice in the day prior to a sporting event. Thus, the test in question would be faced with better guarantees.
Similarly, the sexologist Vargas stresses another beneficial point of sex: “It has been shown that prolonged abstinence can produce depressive states in the person as well as frustration and stress. In other words, prohibiting sex can cause the opposite effects to those desired: worse performance.
Sex and sport: negative aspects to take into account
Some of the reasoning about the harmful effects of sex before a major sporting event are those that link sex to spending a sleepless night or to the previous party that is associated in certain cases with its practice. This last section could include the consumption of alcohol or, in more extreme situations, drugs.
Vargas recommends that the sex to be practiced “does not require excessive physical wear or spend an entire night awake”, as it would affect the rest, which is determinant in performance.
Many elite athletes also follow a series of very marked routines in the instants, days or weeks prior to a competition. In this case, if pre-competitive sex is not included in these routines, it may also be discouraged in the previous one. The reason is that, from the point of view of psychological preparation, the sportsman tends to prejudge his performance according to these habitual practices that he carries out. An athlete may see his performance impaired by having done an action that was not habitual in him, a practice outside his routine.
This same idea also applies to sportsmen and women who tend to believe that having sex reduces their physical condition. In these cases, the competition will be faced thinking about the weakness produced by sex and will make it difficult for him to play a good role in the test.
The practice of elite sportsmen and women
Between myth and science are many of the athletes who face great championships week after week. Although in some cases sex is still a more private issue, some elite athletes have made their habits known before a competition.
The most notorious case was that of the mythical Mohamed Ali. The boxer self-imposed a sexual abstinence of six weeks before a fight; another well-known name is Pelé, who, on the contrary, was in favour of practicing sex before a sporting event.
In the same field of football, the Argentine national football team, which won the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, was prohibited from practicing sex before matches. On the other hand, the players of the famous ‘Naranja Mecánica’ of Holland did have permission from the technician to have relations. This team was runners-up in 1974 and 1978.
Among women, wrestler Ronda Rousey said she liked to have sex before a fight because it increased her testosterone levels and positively influenced her performance.
For his part, Casey Stengel, historic coach of the New York Yankees, pronounced one of the clearest phrases about this controversy: “It’s not sex that destroys these guys, but on the contrary, being up all night waiting for it.
The review of research published in Frontiers in Physiology concludes that the sexual sphere is unique to each individual and that, in this context, athletes should live their sexuality with complete freedom.