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For many years, football coaches, Olympic athletes, and even Muhammad Ali have advocated sexual abstinence the night before an athletic event. Marty Liquori, the world’s number one-ranked, 5,000-meter runner, believes that sex makes you happy, and happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile.

Marv Levy, head coach of the Buffalo Bills, insisted that the team be separated from their wives before their appearance in four Super Bowls, a policy that apparently was not successful (four losses out of four Super Bowls). Levy apparently was unfamiliar with the mitzvah.

On the other hand, there are also plenty of anecdotal stories of athletes who claim to have benefited from sex the night before an event. Both U.S. track star David Wottle and Canadian downhill skier Karin Lee Gardner attribute their Olympic gold medals in part to their pre-race preparation.

 

What do the studies say?

So who is right? Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine tried to shed some light on this dark corner of physical activity. Of the 31 articles they looked at, only three were scientific studies (all physiological). All of these studies suggested that sex the night before the competition does not alter physiological testing results. For instance, 14 married, male former athletes were given a maximum-effort grip strength test the morning after coitus and the same test following at least six days of abstinence. The results suggested that strength and endurance of the palmar flexing muscles are not adversely affected by sex the previous night.

Researchers at Colorado State University conducted an unpublished follow-up to this study by looking at 10 fit, married men, ages 18-45 years. In their tests for grip strength, balance, lateral movement, reaction time, aerobic power (stair-climbing exercise), and VO2max (treadmill test), the results did not change with sexual activity.

Finally, the results from a 1995 randomized cross-over study suggested that sexual intercourse 12 hours prior to the test had no significant effects on maximal aerobic power, oxygen pulse, or double product (the product of heart rate and systolic blood pressure). Double product is used as an estimate of myocardial (heart muscle) work and is proportional to myocardial oxygen consumption. Strength training reduces the resting double product, indicating a decrease in myocardial oxygen consumption at rest.

 

How did the myth arise?

So why is there a question at all about sex the night before an athletic competition? The long-standing myth that athletes should practice abstinence before important competitions may stem from the theory that sexual frustration leads to increased aggression, and that the act of ejaculation draws testosterone from the body.

My response is that normal sexual intercourse between married partners expends only 25-50 calories (the energy equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs), and double the calories expended between unmarried partners (a reasonable assumption, in my humble opinion). If this kind of activity affects your athletic performance the next day, you are seriously out of shape. And the amount of testosterone in the ejaculate is so minuscule that if it affects your total testosterone levels, you need to visit your urologist.

As the legendary New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel summed it up: “It’s not the sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.” I couldn’t have put it better.

Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us. He was a professor at the University of California San Francisco before leaving to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early stage biotech company developing products to improve post-surgical pain control. He is now retired and enjoys working out, following the stock market, travelling the world, and, of course, writing for TDWI.

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