Do sex and sport mix?


Should sex be avoided before competition? asks GILES WARRINGTON.

ONE OF the oldest and frequently asked questions and most hotly debated subjects in sporting circles relates to the controversial issue of whether sexual intercourse affects subsequent sports performance.

A long-held belief among many athletes and their coaches is that you should avoid sex before competition for fear of expending unnecessary energy, suppressing aggression and thereby removing any natural competitive edge.

It is widely reported that sporting legend Muhammad Ali is said to have abstained from sex for six weeks before a big fight. British sprinter and Olympic gold medallist Linford Christie supported this notion stating that a romp before a race made his “legs feel like lead”. In contrast there are many anecdotal stories from other athletes claiming to have benefited from sex the night before competition.

George Best famously once said: “I certainly never found sex had any effect on my performance . . . maybe best not an hour before though, but the night before makes no odds!”

Quite where the debate originates is unclear, but the famous Greek poet and philosopher Plato was probably one of the first to raise the issue when describing the training regimen of Pentathalete and Olympic Champion Ikkos of Tarentum.

He prepared for the Games 84th Olympiad in 444BC by eating large quantities of wild boar, cheese and goat meat but no sex for fear it could sap his strength. An alternative view point was held by Roman historian Pliny the Elder in AD77: “Athletes when sluggish are revitalised by love-making,” he wrote, “and the voice restored from being gruff and husky.”

Leading sports scientist and exercise physiologist Prof Craig Sharp pioneered some of the early research in this area when he conducted studies in the early 1980s.

Sharp concluded there appeared to be no performance impact and so long as any sexual activity did not affect quality of sleep then it may actually relax the athlete prior to competition. Based on his findings Sharp was actually nominated Man of the Year in Italy in 1983!

A more recent review paper entitled Does sex the night before competition decrease performance?was published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicinein 2000. Having reviewed all the current literature in the area, the authors concluded that sexual activity the night before competition had no affect on performance in a range of physiological tests including strength, balance, co-ordination, reaction time and aerobic capacity.

There was no physiological evidence to suggest that sex before competition was bad for you. The findings are perhaps unsurprising when you consider that the typical energy expended by a married couple engaging in sexual intercourse equates to only about 25-30 calories which would equate to walking up two flights of stairs!

From a psychological perspective, it still remains unclear what effects sex may have on an athlete’s performance. Current theory suggests that there is an optimal level of alertness and anxiety before competition. As a result, there is a fine line between appropriate levels of arousal for competition and excessive aggression which may put you over the top.

Therefore, in certain cases of heightened arousal, sex may well be a positive moderating factor in that it may promote relaxation and a positive mood state.

Based on the current available evidence it appears that the notion that sexual intercourse somehow impairs athletic performance and that abstinence leads to sexual frustration and heightened aggression appears to be a popular myth. The bottom line is that in preparation for competition, athletes should try to maintain their normal routine and practices.

If this involves sexual intercourse, so long as normal sleep patterns are not disrupted and sleep quality is maintained, then it may well help relax the athlete. In contrast, if an athlete believes that sex will impair performance then it is probably best avoided. At the end of the day it boils down to personal preferences.

Dr Giles Warrington is a sport and exercise physiologist and lecturer in the School of Health and Human Performance at DCU