Sex & Relationships

Myth or Fact? Does Having Sex Impede Athletic Performance?

For years athletes have been abstaining from sex before sport, but new evidence shows it may not be necessary.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

“I really like women,” Joe Namath once told Playboy. “Most of the nights before games, I’ll be with a girl."

Now that may seem like just another cocky line from another cocky sports star. But buried beneath the brag is a nod to one of the most hotly debated subjects in sports: sex, and whether to have it.

Muhammad Ali used to refrain from sex for six weeks prior to a fight. During the 2014 World Cup Safet Susic, the coach of Bosnia-Herzegovina’s national soccer team told reporters, “There will be no sex.” Last year, the Board of Control For Cricket in India, the country’s national governing body for the sport, forbid players from spending time with their wives or girlfriends during major tournaments (because women, right?). And this isn’t a trend specific to modern sports stars. In 444 BC, Plato wrote, “Olympic competitors before races should avoid sexual intimacy.”

As we learned from Rocky, “women weaken legs.” But without any compelling evidence to prove that having sex the night before will hinder athletic performance, it seems likely that any adverse effect it can have on athletes will manifest itself not in the body, but in the mind. After all, the standard sex session between married partners only burns 25 to 50 calories, about the same as walking up two flights of stairs. That hardly seems enough to exhaust any seasoned sportsman. 

“I have most definitely been tempted to give in to temptation but I find that there is a cascading tumble of events that not only leave me weak in the legs but weak in the head as well,” says professional adventurer Patrick Sweeney. Sweeney finished second in the 1996 U.S. Olympic trials in Atlanta. “I don't want to be distracted before any competition," he says. "Usually everything leading up to a fun sexual encounter requires effort and focus. I want to be present and clear headed for competition and that can make it difficult.”

Sex therapist Eric Garrison explained that this kind of thinking isn’t uncommon among athletes. Garrison, a former coach and NCAA health speaker, told AlterNet, “There’s this belief that [sex can] take the players' minds off the game. That they'll be thinking so much about the night before, they'll get struck out at the plate before they ever realize the ball had been thrown.”

But as sexologist Jess O'Reily tells us, "Let’s not scapegoat sex when booze and parties are ultimately to blame." Legendary New York Yankees coach Casey Stengel once told a reporter, “It isn’t sex that wrecks these guys, it’s staying up all night looking for it.”

In 2000, Ian Shrier, a sports medicine specialist at McGill University in Montreal published an editorial titled "Does Sex the Night Before Competition Decrease Performance?" He wrote that the "long-standing myth that athletes should practice abstinence before important competitions may stem from the theory that sexual frustration leads to increased aggression."

He explained that the athletes most likely to abide by the abstinence tradition are those involved in power sports like boxing and football, which might explain the Rocky quote. In these arenas, aggression is encouraged. Some people believe intuitively that ejaculation can diminish testosterone, the hormone linked to both sexual desire and aggression.

But as Emmanuele A. Jannini of the University of L'Aquila in Italy told National Geographic, “This is a really wrong idea.”

"After three months without sex, which is not so uncommon for some athletes, testosterone dramatically drops to levels close to children's levels," he added. "Do you think this may be useful for a boxer?"

But rituals can be hard to break, even when they are based on superstition. And those who have spent years abstaining from sex before sport might not want to risk making changes to their routine. “I had several NFL and NBA professionals in my private practice in Manhattan who… didn't want to jinx anything by breaking the pre-game dry spell, no matter how horny,” says Garrison.

He added, “If sex drains your life force or if it goes against your moral fiber, I say to them, don't risk it." 

For those who dare to give into temptation, Garrison recommends either masturbating or partaking in consensual, protected sex. He also recommends staying hydrated, getting a good night’s sleep and eating well. 

“Some of the best professional football, basketball, baseball, and soccer has occurred after I worked with those players on their sex concerns, and all of them wanted permission to have sex the night before or on the day of.”

Physical therapist Kosta Kokolis told us, "Athletes that do choose to partake may actually reap some benefits and even have distinct advantage over their abstaining counterparts... Sexual activity leads to increase blood circulation, which is good for the body, as well as improve mood, increase sense of physical abilities, and decrease anticipation, or nervousness before the event."

And then there's the fact that the good vibes of sex can carry over onto the playing field. A former college baseball player who declined to give his name told us, “I think having sex before a game definitely gives an advantage to the athlete. Sex helps you relax and gives you confidence. That carries over to the sport you’re playing. It gives you an edge.”

He's not alone. In his interview with Playboy, Namath explained, “The night before a game, I prepare myself both mentally and physically for the next day. I think a ballplayer has to be relaxed to play well; and if that involves being with a girl that night, he should do it. If some ballplayers don't feel that way, they shouldn't do it. But I feel that way.”

Mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey admitted during one interview, “I try to have as much sex as possible before I fight.”

Female athletes like Rousey might even stand to benefit from sex in ways their male counterparts do not. Scientists have discovered that female orgasm can stop the release of a specific pain transmitter for up to 24 hours, which could help ease muscle pain or soreness. 

Even Pliny the Elder was on board. He once wrote, “Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by lovemaking.” Maybe that helps explain the need for the 100,000 condoms that made it to Sochi Olympics

Carrie Weisman is a writer focusing on sex, relationships and culture. 

Sign Up!
Get AlterNet's Daily Newsletter in Your Inbox
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Election 2018