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How Can Sex Affect Your Athletic Performance?

BY James Eacott

The relationship between sex and athletic performance has been debated for centuries. Here's what some of the science says.

The topic of sex and athletics begins over 1,000 years ago in Greece. The theory back then was that abstaining would build frustration, aggression and ultimately result in improved performance. It would seem the tables have turned: at the Rio 2016 Olympics, a whopping half a million condoms were handed out to the approximately 12,000 competitors. That’s still 42 per person or an impressive 80+ “engagements” per person. Crikey. It’d seem like today’s athletes believe sex enhances sports performance.

But the debate persists and you’ll find professional athletes sitting on both sides of the fence. So, what does the science say?

The role of testosterone

Men may have more of it, but testosterone affects both men and women. It impacts athletic performance and low levels are linked to low energy, decreased strength and increased body fat. It also affects sex drive.

While short, high-intensity training boosts testosterone levels in both men and women, low-intensity endurance training decreases it, which not only affects performance but also the desire for sex. 

It’s a downward spiral: low testosterone = low sex drive. Low sex drive = lower endorphins. More cortisol = anxiety = less sex drive. Plus, lower testosterone makes hitting those higher intensity sessions more difficult. 

How much endurance training can I do without decreasing testosterone? 

It depends. If you take an 80/20 approach to your training as per uber-coach Matt Fitzgerald’s training philosophy, then you’ll be hitting those high notes which boosts testosterone. These high-intensity intervals can help you avoid going into a deficit.

That said, we all know athletes who can’t resist adding miles into their schedule. Often, these can objectively be seen as junk miles by everyone except that one athlete. They also tend to avoid the weights room and fast efforts. These are the athletes who are more likely to suffer from low testosterone levels. (If you’re worried about low testosterone, here are 5 ways you can boost it naturally.)

What does the science say?

Although there have been clinical studies attempting to ascertain the answer, the results don’t point strongly one way or the other. One study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine concluded that “sex had no statistically significant effect on athletic performance,” and others have produced the same results. In other words, we can assume it doesn’t harm performance, but you’re most likely not going to benefit either. 

How about anecdotal evidence? 

Regardless of the science, it appears many athletes believe athletic performance does improve after sex. This could be due to the release of endorphins, feelings of satisfaction or merely emotional connectivity with your partner.

We tend to look for hard science, but anecdotal evidence still has a place. If you feel something is benefitting you, then you should go for it.

When to refrain from sex pre-competition

There are only really two circumstances in which it’d be better to refrain.

  1. Sports which require a great deal of concentration can be negatively impacted by sex. We’re talking about pool, snooker, darts and so on.
  2. If your sex sessions take so long it disrupts your sleep. We know sleep is a massive performance enhancer, so if your escapades see you swinging from the rafters all night long, then you might want to hold fire until the day after competition!

So, will sex improve my performance?

As with most things in sports, it depends on the individual. However, in the same way we’d never recommend you use a new pair of shoes or nutrition on race day, the same applies here. Don’t be shy in undertaking your own research to see what impact sex has on your performance. That way you can make an informed decision on whether it’ll work in a race scenario.

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About James Eacott

James Eacott is a highly-qualified endurance coach, an experienced athlete, and a total nutrition geek. He’s on the development team at 33Fuel natural sports nutrition, a leading-edge nutrition company specializing in powerful natural products for endurance performance. Follow @33fuel for more. 

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