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Sex before sport: does it affect an athlete’s performance?

From the ancient Greeks to modern soccer World Cups and the Olympics, there has been an enduring belief by some athletes and coaches that engaging in sexual activity before athletic competitions may be…

If an athlete believes sex will harm their performance, there’s a good chance it will. Slagheap

From the ancient Greeks to modern soccer World Cups and the Olympics, there has been an enduring belief by some athletes and coaches that engaging in sexual activity before athletic competitions may be detrimental to performance. But is there any truth in this?

Rocky Balboa’s gnarled boxing manager Mickey once stated: “women weaken legs”. The origin of this belief probably relates to the idea that semen contains a cerebrospinal substance – (as proposed by the ancient Greeks) – or divine energy, as suggested by traditional Chinese medicine.

In the 1st Century AD, Greek physician Dr Aretaeus went as far to say a man’s strength could be enhanced by the retention of semen.

Some 2,000 years later, it’s not uncommon to hear of coaches and athletes who still believe avoiding sex can improve performance.

During the 1998 World soccer cup, the then English coach, Glenn Hoddle, famously forbade his players from engaging in sexual intercourse for the month-long event.

Unfortunately for the English, the misery of a poor world cup Cup campaign was compounded by no sex for a month!

But it’s not just tyrannical coaches banning sexual activity: many athletes practise self-abstinence and believe they can conserve strength and energy levels by not having sex before a competition.

While it seems unlikely that there is essential energy in a teaspoon of semen, some athletes have been known to avoid sex as a means of increasing frustration and consequently aggression.

As stated by the 1,500m and one mile runner Marty Liquori: “Sex makes you happy. Happy people do not run a 3:47 mile.” For this reason, some boxers and athletes have been known to avoid sex for up to a month before a big fight/competition.

Women weaken legs, Mickey? Really?

But, what does the science say? Not surprisingly, there is very little scientific research on the effects of sex on athletic performance.

On one hand, it is not seen as a subject for serious study, and; on the other, it’s difficult to impose the strict controls necessary for rigorous research – how does one ensure that every participant performs their sexual activity at the same duration and the same intensity every time?!

I am only aware of four studies – including this one relating to cycling – that have tried to scientifically investigate the effects of sex on subsequent athletic performance; interestingly, all have investigated male performance (despite the participation of females in the sex!).

These studies have investigated factors ranging from six days of sexual abstinence to sex the night before competition, and all have concluded that there is no detrimental or beneficial effect of sexual activity before competition on subsequent athletic performance.

While sex itself is unlikely to be problem for athletes, chasing sex may be! It’s well known that sleep deprivation and alcohol/drug consumption can affect athletic performance.

Placing curfews on athletes, and avoiding late night/early morning socialising, is probably a wise strategy to maximise athletic performance.

But we must always take into account the important effects of belief on athletic performance – if an athlete believes sex will harm athletic performance, there’s a good chance it will.

But most athletes can be confident there’s no “divine energy” in semen and that, as long as they’re getting plenty of sleep and not performing hours of sexual gymnastics, a little sex is very unlikely to impair their athletic prowess.

Join the conversation

34 Comments sorted by

  1. Rey Tiquia
    Rey Tiquia is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Honorary Fellow, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at University of Melbourne

    According to the Swedish Taoist sexologist Jolan Chang, the problem is not in having sex before sport but rather it is the issue of lack of continence in ejaculation among men. In his book 'The Tao of Love and Sex The Ancient Chinese Way to Ecstacy'(1977), Jolan Chang argues that " the more one makes love, the more one benefits from the harmony of Yin and Yang: and the less one ejaculates, the less one loses the benefits of this harmony."

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  2. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Saying "women weaken legs" - kind of misses the point that there are women athletes as well. Therefore, if an athlete truly believes they will suffer from "weak legs", they can choose the recumbent position. However, if the sex is between two athletes they can:

    Toss a coin as to who goes on top
    Take turns
    Masturbate themselves or each other

    or

    not have sex at all.

    Personally, I find sex is very relaxing, a healthy way to achieve a good nights sleep before the next day's challenges.

    What was the point of this article again?

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    1. David Bishop

      Research Leader, Sport, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living at Victoria University

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Thanks for your comment Diana.
      I guess that the point of the article was to discuss the origins of, and the evidence for, the enduring belief that sex can be detrimental to subsequent athletic performance. Of course there are both male and female atletes. However, the idea that sex may affect athletic performance has typically been associated with male athletes, possibily due to the historial association of the loss of semen with a loss of energy.

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  3. Glen Turner

    Network Engineer

    Doesn't shock me that one of the papers is about cycling, when one of the most famous quotes from the golden age of cycling is:
    "To prepare for a race there is nothing better than a good pheasant, some champagne and a woman."
    - Jacques Anquetil, five-time Tour de France winner.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Glen Turner

      Assuming all cyclists are heterosexual males.

      Also would question the imbibing of alcohol before a race - likely to cause more problems than getting laid.

      :)

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    2. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      No one in your list is an athlete.

      Nor female.

      You have made of list of men who all possess(ed) a rather large...... ego.

      Relevance: 0

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  4. Grendelus Malleolus

    Senior Nerd

    "all have investigated male performance (despite the participation of females in the sex!)"

    Not knowing which study you are referring to - I'll go out on a limb here and say that you are assuming there was female participation in all of the sex as there is a very real chance that some of the shenanighans may well have been not only just between men and women...

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  5. Michael Bending

    logged in via Facebook

    Unfortunately it looks like David Bishop hasn’t done his research. Considering he is an academic with so many published papers I would have expected more.

    Has David ever wondered why after sex (ejaculation) he may feel the need for sleepy bo bo's? It’s not an arbitrary event or personal choice that we can snap out of. It’s because the males endocrine system undergoes a change. A woman also experiences this but it is less pronounced.

    Neuroscientist Serge Stoleru, who led a group at the French…

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Michael Bending

      Having sex immediately BEFORE an athlete event, whether one is male or female, to state the BLEEDING obvious, would have a deleterious effect on performance. One needs a science study for this?

      I was under the impression we were discussing the night before.

      A lovely bit of canoodling followed by a good night's sleep, would in my opinion, be of both psychological and physical benefit for athletes.

      Somehow, somewhere this is just another warning to males - be they athletes or not: that women have a negative effect on men. Whether they have sex with, or do not have sex with them or in anyway associate with women is just generally bad. Time to put this idea of women as the dark side to rest.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      "Time to put this idea of women as the dark side to rest."

      Oh sure ... you would say that. I think you're a girl. The name is a dead giveaway...

      Here's another list: Cleopatra, Lucretia Borgia, Mrs MacBeth, Mata Hari Josephine... and all of them intent on eroding our blokes' sporting prowess.

      I coulda been a contender myself save for Pauline at the burger joint in town. These femme fatales are ruining years of dedicated training with their come hither glances. I coulda conquered Europe.

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    3. David Bishop

      Research Leader, Sport, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living at Victoria University

      In reply to Michael Bending

      Thanks for your comment Michael. Unfortunately though, your theory is completely at odds with the published research that has failed to find an effect of sex on subsequent athletic performance. As pointed out by Diana, your theory could only be correct if one was to have sex IMMEDIATELY before an athletic event. I defer to your expertise, but it seems very unlikely that any of the neurochemical changes that you mention remain for days/weeks after sex - which is the time frame that some athletes and coaches advocate sexual abstinence. Furthermore, one could come to the exact opposite conclusion - sex leading to a good night's sleep may be positive for subsequent athletic performance. It is well established that a lack of sleep can influence athletic performance. Once again however, this is not consistent with the published research which has failed to observe a positive or negative effect of sexual activity on athletic performance.

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    4. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Don't men want their partners, mothers, sisters, female friends (if you have any) treated with the same respect as men? Instead of being cast as "eroding our blokes' sporting prowess"?

      Some common sense is clearly absent from many posts here.

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    5. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      "Don't men want their partners, mothers, sisters, female friends (if you have any) treated with the same respect as men?"

      Geez Ms Art I reckon we could do a bit better than that.

      But yes your absolutely correct common sense - that most uncommon of commodities - is sorely lacking from my posts in particular. I was actually joking. A dangerous thing to do whenever the S words raises its hideous head.

      I will never again poke fun at this most serious of shenanigans. I have learned my lesson. Dark forces have no sense of fun.

      I am now off to conquer somewhere, win gold or get laid - whichever comes first. More chance of winning gold I'd reckon.

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    6. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Suggest you read posts from C Allan and Dale Bloom and you may understand my points about common sense.

      Have had enough of insults to myself and my recently deceased relatives all under the guise of discussing sexuality and polluting environments.

      I do have a sense of humour, however it has been compromised lately by simple idiocy on the part of people who clearly do not like women. Whether you are amongst those I have mentioned I do not know; you strike me as more intelligent than your posts have recently displayed.

      I am trying to engage in intelligent discussion only to have my comments ridiculed.

      Off to have a nice cuppa and finish my analysis on sustainable home construction.

      Perhaps you could go check your fencing or milk a few cows - although you'd better be careful - cows are female, therefore of the darkside. Maybe stick with fences.

      :)

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    7. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      Ooooh no Ms Art... fences have their darker side as well - greener anyway. And I am afraid of cows. Indeed I am afraid of anything bigger and stupider than me... footballers, wrestlers and the like. Athletes more than most.

      But happily all my fruit trees are at least partly female and are bedecked in porcelain pink flowers, having been suckered into thinking it's Spring. I am hardly afraid of them at all - but then I think they might be cleverer than I am... so I'll keep my eye on them just…

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    8. Michael Bending

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to David Bishop

      Hi David,

      Thanks for replying to my post. Unfortunately your reply does not help much and to refer to my journal reference and other scientific studies as just theories sounds more like trying to shoot the messenger.

      Your original article belittle such practices as Chinese medicine which has been around for over 5000 years…if something doesn’t work people won’t use it for over 5000 years. True, maybe not scientifically validated by western science but instead of scoffing at it you should…

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    9. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Watching the athletes.... so we will all know if they are still smiling after they lose.

      Could give me an excuse to actually pay more attention to the Olympics.

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    10. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Good thinking on the part of Durex.

      Hope that the beds in the Olympic village bed are constructed of reinforced steel - too many notches in wooden posts could pose more of a danger to athletes than weak knees.

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    11. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      "Suggest you read posts from C Allan and Dale Bloom and you may understand my points about common sense."

      Objection.

      You are not debating anything with fact, just carrying out abuse.

      Which people taught you to do that?

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  6. Andrew Malcolm

    Editor

    Perhaps we need some first-hand accounts of this: Has anyone ever asked winning - or losing - sportsplayers about their activities in the hours leading up to their events?

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    1. David Bishop

      Research Leader, Sport, Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living at Victoria University

      In reply to Andrew Malcolm

      I am aware of only one study that interviewed football and baseball college varsity athletes who abstained from sex before a game. It was reported that they believed that by doing so they were conserving strength and increasing energy levels (Fischer, 1997)

      Fischer, G. (1997). Abstention from sex and other pre-game rituals used by college male varsity athletes. Journal of Sport Behaviour, 20, 176-185.

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  7. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Very poor choice of photo for this article.

    It can be interpreted as the male wrestlers having sex, which they are not.

    I think it is a part of demonising and mocking men.

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    1. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      I haven’t mentioned feminism, but the vast majority of feminism is the demonising and mocking of men.

      There is little evidence to the contary.

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    2. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale,

      Rattle off a few of the feminist writers you've read who have demonised and mocked men.

      I actually can't think of any myself. But I've only read the classics like Luxemburg, Kollontai, Greer and Naomi Wolf.

      Now that list cannot include this weird self-mockery of yours either.

      Do you actually know any feminists Dale, ever read any... or do you just say this stuff to find someone to blame for all the awful things that have happened to you, you poor little thing? Wasn't me - the feminists done it! They turned your wife against you and set up the Child Support Agency and now your life is just horrible. Grow up and be a man Dale.... take responsibility for your life. Stop whining.

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    3. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Now you are making up stories about men.

      Who taught you to do that?

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Peter Ormonde
      You have said “They turned your wife against you and set up the Child Support Agency and now your life is just horrible. Grow up and be a man Dale.... take responsibility for your life”

      You have never met me, you don’t know me and never will, but you have made up a whole series of statements about me.

      I have also noted a constant stream of abuse from you towards anyone who disagrees with you, and you would be the most abusive poster on The Conversation.

      So not only do you make up stories about other people, you are a highly abusive as well.

      So which university or which person taught you to make up stories and be highly abusive.

      As for feminists denigrating men, take your pick, or conversely, find a self-proclaimed feminist who does not denigrate men.

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    5. Peter Ormonde
      Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Farmer

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Any from the list above actually Dale ... that is Greer, Kollontai, Luxemburg,Wolf ... like I said Dale I cannot think of any significant feminist theoretician who mocks or humiliates men.

      So sorry if my tone offends Dale - I just don't take ignorant and uneducated people very seriously here - fed up with them actually thinking they have a right to splatter their ignorant rubbish all over the internet ... stick to Alan Jones or the Telegraph Dale unless you want to actually do some reading and get some facts into your whimpering.

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    6. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "ignorant and uneducated people"

      More abuse. Where did you learn it?

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