Length: »1200 Words
Reading Time: »5-7 Minutes
Target Audience: » Athletes & Coaches
Author: » David Nolan
“Women Weaken Legs”
– Mickey Goldmill
Sex is essential for our existence. Without it, none of us would be here. Despite what the moralistic hypocrites of religion want us to believe, people are interested in sex for reasons other than making babies. The 33.5 billion visits Pornhub recorded in 2018 are evidence of this. Just consider that number for a minute. Currently there are 7.53 billion people on earth, and Pornhub is only one of 1000’s of explicit adult sites, let that sink in for moment.
It is not a shock that the age group engaging in the highest level of sexual activity are aged 18-29. Coincidently, this is the same age the majority of athletes are in their prime and playing at the highest level.
It has been suggested that sex can negatively impact sports performance. Iconic cinematography includes Mickey Goldmill (Rocky’s old-school boxing coach) famously declaring “women weaken legs.” But this idea is not only found in Hollywood movies.
During the 2018 World Cup, it is reported the German Squad was forced to adhere to a “sex ban.” Mike Tyson apparently abstained from sex for 5 years curing his career. Mike was following in the footsteps of “The Greatest,” Muhammad Ali who also gave up sex for long periods before each fight in fear it would weaken him.
This begs the question. If those at the top level, even in modern times with the best sports science and medical support are imposing sex bans, surely sex must have a negative effect on performance?
Naturally this is a tricky subject to conduct high quality research in. Navigating the ethical and logistical obstacles of sex research is difficult. What would you even put in the recruitment advertisements? This has led to the area being understudied. However, some good research does exist.
A 2018 study recruited 12 men with strength training experience. All the men completed 3 testing sessions each. The first session was a familiarisation session where the participants were shown how to perform the tests properly. They then returned for 2 additional testing sessions, one session the morning after having sex with their partner, the other having abstained from sex the night before.
There was no difference found in leg strength or endurance between the session following or abstaining from sex the night before (fig. 1). It is also interesting to note that no differences were observed in feelings of fatigue/tiredness (Fig. 2) or the amount of hours slept between conditions either.
Having sex had no effect on leg strength or endurance performance the following morning in this group of men.
One issue that is common across this nature of research is that the sexual activity is self-report, i.e. we have to believe the participants description of the sex (how long it lasted? whether they orgasmed? etc.). This is for good reason. I doubt any ethics board would approve the observing of participants (usually students) having sex, even if it is “for science.” We may have to take some of the data with a pinch of salt however. In this group of 12 males, 33% reported that the sex lasted longer than 30 minutes. I am just a tad hesitant with how genuine a young males response would be to the question “Did you last less than or longer than 30 minutes?” You can draw your own conclusions here.
This study agrees with the findings of a 2016 systematic review. A systematic review is a study which identifies and compares all the available studies on a topic. This review examined the findings of 9 studies and concluded that having sex had no effect on strength or endurance performance.
Having sex caused a significant difference in only one physiological measure in only one study. When participants performed an aerobic stress test within 2 hours after sex, it took longer for their heart rate to return to resting levels after the test than the group who abstained. This difference was not replicated when the tests were carried out more than 2 hours after having sex. I should note that although it took longer for the sex group’s heart rate to return to baseline, no differences were observed in their performance in the test or their mental concentration.
Arguably this observed difference is essentially meaningless in terms of sports performance. Also, if you’re having sex within 2 hours of competing, I would argue your competition day preparation could do with some re-evaluating.
A well conducted 2011 study tested athletes on three separate occasions. Once after abstaining from sex the previous night, once after having sex, and once after doing 15 minutes yoga the night before. The yoga was used to create a similar energy cost as the sex condition. Cue the mumblings of insecurity, “but it was only 15 minutes, I last at least (insert bullshit number here) minutes”.
No differences between conditions were found in physiological variables (heart rate and blood pressure), sport specific parameters (upper and lower body strength, reaction time, hamstring flexibility), or biochemical variables (testosterone, cortisol, and glucose levels).
If we look at all the available evidence (albeit somewhat limited), there is no reason to conclude that sexual intercourse has a negative effect on sports performance. At least not from a physiological standpoint. The mostly likely scenario in which sex would lead to poor performance is through associated behaviours. Sex is often combined with the consumption of alcohol or drugs and can lead to decreased hours of sleep. These associated factors could certainly pose a risk to performance. Unless the athlete is having a wild night partying along with having sex, there is no good evidence that sex will make them perform poorly the following day.
Summary & Take Home Points:
Studying the effect of sexual intercourse on sports performance is a tricky area of research to conduct. This has led to the area being understudied as a whole. More high-quality studies are required to fully put this myth to bed.
From the current body of evidence, there is no good reason to advise an athlete to abstain from sex the day before competition. Sexual intercourse has been shown to have no effect on physiological measures of performance or muscular strength. Therefore, the best advice we can give our athletes is to maintain their normal sexual habits leading into competition.
However we shouldn’t be quick to dismiss our athlete’s beliefs either. If an athlete believes they benefit from abstinence then they should not be discouraged from the practice. If we conclude that abstaining from sex has no effect on performance, this means that it will not lead to a negative effect either. So if an athlete gains a placebo benefit from abstinence, who are we to tell them otherwise?
To conclude, Mickey was wrong. Women do not weaken the legs!