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Australian National Champion Powerlifter.
The old belief that athletes should – and do – abstain from sex before competition just doesn’t hold any more. The IOC sure knows what’s up. At the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, 70,000 condoms (three for every athlete) were made available for free in the Olympic Village. It wasn’t enough – another 20,000 had to be shipped in. After that, the standing order for Olympic Villages was 100,000 condoms. At the 2012 Olympics in London, that was increased to 150,000. Now research presented at Sports Medicine Australia’s 2013 Asics Conference of Science and Medicine in Sport shows that sex before competition doesn’t hurt and can even help sports performance – but it’s a matter of timing.
The idea of laying off sex when preparing for competition goes right back to the Ancient Olympics, as sex was thought to take away from a man’s strength. This theory followed through to the 20th Century, when world champion boxers such as Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano famously had long stints of abstinence before bouts in the belief that sex would decrease testosterone levels, which would reduce their aggression and therefore performance. A pleasant side-effect, especially for boxers and other fighters, was that abstinence itself was thought to also increase agitation and aggression. The Mexican Olympic team used to believe so much in this theory that they gave potassium nitrate to their athletes in the hopes of preventing erections. These ideas have since been debunked. Several studies have shown that males with high sex drives and more frequent sexual activity tend to have higher average levels of testosterone, while Dr Emmanuele A. Jannini, an endocrinologist at the University of L’Aquila in Italy, has stated that after three months of sexual inactivity, the testosterone levels of a person can drop to the level of children.
The research presented at Sports Medicine Australia’s 2013 Asics Conference of Science and Medicine in Sport suggested that having sex 10-12 hours before sports competition does not have a negative effect on physiological testing and possibly athletic performance.
The research, presented by study author Assistant Professor of Sports Medicine, Shahram Mohaghegh from Shahid Beheshti University, examined a number of previous scientific studies on sex the night before competition. Those studies included tests on maximum grip strength, strength test, balance, lateral movement, reaction time, aerobic power, and VO2max.
Unsurprisingly, one of the studies showed higher heart rate readings and another reported that 40% of athletes “felt worse” when exercising up to two hours after sex – so sex before a serious training session is probably not a good idea. Think you’re OK because you play golf or do archery? Think again – another study found that even two hours after sex, subjects were less attentive.
The mental side of performance, however, can potentially benefit from sex the night before competition. Sex is a balance between the two systems of your autonomic nervous system. There’s the sympathetic system, often referred to as ‘fight or flight’, which produces agitation, excitement, increased pulse rate – all the things athletes want to rev themselves up. Then there’s the parasympathetic system, which stimulates rest and recovery and a whole list of bodily functions you don’t really need happening just before a competition. However, the activation of this parasympathetic stimulation can work very well the night before competition to reduce anxiety and promote recovery and sleep.
“Sex helps you feel relaxed and sexually, mentally and physically satisfied,” Juan Carlos Medina, general coordinator of the sports department at the Tecnologico de Monterrey (Mexico) reported prior to the London Olympics. “This contributes to reduce the athlete’s anxiety levels before an important match. Sex helps to distract the mind from the competition and that helps sweep away mental fatigue, which is more dangerous than physical fatigue.”
Much of the concern and consequent studies about sex before sport have focussed on men and the influence on testosterone. For women, however, the hormones most stimulated by sex are progesterone and, to a lesser extent, oestrogen. Still, the benefits of night-before nookie come on strong. Neuro-feedback studies at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, have found that the female orgasm stimulates parts of the brain that could stop the release of a specific pain transmitter for up to 24 hours, which may help ease muscle pain or soreness for up to 24 hours
With all good news comes caution. As with all things, it’s best not to try anything new just before a big match or competition – you make good habits in training, then you stick with what works for you. There’s a great quote by Andre Agassi that reinforces another aspect to this point: “Sex doesn’t interfere with your tennis; it’s staying out all night trying to find it that affects your tennis.”
That’s right – the partying, the eating, drinking, dancing, the exhausting effort to impress. Some good healthy comfort sex will beat the random fling every time in this game, and the one who knows you and understands you might not mind if you set a timer, either. No surprise, then, that despite being older than most of his competition, Agassi played much of his best tennis after settling down with Steffi Graf (although she probably taught him a thing or two!).
As for all those Olympians and their sexually athletic exercises in international and inter-sport relationships, well, there’s one stat we don’t have – how many were having sex before their event and how many were waiting until after competition to turn up the crazy!