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Athletes Rejoice: Study Shows Sex Before Competitions Is Probably Fine

There’s no evidence that getting down and dirty before sporting events has negative effects—and it may have benefits

Fans cheer for Team Korea at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil. (Republic of Korea)
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It may be surprising, but the philosopher Aristocles earned the moniker Plato from his wrestling coach. Derived from the Greek platon, the nickname translates to broad shoulders. He was was no slouch in the sport, picking up two gold medals at the Isthmian Games, a precursor to the Olympics. He even gave training advice to athletes in The Republic. One of his prescriptions? Avoid sex before competition, reports Carrie Weisman at Alternet.

It’s an idea that traveled through the centuries, based on the concept that retaining semen enhanced stamina and virility. Weisman writes that Muhammad Ali avoided sex for up to six weeks before a big fight. During the last World Cup, Bosnia and Herzegovina disinvited players’ wives and girlfriends. One former player says coaches in the 1950s and 60s used to give soccer teams in Mexico potassium nitrate, otherwise known as saltpeter, to prevent erections and sexual desire. But few scientific studies have tackled if sex somehow saps athletic strength.

A new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Physiology digs into available evidence on the topic, concluding that it’s unlikely that pre-athletic sex is harmful, and in some cases it may be helpful. But, the authors note, much more study is necessary to confirm one way or the other.

“We clearly show that this topic has not been well investigated and only anecdotal stories have been reported,” lead author Laura Stefani, assistant professor in sports medicine at the University of Florence says in a press release. “In fact, unless it takes place less than two hours before, the evidence actually suggests sexual activity may have a beneficial effect on sports performance.”

The researchers looked through hundreds of previous studies, trying to find any that touched on sex and athletics. They found nine papers that fit their criteria. One showed that female marathoners saw no decline in performance if they engaged in sexual activity the night before a race. Another showed that sex before a marathon gave a boost to many runners. The other studies showed similar patterns.

But the researchers also point out that the stack of research is small, weighted toward males and does not compare physiological differences between genders or the types of sports athletes compete in.

David Bishop, a researcher at the Institute of Sport at the University of Victoria, writes at The Conversation that any athletic downside from sexual activity likely doesn’t come from the act itself, but from chasing sex. Staying out late, drinking too much and partying hard the night before a race are much more harmful than a brief roll in the hay.

Maria Cristina Rodríguez Gutierrez, director of sports medicine at the National Autonomous University of Mexico Rodriguez tells Aline Juarez Nieto at CNN that the calories burned and oxygen consumed during the average sexual encounter are negligible for elite athletes.

“Sex only burns between 200 and 300 kilocalories, which doesn't compare to running a marathon or just a regular workout session. You can restore these calories by eating a chocolate bar or drinking a can of soda,” she says. “Sexual activities must never be prohibited to athletes, since there is no scientific evidence to support it.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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