Wednesday 22 August 2007

Sex before Sport?

It is the virile sports-person's eternal question - should one abstain from a little bit of nookie before a big sporting event?

The question has again been raised, this time with regard to the 2007 Rugby World Cup. Favourites New Zealand have vowed to go without special cuddles for however long they remain in the tournament. The All Blacks have conspired methods to lose each World Cup since 1987, despite being indisputably the best team in the world throughout most of this period. It pains me to admit this being an Australian, but despite brief periods of dominance by the Wallabies and the Springboks, and a very timely peak by England in 2003, the All Blacks are always the team to beat.

So, the latest Kiwi strategy to grab hold of the Cup is to lay off the loving. But is there any scientific basis to this? Does sex really have an effect on your physical sporting performance, or is this a psychological tactic to have the players' minds ready on game day?

It is certainly not a new theory. Before the Olympics in Athens 2004, hundreds of athletes pledged not to indulge, however even more took the opportunity to do the exact opposite. 130,000 condoms and 30,000 packets of lubricant were made available to the athletes, and in Sydney, athletes had a quota of three condoms a day - and this did not meet demand! This is no real surprise if you think about the Olympic village atmosphere - thousands of very fit, attractive, young and confident males and females from all over the world, probably up for anything without a care in the world once their events were over. Perhaps this was something like a massive backpacker hostel where everyone was rich and attractive without the dodgy old local trying to pick up the Contiki tourists.

Do those who do abstain have a performance advantage? Love him or hate him (I think he's great), WBA Super-Middleweight champion Anthony Mundine is one of Australia's best athletes. However, Mundine abstained for 10 weeks before his first world title fight against Sven Ottke, and we know what happened (Mundine was knocked out in the 10th round). I can not find any reports of Ottke abstaining.

One of the more amusing sex/sport anecdotes is the banning of former US 100 m champion and 1992 Olympic Bronze Medallist, Dennis Mitchell for showing high levels of testosterone. He had originally escaped ban within the US after claiming that his high levels were a result of having sex at least four times the night before and drinking five bottles of beer. The IAAF overturned this decision and banned him for 2 years.

There is no conclusive evidence that sex the night before an event can have an effect either way on your physical sporting performance, despite what Rocky Balboa's trainer Mickey said, "Women weaken legs."

"There are two possible ways sex before competition could affect performance," said Ian Shrier, a sports medicine specialist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada to National Geographic.

"First, it could make you tired and weak the next day. This has been disproved. The second way is that it could affect your psychological state of mind. This has not been tested."

There is a common perception that ejaculation draws testosterone from the body. Actually, it seems the reverse may be true, as testosterone levels rise in men during sex. Higher testosterone levels are good for explosive sports such as boxing or 100 m sprinting - perhaps Mitchell was telling the truth, and perhaps Mundine should rethink his strategy.

Most scientists also now think that the actual act of sex does not really tire you out physically - it only burns around 50 calories, depending on how you do it of course. What might be bad for you is if you stay up all night and deprive yourself of sleep, or if it was getting drunk that got you into bed in the first place.

Sex can also be relaxing, but the actual physical relaxation post-sex does not last into the next day. Indeed, perhaps sex with the wrong person could make you more agitated the next day. And whether or not being relaxed is a good thing for sport is another question. Certainly, some elite athletes take caffeine pills before a match, and this caused quite a stir in Australia when the then Wallabies captain George Gregan admitted as much. The effects of "legal drugs" such as caffeine would far outweigh the much milder effects of sex the night before.

I suspect the effect, if there is any, is physiological and differs greatly from athlete to athlete. By locking out partners from their hotel rooms, the All Blacks are creating a very tight team environment which may raise their performance. It is not so much the banning of sex, more the banning of non-team members, from their lives. That said, the partners are permitted to stay in the same hotel, if not the same room, and so there may be much sneaking through hallways at midnight. The strategies concerning partners on team trips varies from team to team, with the Australian cricket team now allowing partners to stay with the players. Different levels of personal autonomy work better for different teams.

There may be some difference here between the sexes. Israeli scientist Alexander Olshanietzky has said that women compete better after orgasm, especially high jumpers and runners. So if you are a female competitor, you can always use the argument on an unwilling partner, "it's for good of the country!"

For what it's worth, I'm no international sportsman, but I found that my cricket performance was always best after having enough coffee to make Alex Watson's effort look tiny (I somehow didn't realise my peculator was making my coffee 6 times the normal strength...). I was a fair shire batsman with a hundred and a couple of fifties under my belt in my late teens before sex - and more to the point, late nights and beer - played any part in my life. Nowadays, I struggle! But sport is a mind game, and as you get older, different factors weigh more heavily in your life, and standing around all day in the Australian sun doesn't quite hold the excitement that it used to! I suspect that all sport is like this. If you think that sex before a game is going to help you, then it will. The physical effects are most likely negligible, but if you are happy and confident, or feel loved by a partner, then you will perform better. This is how much of alternative medicine works. And if you are ensconced in your team environment before the game, as all professional teams are, and going through the physical preparations, then the physical effects of sex the night before are non-existant.

If, however, it made you happy and confident, or cranky and disappointed, that's when the effects might kick in.

The podcast can be found here - included are some very candid opinions from sports-people.

And now you can vote in the poll - let me know what you think.

Edit: Here are the results

Should you have sex the night before a big sporting event? (see map)

Yes - Good for your performance:
No - Bad for your performance:
I'll take it when I can get it:
Only if you're married:
Makes absolutely no difference to your performance:
Total Votes: 199
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Listen to this show here.


  1. look mate, i dont know where u comeing from with all that bullshit! but ure right about one thing. the all blacks are the shit!!! go ab's. plus that thing there doing is the world famous haka. it makes you proud and stirs you up before the match. something alot better than singing some bitch as song before the match like waltsing matilda aye? haha. so yeh basically i disagree with everything u say but ure rite, the all blacks are the team to beat, but u'll never beat them!!! hahahahah

  2. Well, I suspect there is nothing much I can say to this! Insightful, well spelt, articulate...