Does sex impede performance?

By Jill Barker , For Canwest News Service

Some athletes believe abstinence is key to winning, but many studies say the opposite

When it comes to love, athletes are just as romantic as the next guy. That is, as long as they don't have a big game the next day. An energetic romp between the sheets the night before a competition, some athletes and coaches say, can lead to poor performance the following day.

Muhammad Ali is one of those athletes. He reportedly practiced abstinence starting several weeks before a big fight, claiming no sex made him meaner, tougher and harder to beat. Jim Popp, the former coach of the Montreal Alouettes, is one of those coaches. In an interview before the 2006 Grey Cup game between the Alouettes and the B.C. Lions, Popp said he planned to ask his players to abstain the night before the big game.

Are Popp's and Ali's beliefs borne of science? Or is the no-nookie rule simply a myth that has become part of sporting lore? In an October 2000 editorial published in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, Montrealers Ian Shrier and Samantha McGlone attempted to answer both questions.

"Of the 31 articles we retrieved, only three were scientific studies (all physiological). All of these studies suggested sex the night before competition does not alter physiological testing results." That means there's no data to support Ali's belief that abstinence breeds aggression. In fact, researchers have found the exact opposite. Sexual activity actually increases, not decreases testosterone levels.

As for the claim that sex taps an athlete's energy stores, once again research proves differently.

A 1995 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness studied 11 men who did and didn't have sex 12 hours before getting on a treadmill and working to exhaustion. No difference was noted between the results, suggesting a sexual tryst the night before doesn't affect aerobic power.

A similar study was performed in 2000, again published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, this time featuring 15 high- level male athletes (eight team players, five endurance athletes and two wrestlers). Each performed an aerobic test to exhaustion and a mental concentration test at varying time frames after sex.

A slightly increased heart rate was present in the aerobic test performed two hours post intercourse, but no lingering mental or physical effects were noted 10 hours after sex, leading the researchers to conclude "sexual activity had no detrimental influence on the maximal workload achieved and on the athletes' mental concentration." In fact, there is little to indicate athletes in top condition would be affected by a little aerobic activity when the lights go out. At best, experts suggest sex burns about four calories a minute. And just to be clear, that calorie burn occurs only during the, uh, more aerobic component of the act. The warm-up and cool-down that accompanies sex burns far fewer calories.

I'll leave you to calculate the average calorie burn that you and your partner achieve, but Shrier and McGlone estimate from start to finish most married couples burn about 25 to 50 calories during a night of passion -- the equivalent of walking up a flight of stairs.

So if physical exhaustion is what players and coaches are worried about, then Rocky Balboa's manager Mickey got it wrong when he claimed, "women weaken legs." Which, of course, begs the question -- what about the female side of the equation? Do women buy into the idea that sex before a big game is a bad idea? Not Canada's own Kerrin Lee Gartner. After winning downhill gold at the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville, Gartner attributed her success, at least partly, to the sex she had the night before with her husband. She claimed it put her in the right frame of mind.

That leads us to wonder whether there may be a psychological edge to be had from "taking the edge off" the night before an important match.

McGlone, who is an elite triathlete (she placed second in the 2007 version of Hawaii's famous Ironman Triathlon and competed in the 2004 Olympics in Rome), said getting together with your partner the night before a big event can be comforting and part of a pre-game ritual.

"Women go for that," she noted.

That being said, she also stated as race day approaches, athletes generally have more on their minds than a roll in the hay. And depending on the length of their athletic event, fatigue might be the deciding factor as to whether sex is even considered.

Take the Tour de France, for instance. McGlone said she figures there's very little extracurricular activity going on once the cyclists get off their bikes.

"After sitting on a bike six hours a day -- forget about it," she said with a laugh.

Of course, the real problem about looking at this subject from a scientific point of view is that a lab is no place to evaluate the results. And then there's the problem of taking into account the many variables that can affect the results -- like frequency, intensity and duration.

So I'll leave the final word about the subject to Casey Stengel, the former manager of the New York Yankees. He didn't need scientific studies to determine whether abstinence the night before the World Series was a good idea. He hit the nail on the head when he said, "Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player. It's staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in."