Athletes are advised to avoid a number of things before a big competition: alcohol, a late night out, or a heavy meal, for example. Many of these make sense. After all, a lack of sleep or eating an excess of fatty foods can leave anyone feeling sluggish and off their game. It’s been rumoured that sex can interfere with an athlete’s performance prior to game day too. While alcohol and a night of partying may be out of the question, research shows that the benefits of abstinence before a big game may be nothing more than a myth.
The myth stems from the idea that sex will leave a performer depleted of energy and testosterone, according to a 2016 systematic review published in Frontiers in Physiology. This belief has led some athletes to refrain from sexual intercourse in an attempt to preserve optimal vigor and hormone levels for the big day. Some coaches may also believe that abstinence helps amp up an athlete’s frustration or aggression toward the competition.
Busting the myths about sex before an athletic event
However, sex does not seem to hinder an athlete’s performance as previously believed. This was evidenced in a 2022 meta-analysis in Scientific Reports composed of nine studies where researchers found that engaging in sexual activity (including sexual intercourse and masturbation) anywhere from 30 minutes to 24 hours prior to a physical fitness test had no influence on participant test results. This remained true across different types of exercise assessments, including those that tested for aerobic capacity, musculoskeletal endurance, or muscular strength or power.
That being said, the researchers acknowledged that there were a number of limitations to the research, particularly around participant bias. Additionally, most of the studies were conducted with a small number of participants, all of whom were young adults and the majority were male. The researchers also noted that future studies would be best served by using more accurate athletic performance measures that go beyond assessments to include specific participant racing times.
When sex may be beneficial before an athletic event
As it turns out, however, having sex before a big race or match might actually benefit some individuals in certain instances. In the meta-analysis, the researchers highlighted the inverted U theory of arousal as being potentially beneficial to some individuals. The theory states that as a person becomes more aroused, their athletic performance also climbs. However, there’s a tipping point at which arousal can then become detrimental to athletic performance.
According to the previously mentioned systematic review published in Frontiers in Physiology, feelings of anxiety also fall under the inverted U theory. While anxiety can help maintain alertness, too much of it can result in stress and nervousness, both of which can negatively affect athletic performance. Therefore, the authors suggest that an athlete who feels anxiety prior to a big game may benefit from having sex the night before to help relax the body and lower anxiety levels.
Overall, more in-depth research is still needed on the subject and the authors point out that there’s no need for athletes to change up their pre-game regimen to include sex if it doesn’t feel comfortable. In fact, disrupting one’s normal routine right before “Go Time” may also impact athletic performance.