It’s Olympics season, which means unhinged athletic prowess and performance—both in the bedroom and at the rink.
The thinking goes as such: Deprive athletes of sexual activity in the days leading up to the big day. That way, the energy expended during sex is actually re-routed toward aggressive, adrenaline-filled athletic performance.
That (il)logic not only completely misunderstands how energy works within the human body, it’s blatantly wrong, and has been proven time and again.
Blame the story on the folks who dreamed up the Olympics in the first place, the ancient Greeks, who viewed sex as a vice that depleted the athlete of both energy and concentration. Abstaining from sex meant that testosterone would be saved from being needlessly wasted during ejaculation. Even at that time, early thinkers saw a connection between testosterone and muscularity. Not having sex meant that the athlete could—during the most stressful moments of a performance—be able to reach into that reserve of sexual frustration during trying moments to push their endurance, strength, and performance into medal-winning glory. To be fair to the ancient Greeks, scientific testing of hypotheses wasn’t the norm quite yet—which meant that story held for centuries, through the modern era.
It wasn’t until the era of free love, in August 1968, that the theory of sexual abstinence and better athletic performance was actually scientifically tested. Warren Johnson, an early sex researcher, published what’s considered the first study on the connection between sex and strength in The Journal of Sex Research. Johnson ran what in retrospect seems like a simple design: asking 14 married men to take a “maximum effort grip strength-endurance test” once the morning after intercourse, and another at least six days after intercourse. To retain the study's accuracy, Johnson duped the participants into thinking they were being studied for the supposed connection between cardiovascular fitness and grip strength. He also asked about their sex lives under the guise of a separate study on psychosexuality. Johnson found that the connection between timing of sex and strength had nothing to do with each other, and that the exertion of muscle strength couldn’t be correlated with sex.
That was, of course, with 14 men in a very simple design. But Johnson’s research was crucial in launching inquiry into the sex-sports performance link. It took until the late 1980s for research to really start rolling, though, with study after study after study repeatedly showing that sex does not have a direct effect on athleticism.
Still, it's not so simple. The vast majority of studies that have looked at how sex (or lack thereof) affects athletic performance have been done on men, and have interpreted the connection between the two to be testosterone. (To be clear, testosterone is a hormone that is in men and women, though in lower levels in women.) While testosterone certainly affects muscular composition and is far more prevalent in men, it’s not their only input. And while testosterone helps produce sperm cells, semen only contains about 1 percent sperm. The remainder components include proteins, vitamins, and minerals.
Despite that, it hasn’t stopped researchers from linking testosterone levels to strength and sex. In one 2015 study, testosterone levels were shown to be level before and after intercourse; a 1992 study that uniquely surveyed both men and women found sexual activity actually increased testosterone levels in both genders. In short, no one really knows whether and how testosterone is affected by sex, and more importantly, if it matters at all with regards to performance.
In recent years, researchers have done reviews of whether sex affects athletic performance. The most thorough survey in recent years was published in Frontiers in Physiology in June 2016, right before the last Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. From an initial field of 512 studies, 142 were selected based on broadness of their population, their exposure to sex before a competition; a comparison element in the study; and a measurement of how having (or not having) sex affected athletic performance. The researchers found that “the data available do not really support the misconception that sex activity can produce a negative effect on the athlete’s performance. Anecdotal experiences sustain, on the contrary, a positive effect of performance if sexual activity is undertaken at least 10 hours before sports competition, and particularly if it is not associated to incorrect life style habits,” like smoking and alcohol.
The most recent survey on the subject was published in fall of 2017 in The Annals of Applied Sports Science, which found that—surprise!—withholding sex does not have any effects on performance (PDF). However, findings from the research suggest that having sex in the immediate few hours leading to an athletic event might affect performance on a psychological level. For those who had anxiety and panic about their performance, sex could act as a relaxing agent, helping to make them looser and less anxious about their performance. For others, it’s distracting, something to deconstruct when that’s the very last thing that should be occupying the mind.
Both studies, however, highlight the fact that the sex-athleticism correlation persists because of this distinction: the fact that the immediate hours before a stressful athletic event should probably not be the time to get frisky but rather focusing as much as possible on the event at hand. If anything, what the reviews highlight is the fact that each individual operates in a different way with regards to their sport.
One major gaping problem, as the team of researchers published in Frontiers in Physiology, is that masturbation has not been studied as a sort of in-between reliever for those who are stressed a few hours before an athletic event but might want to avoid the distraction of having a partner around.
Then there’s the fact that these studies on sex and athleticism predominantly use males. It’s a huge drawback in the field, and one that sex research has oddly not addressed, despite the fact that female athletes are more common across disciplines than ever before: “From the general point of view, none of the studies selected have approached this aspect systematically, and there is no evidence of a methodical investigation of the possible differences by gender, or intensity, or the type of the sports practiced,” the authors of the review in Frontiers wrote.
And that’s ridiculously problematic. Given that condoms are distributed extensively during the Olympics, an international event that features athletes of both genders, it limits our understanding of not only how sex affects performance but also how women and men react to stressors and the unique biochemistry of each gender’s sexual performance and ability to translate that to athleticism.
So get frisky—just make sure it’s not immediately before an event.