Sex files: How does sex affect your running?

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‘Sex makes you happy. Happy people do not run a 3:47 mile.’ So said American runner Marty Liquori many years ago. He was adding to an old debate: what impact does sex have on athletic performance? Back in 444BC Plato urged athletes to abstain before competition. But in 77AD Pliny the Elder said ‘athletes when sluggish are revitalised by lovemaking.’ Much, much later football managers of the 1970s and 1980s turned the ‘nothing after Wednesday if you’re playing on Saturday’ rule into sporting cliché. More recently, Brazilian superstars Ronaldo and Ronaldinho have extolled the virtues of ‘scoring’ the night before a big game. The abstinence argument was based on the perceived effects of pre-event exertion on physical and mental strength: it was felt sex would burn too many calories and dull the edge needed for competition.

In the last 20 years, research in this area has backed Pliny. In 1995, a US study of treadmill runners found no difference in VO2 max between those who had had sex 12 hours before an event and those who hadn’t. Another study, from Colorado State University, US, found that men who had abstained from sex for six days did no better on a power test than men who had had sex the previous night. So while there is no evidence that sex before an event gives you an advantage, it seems there are no disadvantages, either. The exception, say researchers in Switzerland, is if you get frisky within two hours of a race, in which case you may suffer from a lack of concentration and focus.

As a post-race ritual, however, women should pay particular attention: researchers at Rutgers University, US, discovered that orgasms activate the anterior cingulate cortex and the insula – two areas of the brain associated with an analgesic effect. The takeaway is that an orgasm could be a pretty effective recovery tool. There are potential mental gains for both sexes, says psychosexual therapist Denise Knowles. ‘From a clinical point of view it’s never made sense to keep sport and sex apart,’ she says. ‘They’re both physical and enjoyable pastimes, so why wouldn’t one enhance the other? When we have sex we release feel-good endorphins and when we feel better we have more confidence. That mood boost, allied to the training you’ve done, can make a difference on race day.’

Perhaps this is why a survey by the London Marathon revealed that those runners who’d had sex the night before the race finished an average five minutes quicker on race day than those who’d abstained. The pre-race taper just got even more appealing.