Myth: You Shouldn’t Have Sex the Night Before a Race

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Does your pre-race strategy include some night-before romance? Maybe it should.

Athletic forums debate the efficacy of all kinds of workouts, but there’s one that can be, well, a little awkward to discuss: sex.

We can thank the gods of Valentine’s Day (or, more properly, the holiday’s official designator, Pope Galasius I) for instating a romantic holiday during the racing off-season, but anniversaries, date nights, and fortuitous run-ins don’t always play as nicely with the training schedule.

While intense endurance training, especially when accompanied by stress and overtraining, has been linked to low testosterone, healthy athletes often boast higher libido than the sedentary, which just intensifies the tonight-or-not-tonight quandary. That could be one reason why athletes from world-class boxers to college cross-country coaches have taken sides, recommending either self-inflicted abstinence in the days before a competition or some scheduled pre-race romance.

Theories supporting the former run the gamut from concern about wasting energy to the notion that pent-up sexual frustration is best put to use as rage on the battlefield. Research, on the other hand, holds that night-before antics don’t affect VO2 max, have no effect on muscle strength, on average expend fewer than 100 calories, and don’t have any significant physiological effects unless you’re getting it on within two hours of a competition or pairing your sexy time with alcohol or cigarettes.

Those are the basics, but recent research reveals some interesting complications.

The Intricacies of Intimacy

As always, the female orgasm presents its own mysteries. According to Barry Komisaruk, a Rutgers University professor who researches neurology, physiology, and pathology surrounding orgasms, some studies have shown that in women, orgasms can reduce chronic leg pain for up to a day afterward.

Handy for racing? Check. But, there’s a catch.

“We’ve also seen in lab animal studies that vaginal stimulation has an inhibitory effect on leg movement,” said Komisaruk. “So while you might get that pain inhibition effect, you might also have weaker leg movement the next day as well.”

While Komisaruk’s lab hasn’t specifically tested post-coitus pain sensitivity of male subjects, he would expect it to be similar. “Anecdotally, there’s also pain blockage in men. And in terms of brain activity, we see many more similarities between men’s and women’s orgasms than we see differences,” he said.

Much about sex and orgasm, both within the athletic realm and without, remains to be studied, a fact Komisaruk laments. “These are interesting questions and very important to a lot of people, but it’s very difficult to get funding for sex research. There’s a lot of political opposition,” he said.

But, making do with what we have, it’s safe to judge pre-competition sex innocent until proven guilty. Like most race prep routines, the effects are also highly individualized, so if you’re trying to dial in what works, follow the same advice you might otherwise use in the bedroom: experiment.

Sex and the Psyche

Jimmy Riccitello, an elite runner, cyclist, and triathlete and now a multisport coach, said he’s seen plenty of colleagues in the competitive racing world book solitary hotel rooms, certain the alone time was crucial to getting into the right headspace before a competition.

“I never really got that,” Riccitello said. “If [sex the night before a race] is something you want, it can be a good thing for both people to feel involved, to feel part of the race preparation process.”

The best athletes are the ones who stoke the crowd, and the core of your fan base should be your significant other. So, you know. Keep them stoked.

“Plus, that closeness can enhance someone’s performance. If you’re happier on the day of the performance, you’re going to do better,” said Riccitello.

Komisaruk echoed the sentiment, saying that while conclusions about the physiological effects of pre-race hanky-panky remain fuzzy, the odds of significant psychological influence remain high.

“It’s like someone cheering you on,” Komisaruk said, though he cautioned that relationship-induced anxiety or feelings of rejection from an awkward encounter could also spill over into race day, so it’s best to make sure both you and your partner are in the mood before flagging them in.

“My advice as a coach is that you can make time for everything,” said Riccitello. “If you’re in a relationship, compromise is a good thing, and you should always be compromising, even if there’s a competition at stake. If competition is inhibiting your ability to enjoy life, it might be worth it to reconsider your priorities.”

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