Just Do It: The Myth of Athletic Abstinence

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David Anderson, Staff Writer |

Athletic abstinence is a phenomenon that many athletes and coaches swear by. Muhammad Ali is rumored to have abstained from coitus for six weeks before a match and several coaches at the 2014 World Cup are known to have prohibited any sexual activity while their teams were competing.


However, in an interview with Time magazine, sports medicine physician Dr. Jordan Metzel cast some doubt onto the effect sexual activity has on performance: “It’s often talked about, but it has not been shown to be true.” There is no causal relationship between sex, or lack thereof, and peak athletic performance, leading some experts to state that it is the circumstances around sex that may affect performance. If a player stays out all night in the strip clubs and doesn’t get enough sleep, that will undoubtedly have an impact on his or her performance.


The studies that have tried to document a relationship between intercourse and performance ability have turned up inconclusive. Furthermore, it is difficult to make the claim that sex may exhaust players before a match because sex burns a minimal amount of calories (depending on the type of sex being engaged in).


The myth of abstinence affecting performance is particularly strong in the power sports like boxing or football. Players believe that abstinence leads to increased aggression and testosterone levels, a belief that Emmanuele A. Jannini, a professor of endocrinology at University of L’Aquila in Italy, discounts as largely untrue in an interview with National Geographic.


Jannini states, “After three months without sex, which is not so uncommon for some athletes, testosterone dramatically drops to levels close to children’s levels.” Jannini’s statement indicates an extreme lack of awareness in popular culture about the true effects of abstinence. Athletes who seek to increase their testosterone by refraining from sex are actually regressing hormonally.


In terms of female athletes, Barry Komisaruk of Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, relayed to National Geographic that sexual activity can have a pain-blocking effect. Sexual activity can block chronic muscle pain for up to 24 hours after the deed is done. Furthermore, Komisaruk found that vaginal stimulation affects muscle tension in the legs. However, these cases are not consistently positive or negative; in some cases, stimulation increases tension, in others it decreases it.


But even in light of the paltry physiological correlations between sex and athletic performance, Dr. Metzel relayed to Time that “Plenty of players have tokens or rituals that have no scientific backing but give them a psychological edge.” Sex has no demonstrated physiological effect on performance but, there is a case to be made that the ritual of abstinence may impact a player’s mindset before a game. However, this correlation has not been tested.


Ultimately, athletes who are looking for a demonstrably beneficial method of increasing their athletic performance should turn to other methods besides abstinence. While there may be some study that discovers a secret causal relationship in the future, the results as of now do not make for a convincing case. If you’re itching to do it, just do it. But, make sure you get enough sleep.

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