Debunking the no-sex rule
It's a common belief among athletes that a pregame roll in the hay impairs performance, but experts say sex is getting a bad rap

By Sean Davidson

Jesse Marsh was warned. The fourth-generation boxer and three-time Ontario gold medallist was told, by his father and coach, to stay away from sex when he was in training. "My dad would literally lock me up," he recalls with a laugh. "I wasn't allowed to see my girlfriend for 30 days before a fight. If it got really bad I couldn't talk to them on the phone."

Women, according to the old boxing adage, weaken the legs. "Every boxer in the older generation believed this," he says, perched on a chair ringside at Florida Jack's, the downtown Toronto gym where he trains. Behind us, a single fighter is hopping around the ring, jabbing at air. The place is crammed with boxing memorabilia and it's quiet, except for the budda-budda-budda of speed bags. "It's been passed down through generations. If you've ever seen the movie Raging Bull, there's a scene where [he] goes to the bathroom and pours ice cubes down his pants."

Sitting next to Mr. Marsh is Ashley Cook, an amateur welterweight looking to go pro this year. She heard the "no sex" rule a lot when she played hockey. "Because it was a team sport," she says, "you didn't want one person letting anyone down just in case they had a long night of sex. It can be quite draining."

It's a common belief among athletes, especially in team and male-dominated sports, that sex impairs performance. College coaches have been known to round up and sequester entire teams in hotels and to run bed checks the night before a big game. Heavyweight Lennox Lewis, like Muhammad Ali, is abstaining before his June 8 title bout with Mike Tyson. Germany and Argentina kept their soccer teams away from all female company before the last World Cup. And the Buffalo Bills reportedly slept alone before all four of their Super Bowls.

But the Bills lost all four games. Neither Germany nor Argentina took the cup. And researchers say sex has no harmful physical effect on exercise.

"There's really nothing to support it," says Dr. Tommy Boone. "There's just no physiological rationale." In 1995, Dr. Boone, then with the University of Southern Mississippi, put the theory to the test. He recruited 11 men and ran them on treadmills, once 12 hours after sex and again having abstained. They performed the same both times — heart rate, blood pressure and oxygen intake unchanged.

Not surprising, he says, since the average sexual encounter burns a mere four calories per minute — which is nothing compared to, say, the 140 consumed by running a six-minute mile.

He sees pregame abstinence as a superstition, kept alive by habit and misinformation. "There's always been a void between research and the real world," he says. "And there's a very hard set of rules that these people embrace as the way of doing something. I don't see them changing, no matter what gets published."

But Dr. Boone admits that his experiment, one of surprisingly few on the topic, doesn't necessarily prove anything. "The whole subject is still open for debate until we get 25, 50 or 60 studies on the subject on a variety of conditions." It's possible, as suggested by everyday experiences and a similar study by Swiss researchers, that sex within a few hours of a workout could have negative side-effects. But then, so would any other intense activity, amorous or not.

"A person who's well-trained and has all their attributes to carry out their sport, I can't imagine that they can't get with it when the time comes," says Dr. Boone.

A pregame roll in the hay might even sometimes help. A survey of the 2000 London marathon found that runners who had sex the night before also had the fastest finishing times. It has been suggested that body chemicals released during sex, such as serotonin and endorphins, could dull pain and enhance performance in endurance sports.

That theory got its first and biggest boost at Super Bowl III in 1969, when famed playboy and quarterback Joe Namath led the New York Jets to a surprise win over the Baltimore Colts. He then shocked the sports world, admitting he'd spent the previous night with one of his many girlfriends. Basketball star Julius Erving has also said he played his best game ever the day after conceiving one of his children. And if the 12,000 condoms handed out at the Salt Lake City Olympics are any indication, even the world's top athletes, at the world's toughest competition, don't always sleep alone.

Runner John Craig, a veteran of the PanAm and Commonwealth games, was on Canada's Olympic team in 1980. He says that track and fielders usually saw sex as a healthy diversion. "There's a feeling of tension that surrounds a major competition like that that's often relieved by some sort of sexual activity," he says. "It takes your mind off it, which is often a good thing." That's assuming, he adds, one has any energy left after a full day of training. "There are nights you get home and you can't even lift the fork off the plate. So you're not going to engage in any extracurricular activities."

Experts agree that sex can make a psychological difference. "If a person believes strongly that sex has an effect, it may give a person a sense of self-confidence that boosts performance," says Dr. Anthony Bogaert, a psychologist at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont.

Or it can just as easily hurt, cautions Prof. Gretchen Kerr, a sports psychologist at the University of Toronto. "Athletes are notoriously superstitious," she says. "They talk about having to put on their right shoe before their left, and having their lucky socks. So if they've had a negative sports experience after having sex then, my guess is, they would weigh that in as something that one shouldn't do."

The thought crossed Jesse Marsh's mind. The young boxer scoffs at the "no sex" rule, but admits there have been times, on those rare occasions when he lost a fight, when he's wondered if, just maybe, his love life made a difference. "It was kind of sitting in the back of my head, if my legs felt a little weak," he says. "Instead of it being because I wasn't in shape, I'm thinking, well, maybe it's because I had sex last night."

Curiously, warnings against sex are rare among female competitors — probably, says Prof. Kerr, because women are still thought to be less athletic and aggressive. "Much less attention has been put on women's sport in general, whether it be strength training or illegal substances or any topic," she says. "Historically [sex] has been more important in men's lives and to men's identities. And so, because it's not viewed as important to women, why would it be important to athletic performance for women?"

Ashley Cook doesn't give it a second thought, and thinks champ Lennox Lewis is wasting his efforts by abstaining. "He's so focused and working so hard that he's got to release once a week, y'know?" she says, leaning forward in her chair. "Most people like to have sex three times a week, and you're going to tell your body you can't do that? It makes no sense."

But Mr. Marsh thinks it's better to err on the side of caution. "Mentally speaking? I think it's a good move," he says. "He's probably going to have the toughest fight of his life in front of him and he doesn't need to be thinking in the back of his head, is sex going to hurt him?" Abstaining might not help but it also won't hurt, he says.

"In order to accelerate, you've got to cut something out. Is the sacrifice of not having sex for a month such a big deal when it comes down to a world title shot?"

The Globe and Mail
April 30, 2002