Sex and the Trail Runner

How pre-race...interludes...affect race-day performance.

Photo: Getty Images

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This article appeared in our 2010 Race Issue.

My husband and I have a tradition of a romantic interlude the night before a race, which dates back to early in our relationship and likely started as my husband’s shameless ploy to get lucky. But as the years and races have gone by we began wondering whether our pre-race ritual affected our race performances, for better or worse.

Coaches typically lecture athletes to abstain from sex before a race to heighten their athletic performance. According to Dr. William Roberts, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine and professor at  the University of Minnesota, Joe Namath, former football superstar, ignored his coach’s advice against pre-game sex and said that it was a huge boost to his performance.

Practice Makes Perfect

Thankfully, Dr. Tommy Boone, Chair of the Department of Exercise Physiology at The College of St. Scholastica in Duluth, Minnesota, decided to clear up the conjecture and conduct a study on the subject, the results of which are published in his book entitled Sex Before Athletic Performance: Myth or Fact.

Dr. Boone’s study was conducted with a group of 12 willing couples to determine whether having sex 12 hours before a race would impact athletic performance. He gave his test subjects treadmill tests, one after having intercourse and the other after being celibate the night before. He found no physiological differences in terms of athletic performance measures such as VO2 max, heart rate or oxygen pulse.

Dr. Boone concludes that even “active” intercourse is not taxing enough to affect next-day race performance. “Active intercourse for five minutes—a typical interlude,” says Boone, “only burns 20 to 30 calories and even 40 minutes of vigorous intercourse burns just 250 calories, the equivalent to walking a couple of miles.” Dr. Boone says that activities with the metabolic equivalent to having sex include gardening and cleaning the house. Personally, I much prefer nookie to cleaning the house the night before a race!

Mind Game

While the study showed no negative physiological impacts of pre-race sex, Dr. Boone speculates that the psychological aspects and whether pre-race sex is part of your normal practice (even race morning) or not are likely to have a greater effect on performance. So, if sex is a normal part of your lifestyle then it will likely have a positive effect; however if you are not sexually active normally and decide to become so just before a race it may impact your performance negatively.

For example, my husband says that pre-race sex is a great way to chase away pre-race jitters and relax, because it takes his mind off the race. He also says it helps him to fall asleep easier. For me, since pre-race nookie has become part of our race preparation routine, it calms me, knowing that everything else is done and it’s time to relax and enjoy the race.

Dr. Roberts says the subject has had little study; however his advice is to try  it, and “if it makes you able to race better, it’s fine.”

Does pre-race sex affect men and women differently? Dr. Boone cites one small European study that found that female athletes got a greater performance boost from sex before athletic competition. He, however, does not believe the physiological differences could be much different for men and women.

With no scientific rationale to avoid pre-race nookie and the fact that it could be helpful to one’s performance, I suspect my husband’s and my tradition will stand. So, when you see us camped out the night before a race if the tent’s a rockin’, don’t come a knockin’!

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