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Let’s get awkward. In nearly five years of writing this column, I have never touched the topic of sex. But studies show that it’s probably a big topic that most of us think about. A 2012 study of college students found a median of 18 sexual thoughts for men and 10 for women each day. A 2016 Brooks survey found that 8 percent of on-the-run thoughts were related to sex. I’m guessing that shortly thereafter, those respondents also had thoughts on accidentally running headfirst into a tree.
Yet sex is a topic people rarely talk about openly. That makes sense, because it can be awkward and taboo and wrapped up in our cultural background. Danielle Snyder, a therapist and running coach who works with athletes of all types through Inner Drive Athlete, says that the problem with the let’s-not-talk-about-it approach is that people risk judging themselves and their perspectives without the empathy and love that comes from knowing we’re all in this together, even as we’re all unique.
“If you are having struggles or concerns in any area,” she says, “You are not alone, I promise.” In particular, there are some special considerations that runners should be aware of when it comes to sex drive and running.
Many times, it’s not just running stress or nutrition, but also how running interacts with life stress and communication breakdowns in relationships.
Some caveats before we kick this off. First, sex is a big topic with tons of complexity. Forgive me for any missteps—I’m just trying to bring some things athletes talk about behind the scenes out into the open. In this space, all personal feelings and decisions are respected equally as long as they do not harm others. Most of the research is focused on cis-gendered individuals, so remember that all of these issues fall on spectrums. As an article reviewer who is an expert in this area pointed out: “Not every woman menstruates and not every man gets erections.”
Second, libido is intensely personal. Everyone has personal backgrounds, physiologies and psychologies that interact in complex ways to influence libido. Age and life experiences play big roles too in ways that are often not reflected in the research.
Third, you are perfect the way you are. Lots of feelings can be wrapped up in these discussions, so just know that wherever you are, you are enough as is. For deeper discussions, there are amazing sex therapists and therapists that talk about sex, along with doctors and other health professionals.
Physical activity and good health likely increase libido. For both men and women, high blood pressure and obesity are associated with reduced libido, both of which can be aided by running. For women, a 2012 study found that exercise improved sexual arousal in women taking antidepressants. That study had a fascinating design—47 women reporting antidepressant-related sexual-arousal problems were separated into multiple groups, with one watching an erotic film after 20 minutes of treadmill running, and a no-running control group. The running group had much higher arousal than the control.
Other studies show healthier hormone levels in athletes or in groups that exercise, which could improve libido. … Healthy, happy running could be as effective as Viagra (men) or Vyleesi (women) or Brad Pitt (works for most).
Other studies show healthier hormone levels in athletes or in groups that exercise, which could improve libido. And there are lots of other possible benefits that may influence sex drive. Running could reduce stress levels and increase energy levels. It could improve body image. It could increase intimacy and improve communication among partners. Healthy, happy running could be as effective as Viagra (men) or Vyleesi (women) or Brad Pitt (works for most).
One wacky 2015 study even found that finger-length ratios related to reproductive fitness were also associated with running performance, consistent with the hypothesis that “endurance-running ability may signal reproductive potential in males.” As much as the message boards probably want that to be true, I’m not sure we should read that much into that finding.
The big takeaway is that regular exercise likely improves health, along with sexual health and libido. But that is not why I wrote this article.
Potential Downsides to Running
Over the years, I have heard many athletes talk about reduced libido. Sometimes, that discussion happens in locker rooms or group runs. Other times, in training logs. And often it’s said in a hushed tone, wrapped up in a longer story, as if there is some shame in it. So let’s stop right now. There is no shame in libido variances.
Everyone has different baselines, everyone goes through fluctuations, and no one is defined by their desire or lack of desire to have sex. As Snyder says, “Changes within the body like those related to mood, sex drive and discomfort during sex may be related to the balance of training/lifestyle and stress or the effect of training on relationships, so it’s important to be aware of some things that could be helpful to address.”
Relative energy deficiency in sport (RED-S) is when energy intake is too low for training demand, resulting in negative energy availability, either acutely or chronically. As articulated by the IOC Consensus Statement from 2018, RED-S can hurt performance, reduce bone health, cause loss of menstrual cycle and hormone imbalance in women, and reduce testosterone in men, among many other issues. That can contribute to changes in sex drive.
A 2019 article in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reviewed the literature on low energy availability, finding that it could suppress sex hormones in female athletes. Self-reported menstrual cycle dysfunction is as high as 60 percent among elite middle- and long-distance runners. Some studies show that excessively low body fat can have hormonal impacts that may reduce libido. But athletes can be subject to these impacts independent of body composition. In addition, high-stress activities that release excess cortisol (like too-hard running training) are associated with hormonal impacts and reduced libido in some people.
For men, a 2017 article in the Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise journal found men with higher levels of chronic intense exercise and greater durations of endurance exercise had lower libido. A 2018 Letter to the Editor in the journal Hormones found that men who trained seven hours or more a week had an approximate 30-percent reduction in testosterone levels after five years of training, after which testosterone leveled off.
In men, these issues may manifest as reduced sexual desire and reduced erections. Some top research teams now include a question for athletes on prevalence of morning erections as a possible proxy for hormone levels.
In women, it may manifest as altered menstrual cycle and lack of sexual desire. Menstrual-cycle changes are a particular area of focus for teams researching in the area. Methods of birth control can also affect libido in unique and individual-dependent ways.
What to Do if You have Reduced Libido
If you notice that you have reduced libido, there are a few steps that may be worth taking. First, talk to an expert doctor or therapist about your relationship history, training levels and medical history. Second, consider getting a blood test (Inside Tracker and other blood tests measure sex hormones). Third, think about your lifestyle, including training duration and intensity, sleep and diet.
Samantha Terry, a trail runner and expert in this area, emphasizes that it goes beyond physiology. “Many times, it’s not just running stress or nutrition, but also how running interacts with life stress and communication breakdowns in relationships,” Terry says. Communicating openly is key, and couples’ therapy is one option. But, remember, all relationships are different, so don’t judge your relationship based on what you hear from other runners.
When it comes to training, the general rule to avoid overtraining is to make sure your easy days are truly easy and restorative. Your heart rate should be low on most runs, keeping cortisol production to a minimum, building you up rather than breaking you down. Your hard days can be hard, but there is no glory in hammering yourself until you evaporate into fine particulate matter. Remember, the body knows stress, not miles, so aim to make sure stress is balanced rather than trying to maximize training in a vacuum. Snyder emphasizes that your athletic life is not separate from your full life, and finding the balance that works for you is key.
Sleep is essential for hormone balance. Everyone’s needs vary, but the general recommendation is at least seven to eight hours of sleep a night. If you can’t sleep, that’s OK—lying in bed and relaxing also has restorative benefits.
Perhaps most importantly, eat plenty. I am a broken record with this (see the final point in last week’s article), but adequate fueling may be the number-one most important thing for long-term athletic growth. And based on the research related to sexual health and running, avoiding low energy availability either acutely or chronically during training may be one of the most important things we can do for libido too. Other biomarkers may play a role in hormone balance (like vitamin D), so checking your whole system is probably a good bet.
The final message: cut yourself slack. Sex is not an easy topic to talk about, even with people you are really close to (or in a magazine article). But anyone who talks to enough people about it openly and honestly realizes that experiences vary widely, and it’s definitely nothing like it seems in the movies. Just be aware that running may be increasing or reducing your libido, and, either way, you have tons of other runners right there alongside you.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.