Sex Before The Big Game?
At last, an answer to the question that has vexed generations of footballers: having sex the night before a big match does not harm your sporting performance.
The received wisdom among soccer coaches is that nookie the night before is bad news for players. But there's no actual reason to assume that this is true, insists John Bancroft, former director of the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction in Bloomington, Indiana. "There is no physiological basis for it," he says.
"Nothing after Wednesday if you're playing on Saturday," was the mantra preached to British soccer players in the 1970s. Even today, many coaches still advise athletes to avoid sex the night before. But why do they think it might affect their game?
The idea that sex can impair physical performance has gripped the popular imagination for centuries. The 4,000-year-old Mesopotamian text, The Epic of Gilgamesh, tells of how the eponymous hero dispatched a temple harlot to sap the strength of his rival. More recently, Muhammad Ali told Playboy magazine of how he "listened with rapt attention to the old pros who testified on the evils of sex".
A recent poll of international World Cup players by Britain's Marie Claire magazine revealed that some have indeed decided to steer clear. "It is certainly common in many sports," says Ian Shrier, a sports clinician at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
"Sex the night before does not affect strength, endurance or the capacity to utilize oxygen," Shrier says. In a summary of research on the subject, he pointed out that male athletes put on a treadmill 12 hours after having had sex showed no decline in performance.
Research has likewise found no effect on a man's grip strength, balance, lateral movement, reaction time or aerobic power. The same goes for effects on the mental concentration of male athletes.
The only possible issue, says Bancroft, might be the 'refractory period' experienced by men immediately after orgasm. During this period, which can be as little as 20 minutes for a teenager and up to 24 hours for a man in late middle age, a man's ability to get an erection is inhibited. But given that professional footballers are physically fit (and presumably are not having sex in the minutes immediately before a game), any associated sluggishness elsewhere in the body is unlikely to be an issue.
The male orgasm also induces a state of calm and relaxation (which accounts for men's infamous tendency to roll over and fall asleep straight afterwards). It is hard to say how long this calming effect lasts, although there is no reason to think that it would last until the following day. Bancroft nevertheless concedes that this period of relaxed calm is "probably not the best time to go out and play in the World Cup".
Sex on the brain
In fact, scientists are not even sure what causes the calming effect. It is unlikely to be physical exhaustion: several studies have shown that a man's heart rate and oxygen consumption during sex generally rise no higher than levels reached during gentle exercise such as walking, climbing stairs, or even pushing paper at the office. Some experts suspect that the hormone prolactin, which peaks a few hours after sex, may be involved. "But we don't really know for sure what role it plays," says Bancroft.
More important than the physical after-effects of sex might be the psychological ones, Shrier suggests. Sex the night before might affect factors such as alertness and aggression, which can in turn affect performance, but no one knows for sure.
The one thing everyone agrees on is that athletes shouldn't lie awake fretting about sex or the lack of it. Male or female, the one thing they all need the night before a big game is a good night's rest. As Casey Stengel, former manager of baseball's New York Yankees once said: "It's not the sex that wrecks these guys; it's staying up all night looking for it."