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People have debated the impact of sex (defined in published studies as heterosexual intercourse) on athletic performance for the past two thousand years. Writer Jeff Merron notes that the Roman historian Pliny the Elder tackled the issue in 77 CE. Pliny said, “Athletes when sluggish are revitalized by love-making, and the voice is restored from being gruff and husky.” The late New York Yankees manager Casey Stengel reportedly said, “The trouble is not that players have sex the night before a game. It’s that they stay out all night looking for it.” Several famous athletes claimed to abstain from sex for days or weeks before a race or other athletic event. The great U.S. miler Marty Liquori thought abstinence the best policy. “Sex makes you happy,” he said, “and happy people don’t run a 3:47 mile.” Lynn Jennings, 1993 U.S. 10-kilometer title winner, said, “I found that sex the night before solidifies my core feeling of happiness” and helped her win.
Testimonials aside, does any scientific evidence support either side of this debate? Researchers Boone and Gilmore studied the impact of sexual intercourse twelve hours prior to a treadmill exercise test to measure physical performance with a group of eleven sedentary men. The results from the test indicated that sexual intercourse had no impact on test results: Sexual intercourse did not diminish performance.
Researchers Anderson, Wei, and Shyu studied the relationship between sexual activity and four other health measures on the marathon running performance of sixty-one men and fourteen women whose ages ranged from seventeen to sixty-five. On average the subjects were forty-one years old, had been running regularly for twelve years, and had run an average of fifteen previous events. Results showed that marathon runners’ sexual activity was not related to their relative running performance. Those who slept more and took in more calories, compared with the amount they slept and the calories they consumed in previous events, performed better in the marathon, compared with their performance in previous events. Drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes were not related to self-reported running success.
Writing for the Western Gazette, David Lee noted that Dr. Earl Noble, a professor in the faculty of health sciences, believes no link exists between sex and decreased athletic performance. Although Noble stated that the research he was aware of was far from conclusive, he believes it points in the right direction. “Personally, I believe that anytime you start disrupting normal behavior, you’re going to start having negative effects in whatever you do, be it academics or athletics. Whatever you’re accustomed to is what you should do” (Lee 2004).
In 1999 Italian scientists found that testosterone levels in men increased as sexual activity increased. These data could suggest that a rendezvous in the bedroom might lead to higher rates of aggression the next day— and enhance athletic performance.
With little scientific evidence and conflicting opinions offered by coaches, pundits, and athletes themselves, how do athletes behave while competing? According to a report by Paul Hochman, at the 1992 winter Olympics at Albertville, France, condom machines in the athletes’ village had to be refilled every two hours. At the Olympics in Sydney, Australia, in 2000 the organizers’ original order of seventy thousand condoms went so fast that they had to order twenty thousand more. Even with the replenishment, the supply was exhausted three days before the end of the competition schedule. This anecdotal evidence does not mean that all the condoms were used for sex or that only athletes used them, but it may help us frame future research.
In conclusion, James stated that despite the fact that sexual abstinence before an athletic event has been advocated by crusty football coaches, Olympic athletes, and even U.S. boxer Muhammad Ali in his prime, no one really knows how the practice got started or whether it is in an athlete’s best interest. Depending on the athlete’s frame of mind, the little scientific evidence available supports the notion that it couldn’t hurt and it might help. In view of the lack of scientific evidence on the subject and the conflicting testimonials, athletes these days seem confused about having sex the night before an athletic contest. Although the commonly believed benefits of sexual abstinence have a long tradition, the little scientific evidence available and the majority opinion among athletes, coaches, and physicians now are that sex has little or no effect on athletic performance. The psychosocial reality is that every athlete should do what works for him or her. To discover what works may take some experimentation and a willing partner.
- Boone,T., & Gilmore, S. (1995). Effects of sexual intercourse on maximal aerobic power, oxygen pulse, and double product in male sedentary subjects. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 35, 214-217.
- Chidley, J. (1996). Sex and the modern athlete. Maclean’s, 109, 36-37.
- Fisher, G. J. (1997, June). Abstention from sex and other pre-game rituals used by college male varsity athletes. Journal of Sport Behavior, 20, 176-185.
- James, S. T. (1990). Sexual activity and athletic performance: Is there a relationship? The Physician and Sports Medicine, 8, 148-154.
- Lee, D. (2004, February 13). Sex and athletic performance—Good or bad? The Gazette, Western’s Daily Student Newspaper, 97(75). Retrieved September 21, 2004, from http://www.gazette.uwo.ca/ 2004/February/13/sports1.asp
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