Ask Pete: Sex, Love, and Running
Pete Magill gets scientific about sex, and explains the strategies that support his enduring love of running.
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Question 1: I’m a huge Rocky fan and haunted by the whole “women weaken legs” theory. What’s your opinion?—MJ
Muhammad Ali, 3-time heavyweight champion of the world, claimed to skip sex for six weeks prior to fighting. And Mike Tyson abstained for five years while working his way up boxing’s championship ladder. When asked why he did it, Tyson said, “Because I’m an idiot.”
Don’t be like Mike. Don’t be an idiot. A 2016 review of 143 scientific studies found there is no “direct impact of sexual activity on athletic aerobic or strength performance.” With two qualifications: If men have sex within two hours of competition, there’s a potential negative effect, and if men have sex at least 10 hours earlier, there’s a potential positive effect, due to post-sex increases in testosterone. The review notes that this latter effect is countered by drinking and smoking. So no Marlboros, okay, MJ?
As to the potential negative effect, the review noted that subjects who performed a stress test two hours after having sex displayed elevated heart rates during the post-test recovery period (as compared to subjects who hadn’t had sex). This indicates that the exercise took a heavier toll on subjects who’d had sex. In an endurance race, most of which last longer than the 15-minute maximum for a stress test, that could hypothetically translate to reduced performance.
This two-hour finding isn’t surprising. There’s a reason falling asleep after sex is a cliché. Post-orgasm, men’s muscles relax, their blood pressure and heart rate drop, and they experience a cascade of hormonal and nervous system responses, including the release of oxytocin, vasopressin, and prolactin—all hormones strongly associated with sleep—as well as serotonin, which has a role in triggering sleep. Plus, a 2013 review suggests that the male peripheral nervous system is integrally involved in this “refractory period,” which can last between minutes and a day, averaging around 30 minutes.
This system-wide shutdown initiated by the body’s two main communication networks depresses a man’s ability to respond physiologically. Not a great pre-race formula for success. It’s worth noting that most women don’t experience a refractory period.
I think most men (and women) would intuitively refrain from leaping straight from orgasm to a race start line. Studies seem to confirm this approach. So if you’re considering have sex before competition, at least sleep on it.
Question 2: How do you stay motivated day after day, year after year, at such a competitive level?—Jesus
This question has a few answers. Three of them are: I love running; I incorporate a wide variety of workouts in my training program; and, when love and variety don’t work, I trick myself.
I love running. Have since the first day when, as a skinny wisp of a high school freshman, I laced up my green Adidas SL-74s and ran on the heels of the varsity runners for a trail loop around Oak Grove Park and the Rose Bowl golf course. That day, I finally found my sport. It rewarded persistence and ability, not max bench press and trash talk. Best of all, it quieted that anxious, insecure voice in my head. I could relax and commune with the world beneath my feet. Forty-four years later, I still love it for all those reasons and more.
I make variety the centerpiece of my training. Short runs, medium runs, long runs, tempo, hills, drills, VO2 max reps, shorter fast reps, hill reps, hill sprints, plyometrics, resistance training, etc. I do it all, so my days and weeks and months are always a little different. Not only does it keep boredom and staleness at bay, but it’s the foundation for smart training.
And when love and variety aren’t enough, I use tricks. I schedule runs that start away from my house. That way, I don’t have to face the run right away. “Hey, all I have to do is dress and get in the car—then I’ll decide whether to run.” I always decide to run once I arrive at my destination.
Or I switch up my race schedule. I do more XC, or roads, or track, or shorter races, or longer. Or I coach other runners. Want to rediscover the passion that brought you to the sport? Help someone else find and develop theirs.
Finally, I trick myself into entire seasons and years of training by competing for my club. When you know your clubmates are out training, working toward team goals, it makes it easy to get your own butt out the door, too.
Of course, nothing in this list is really a trick. They’re strategies. Just like carbo-loading to survive a marathon. And I consider them essential for maximizing success and longevity in our sport.
Who asked you, anyway?
Pete’s freebee training tip: As the hottest summer on record blisters the soles of running shoes across the USA, remember that there are only two ways for your body to cool itself: One, your blood carries heat from your muscles to your skin, where it diffuses into the air; two, your two million sweat glands offload heat by secreting sweat — you lose energy (and cool down) when the sweat evaporates. When the temperature is over 98.6 degrees, only method #2 works. Since sweating by itself won’t cool you, make sure to wear light, modern fabrics that allow sweat to evaporate.