Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Abstaining Your Way to Athletic Prowess

If you noticed this old post of mine, or the inordinate intellectual effort I expended on an embarrassingly large number of comments on this thread, you may have guessed that I am not a fan of abstinence. Gold star! You have divined correctly. Hence an article on the front page—above the fold, no less—in today’s Wall Street Journal caught my eye: in honor of the approaching Olympics, a discussion on the use of abstinence to improve athletic performance. (The connection to economics, or political and foreign affairs affecting economics—the W$J’s usual bread and butter—remains obscure.) There is a dispute between tradition and science about abstinence’s effectiveness, and the Book of Mormon even weighs in on the issue.

The article begins with a history lesson: Plato informs us of Ikkos of Tarentum, whose preparations for his Pentathlon win in 444 B.C. included the consumption of “large quantities of wild boar, cheese, and goat meat,” and coating himself “in olive oil to make his rippled body gleam.” But he also “believed that abstinence before competition was essential for preserving athletic vigor.”

The article goes on to mention several modern Olympians who employ abstinence, including “a married ice dancing pair on the U.S. Olympic figure skating team [who] will be ‘saving their energy for the ice’ in Turin,” and a U.S. Olympic triathlete who “says he went 233 days without sex before the 2004 Athens Olympics.” (I’m thanking my lucky stars I did not marry an ice dancer, and that I was able to resist the overpowering allure of devoting my life to triathlons.) One U.S. swimmer who won three gold medals in 1996 blames his failure to qualify for the 2004 games on his blissful encounter with his wife only hours before the trials. Oh, the lifelong regret stemming from a moment of weakness: “I wish I’d planned a little better.”

But abstinence is not only for Olympians. “The abstinence tradition is particularly strong in such sports as boxing and football, where the theory holds that sexual frustration leads to increased aggression.” One boxer “typically goes without sex for 11 weeks [Where does that number come from?] before a major fight. ‘If you have sex, you’re in a very good mood,’ Mr. Corrales says. ‘That’s a problem when you get into the ring.’ ” Several NFL teams require their players to check into hotels, even before home games; the Steelers coaches conduct room checks. (Hence the Super Bowl victory, no doubt.)

Several scientists have looked for physiological evidence about the effects of sex, in an eclectic collection of small and sketchy studies. They offer no support for the ritual of abstinence—and some even suggest sex could help an athlete. [Now we’re talking!]

In 2000, the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine published a comprehensive review of the topic titled “Does Sex the Night Before Competition Decrease Performance?” [your government research dollars hard at work.] … According to the article, normal sexual intercourse between married partners expends only 25 to 50 calories—the energy equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs. [Is this a definitive result in real-world conditions, or a commentary on the stagnant routinization of married love?] In addition, the article dismisses the notion that sex leads to muscle weakness, citing several studies involving hand-grip strength tests. [Sweet!]

A study published in 2000 in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness … concluded that sex had ‘no detrimental influence on the maximal workload achieved, or on the athletes’ mental concentration.’ (As part of the study, the athletes were given a math quiz shortly after having sex.) [Note: unlike the other parenthetical asides in square brackets in this extended quote, the preceding parenthetical is a genuine part of the article.]
Some beneficial athletic effects cited included a finding that “sexual stimulation has a powerful analgesic effect in women, and can markedly increase a woman’s tolerance for pain.” Also found were increased testosterone levels that enhance muscle development, and a reduction of the stress and anxiety that accompany competition, “crucial in sports that require fine motor coordination, such as archery, golf, diving, pool, and pistol shooting.” (Perhaps this is why Minnesota Fats never won a major billiards tournament.)

Which is right, tradition or modern research? Abinadi came down on the side of tradition, asking the same question of the priests of Noah that modern NFL coaches ask today: “Why do ye commit whoredoms and spend your strength with harlots?” (As I recall this comes through even more vividly in the Spanish translation as ‘dissipating your vigor.’) But perhaps the physiological findings and coaches’ experience can be reconciled by that perennial American source of higher wisdom: old baseball hands. “Being with a woman all night never hurt no professional baseball player,” notes legendary former Yankees manager Casey Stengel. “It’s staying up all night looking for a woman that does him in.”


Yes, I see it all very clearly now.

When BYU's teams have bellyflopped all the way to the bottom of a mediocre league, it's because the players are really playa's.


Comment by Mark IV | 2/09/2006 01:36:00 PM  

The camp has been divided on this one for some time. Pele, for example, frequently had sex prior to big matches. 

Comment by D-Train | 2/09/2006 02:16:00 PM  

Good point, Mark IV, BYU is a potential counterexample to the traditional argument! 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 2/09/2006 03:05:00 PM  



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