It’s time to dive into the relationship between endurance training and sex drive – and for those of you who may be shy about this subject, I will pre-warn you that this article acknowledges the existence of sex.
Let’s begin with the good news. For anyone who has jumped from a sedentary lifestyle into an exercise program or workout plan, the dividends in sexual drive, sexual activity, and sexual satisfaction are significant. Studies have shown that women are more sexually responsive following 20 minutes of vigorous exercise1, and that higher testosterone levels in men– which correlate with higher sexual interest and behavior - are linked to short, intense exercise2.
However, studies have shown that too much exercise is associated with a decrease in testosterone and other male hormones, which can decrease sexual desire2. In women, too much exercise can cause depletion of estrogen and progesterone, two hormones important to sex drive and satisfaction3. Unlike strength training or power and speed sports that release a high amount of growth hormones and other “anabolic” hormones into the bloodstream, endurance training results in higher amounts of cortisol and “catabolic” hormones.
Anabolic hormones are typically associated with an increased sex drive, and serve to synthesize proteins and facilitate muscle growth; examples of these include growth hormone, insulin, testosterone, and estrogen. Catabolic hormones work to the opposite effect and erode muscle tissue and decrease inflammation; they include cortisol, glucagon, progesterone, and adrenalin. The body requires similar amounts of both types of hormones to remain in homeostasis, but endurance athletes produce much more catabolic hormones (cortisol) than they do anabolic hormones, suppressing testosterone production in men and depleting estrogen levels in women.
So how much endurance exercise is necessary to decrease sexual drive? This may be a frustrating answer, but it depends on a few things. If you’re a seasoned endurance athlete who optimizes recovery, eats a diet of healthy fats and vegetables, and avoids “junk miles”, it’s likely that you’re not doing much damage to your sex drive. Athletes such as these don’t significantly deplete anabolic hormones - or increase catabolic hormones - to a damaging extent. On the flipside, if you’re not prioritizing recovery, eating a high amount of complex sugars and carbs, and doing lots of long, slow aerobic training, you likely have a much lower sex drive than you should.
So, what can you do if you’re an endurance athlete with low sex drive?
Do more intensity and less volume. Prioritize high intensity interval training and strength training as a replacement (not in addition to) much of your volume. When training, you really only need one “long” workout per week per discipline (e.g. one endurance swim, one endurance bike, one endurance run).
Eat a high fat diet. Fats are hormonal precursors, and in particular, natural sources of cholesterol and saturated fat (such as avocadoes, olives, coconut milk, fish oils, fish, and fatty cuts of beef), are used to fuel the body’s (sex) hormone production process.
Eat meat. Grass-fed beef in particular is a great way to boost testosterone levels, especially in males.
Avoid simple sugars, processed foods, and alcohol. These three compounds can deplete natural hormones and introduce synthetic hormones into the body, which create hormonal imbalances.
Avoid stress. There’s nothing that depletes hormones and negatively affects your mood like a hectic day with no breaks for breathing, stretching, and relaxation. Especially at work, take time at least several times a day to slow down and do something relaxing – whether that’s a catnap, a walk, a quick yoga session, or just 5 minutes of relaxed, controlled breathing.
Supplement if necessary. Don’t use supplementation as a band-aid – instead, fix the issues above, and if your sex drive is still low, look into hormonal replacement therapy (such as “The Wiley Protocol”). Men can also try using nettles, d-aspartic acid, tribulis and magnesium, while women can try using arginine, yohimbe, and ginseng.
As a bit of a catch-22, one of the best ways to address low sexual drive is too simply have more sex. Having sex more often can increase your desire in itself. And for you endurance junkies out there, look at it this way - a good romp in the bedroom works your core, hips, and cardiovascular system, and does a great deal of good for your heart, brain and hormone production. Just think of it as the fourth leg of your triathlon?
- Journal of Sexual Medicine. “The Roles of Testosterone and Alpha-Amylase in Exercise-Induced Sexual Arousal in Women”. L. Dawn et al. April 2008.
- Tremblay, Mark , Jennifer Copeland, and Walter Van Helder. "Effect of training status and exercise mode on endogenous steroid hormones in men ." Journal of Applied Physiology . American Physiological Society , n.d. Web. 1 June 2012.
- Nepomnaschy PA, Welch K, McConnell D, Strassmann BI, England BG (2004) Stress and female reproductive function: A study of daily variations in cortisol, gonadotrophins, and gonadal steroids in a rural Mayan population. American Journal of Human Biology 16(5): 523–532.
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TrainingPeaks contributor Ben Greenfield, M.S. PE, NSCA-CPT, CSCS, is recognized as one of the top fitness, triathlon, nutrition and metabolism experts in the nation. For more information on coaching and training with Ben, check out his blog/podcasts, follow him on Twitter, or visit his Facebook page.