The last 10 years of my life I’ve spent countless hours riding in the company of predominantly young to middle aged men. Given the average male allegedly thinks about sex 19 times per day the conversation occasionally turns to discussing sex in a direct or more obscure way depending on how comfortable we are with each other.
What might be surprising to readers who are not so familiar with elite endurance athletes, is how often I hear guys say that they’re not interested in sex, that it’s a chore they sometimes bear for their non-training partner or they’re actually having issues maintaining an erection, or reaching orgasm.
Some guys with the latter issue blame extended time on the bike which in the past was certainly an issue. However, in the age of better bike fits and the vast array of saddles that eliminate pressure on the perineal area this really shouldn’t be happening to men or women anymore and if it is, get off your penny farthing and get it sorted!
Based off consistent feedback, a new Trek Bike is associated with increases in sex drive. Pic- James Mitchell
In contrast, when I speak to an athlete who has given the sport away or is taking an extended break from training the comments almost universally include shock at how their sex drive is back, alive and well. In my own experience the change in sex drive when I’m on a break is so drastic I have to wonder whether the body is making up for lost time or whether this is the normal state of affairs if I wasn’t training all the time. If it is, I’ll have to continue some training post triathlon retirement to avoid annoying my wife too much.
I don’t regularly ask women how their sex-life is going so I can’t speak with great anecdotal authority that females training hard experience the same issues. However from some very shallow research and applying common-sense, women consistently overtraining will experience exactly the same drop in sex drive.
Based off consistent feedback, watching me compete in Budgy Smugglers has never been associated with increases in sex drive. Pic- AsiaTri.com
WHAT IS HAPPENING?
Cortisol, the temperamental hormonal beast that it is, is the body’s major stress hormone. It’s released from adrenal glands in response to stress. Whether that stress be the day to day more benign events happening in your life, the more acute emotional stress or exercise induced stress and much more. Cortisol regulates energy helping selecting the right type and amount of carbohydrate, fat or protein that the body needs.
A natural variation in cortisol levels throughout the day is very normal and healthy. When you wake, it’s normally quite high, then it might start to drop late morning, bump back up in response to a hard training session or to help you meet a tight work deadline, then drop right back down towards the end of the day to allow rest and sleep.
We love Cortisol, we have to have it. It only becomes an issue when levels are chronically high. Similar to insulin resistance in diabetics, if high cortisol levels are present too often, the whole system can become dysfunctional. The body might start pumping high levels of cortisol at times when you really don’t want it, or stop producing adequate amounts when you really need it.
When cortisol is high, other hormones, specifically sex hormone production for the purposes of this article is very low. For men, the predominant sex hormone is testosterone and for women oestrogen and progesterone. When cortisol production levels are high, inversely the above sex hormones will be low. So if you are working too hard, or have a level of work stress that you can’t switch off from OR are training really hard for too long a period the body is at risk of chronically high cortisol and chronically low testosterone, oestrogen, progesterone and other hormones.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
I wouldn’t Google this space as you’ll read so much marketing spin on supplements that will lower cortisol and boost sex hormones that it will likely add more stress to compound any sex issues. A healthy, predominantly whole food diet that gives your body all the appropriate nutrients to thrive should be sufficient nutritionally for most people to keep their libido at an appropriate level for their age range.
The most effective way to give your body a hormonal boost is get enough rest and sleep. During sleep the body pumps out hormones to restore, rebuild and in turn, reload your sex drive. Prioritise sleep if you want to bring back your sexual mojo.
Chronic exercise equals chronic cortisol levels so stop the chronic training. Use a coach or take the time to plan out an appropriate training program that is a somewhat ‘healthy’ training program. By healthy I mean factor in all the other causes of stress of your life and ensure you have the time to absorb and recover from the training you’re doing. By all means, train incredibly hard but realise that the hard work is wasted if you don’t give yourself the rest time to absorb it.
To maximise high performance over the long term in your chosen sport, incorporate a weekly rest day or days and take time after key events to really refresh. It’s easy to flick through Instagram and see the incredible sessions the sports elite are posting and thinking that they are at the top because of their ability to suffer. That would certainly be partly true but the flip side of their schedule that doesn’t get broadcast is them lying down for as much time outside of training as is possible would probably not garner many likes but is likely just as big a part of their success.
Pic- Korupt Vision
Flexibility within your training program is incredibly important to preventing a chronic overload of cortisol and to keep your sex drive knocking on desire’s door. If you haven’t slept the much the night before due to a crying baby or a high level of work stress that day then don’t go ahead and complete your most intense training session as planned. Re-work the training schedule and do a recovery or easy aerobic session so that the total stress for that day is not over the top. Reschedule the session for another time or even let the session go. Skipping a session is not a soft move if it keeps you healthy and allows longer term consistency.
There is a massive difference between not feeling like doing a session because you’re a little tired and genuinely knowing you’re wrecked and that doing the session would have little benefit. Deep down I think most people know but if you’re unsure I like the Craig Alexander method of starting the session and at least completing the warm up. Often starting is the hardest part and from there you know whether you’re truly fatigued or whether you are good to go.
Caffeine, likely the most beneficial legal performance enhancing drug also helps bump up cortisol levels. Chronic caffeine intake can contribute to chronic cortisol levels so be wise with how much and how often you have caffeine. Similar to training, try and find days of the week or periods through the year where caffeine intake is heavily reduced.
Find proven alternatives to caffeine that can boost performance without the adrenal toll.
Serious overtraining syndrome can take months or even years to escape. Save yourself the pain of going too far down the overtraining route. Don’t ignore your sex drive and allow it to help guide smart training and recovery.