Research shows those daily miles help increase desire—to a point.
Runners may have endurance on the roads—but what about between the sheets? Do long workouts sap energy for other types of workouts? And how do elite runners manage to make babies while running more than 100 miles each week?
According to experts and runners, it turns out that running can improve performance, and not just at the races.
Many runners report that running increases their desire for a roll in the hay. “Being active is a potent aphrodisiac for both women and men,” said Tina Penhollow, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Health Promotion at Florida Atlantic University.
What explains that connection? Confidence is one key.
In an annual survey of runners by Brooks, 41 percent of respondents said they feel frisky after a run, with 54 percent being turned on by the energy boost and 51 percent saying it makes them feel strong and confident.
“You tend to have a heightened libido when you’re proud of yourself,” said Julia Levitt, an OB/GYN and marathoner in Chicago.
Running boosts self-esteem, and research shows that people who exercise have more positive body image and feel more desirable and confident in the bedroom. “They feel good in their bodies,” said Ian Kerner, a sex therapist in New York City. “They’re really able to translate that into sex where they feel free and comfortable and to a greater extent uninhibited.”
Not only does running help the sex life; sex can help the running. “If anything, I think sex can be helpful to training because I think it strengthens my hips and can be a little extra cardio,” said one female runner who holds a sub-17:00 5K PR. “My boyfriend, a fellow competitive runner, and I are sometimes in the mood right before pretty important training runs, like long runs or workouts, and we’ll have sex and we just refer to it as a ‘warm up.’”
In addition, running boosts endorphins—known contributors to the runner’s high—along with the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin promotes feelings of happiness and well being, and dopamine has a big role in excitement and arousal.
And although exercise initially increases the stress hormone cortisol, as the body adapts to training, cortisol levels decrease. “Through all of that, you have better living through your own chemical soup of wonderful things that are going on throughout your body,” said Pamela Peeke, a spokesperson for the American College of Sports Medicine and author of Fit to Live.
It also improves heart health and increases circulation and blood flow. Everywhere, Peeke said. Physical activity makes women more sensitive to touch and men report better orgasms and greater levels of satisfaction. And, of course, being in shape means better stamina. “Certainly exercise and training for exercise will benefit the exercise of sex,” Kerner said.
Whether these effects are immediate or not depends on the length of the run. While a long run might make a nap seem more appealing, a run of an hour or less may prompt an immediate libido boost, Levitt said. The Brooks survey respondents seem to agree, choosing six miles as the sweet spot.
But overwhelmingly, what most people wanted to hit post run wasn’t the sheets. “The most immediate thing by far from a percentage perspective that people want to do when they finish running is shower,” said Anne Cavassa, the Chief Customer Experience Officer at Brooks. Kerner suggests combining the two.
Even if hitting the sheets right after pounding the streets isn’t appealing, the effects of a running routine—on the heart, circulation, and self-esteem—will have long-term benefits for one’s sex life, Penhollow said.
Too much mileage
But at extremes, too much running can damage desire. Testosterone drops, cortisol peaks, and women can stop menstruating, all of which destroy the libido.
“Usually the signs and symptoms of overtraining, like restlessness, inability to sleep, appetite’s off, things are hurting in places that you don’t expect, or if you’re too lean—your weight is inappropriate for your height and you stop menstruating—those are signs that you’re overdoing it,” Levitt said. “Usually the libido will drop out at that point, if not sooner.”
So how do elites do it? While 100-plus-mile weeks would certainly qualify as libido crushing for most, elite runners have adapted to them and are careful not to step into overtraining territory by constantly emphasizing sleep and rest.
“When you start getting fit, and you start feeling really good, you’re feeling more confident, that translates into the bedroom and you want to have sex,” said Blake Russell, 41, a 2008 Olympic marathoner who is training for the Boston Marathon in April. “If I was hitting a really high mileage, it’s probably not the first thing on my mind. But if I’m in a comfortable training cycle, feeling good every week, it’s definitely on the table.”
One study even suggested that faster runners might have better sex lives, because our ancestors that chased down food more successfully would be rewarded with better reproductive success. The 2015 study found that both males and females with faster half marathon times had ring fingers that were longer than their index fingers, a ratio that has previously been linked to more testosterone exposure in the womb and higher sex drives. Considering the number of condoms passed out in the Olympic village (42 per athlete in Rio), perhaps it should come as no surprise that the world’s best athletes may also have serious libidos.
Still, professional runners have a lot riding on their athletic performance, and stress can kill sexual performance. Recreational athletes can also put too much pressure on themselves or take on too much. Peeke warns that too many back-to-back marathons or ultramarathons can lead to toxic levels of cortisol, which will kill sex interest.
But for most people, running one or two marathons a year won’t negatively affect one’s sex life. “A lot of this depends on the amount of pressure you put on yourself,” Peeke said. If exercise habits do seem to be getting in the way of enjoying a healthy sex life, Kerner suggests taking a day or two off from running and spending the extra time reconnecting with a partner. “Sex is a great way to redistribute your energy and make sure you’re not using exercise in a manner that’s compulsive,” he said.
And the night before a race, sex might help dissolve some of the pressure. While some coaches suggest staying away from pre-competition sex, it’s the staying up late looking for sex, often in the company of bars and alcohol, that’s the trouble, not the sex itself.
Related: Is It Okay to Have Sex the Night Before a Race?
“Science shows there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing it,” Peeke said, and there’s no evidence it impacts performance, for better or worse. Still, 35 percent of the survey respondents think it improves performance, possibly because they feel it relieves some nervous tension.
But race eve might be a night to give the normal workout a rest and keep it short and sweet. Those longer and more vigorous sessions could sap energy, while a quickie isn’t that physically demanding—about the equivalent of walking up two flights of stairs. “Keep it shorter. Don’t have an endurance event before the endurance event,” Levitt said.