The Truth About Sex Drive and Overtraining
Is chronic overtraining killing libido and sexual function in men and women? It seems so. Here’s what you need to know.
A few years ago, scientists studied the effects of endurance exercise and libido in healthy young men. Their study involved more than 1,000 men between the ages of 18 and 60. It’s based on a questionnaire — often prone to a few questions — but the researchers went to great lengths to ensure the integrity of the answers.
The questions they compile are selected from a variety of sources, all of which are commonly used in research/clinical settings. The aim was to find correlations between exercise duration, exercise intensity, age, and total libido score.
Repeated every four months throughout the year, the survey was among men involved in various physical activities (running, cycling, swimming, weightlifting, etc.), many of whom were associated with organizations involved in endurance training activities.
There are tons of statistics to correlate and interpret, but the gist is as follows:
Training intensity and training duration were most significantly associated with libido. Participants with the lowest and moderate intensity of training had odds of a higher/normal libido state compared to participants with the highest training intensity.
Participants with shorter and moderate training durations at current intensities also had greater odds of achieving high/normal libido scores compared to those with the longest duration.
Roughly explained, the likelihood that training 1 to 16 hours per week (low “chronic duration”) will put you in the normal or high libido range is that of those who train more than 20 to even 40 hours per week (such as some marathon runners) four times.
Of course, if you add intensity to the mix, the result will be murkier. If your intensity is high, then your training frequency and duration should be lower, at least in the long run. Your libido can withstand short-term burst training, but if it lasts for weeks or months, say goodbye to libido.
The underlying message, as lead researcher Anthony Hackney puts it: If you’re male and you train long or hard, your libido goes down.
In practice, this means marathon (competition) training, months or years of CrossFit-style training, or even classic cardio training 5 days a week, all draining your libido.
The Hackney study didn’t pay much attention to the effects of training or overtraining on testosterone. Still, researchers have long reported an association between overtraining and low resting hormone levels (and thus low libido).
Although the phenomenon has long been reported, organizations such as the International Olympic Committee have taken renewed interest in it, even proposing a new term to describe it: relative energy deficit in sport.
It’s a well-intentioned claim that exercise has destroyed the reproductive health of overtrained men and women. It’s usually an acute syndrome, but for some it turns into a long, hard, long-lasting hormonal discharge. Men who fall into this category are now said to suffer from “athletic hypogonadism”.
This phenomenon also occurs in overtrained women, but as I’ll explain below, their pathology is a bit more complicated.
But wait, other studies show the opposite…
“Yes, but other studies show that exercise increases testosterone levels!”
This is real.exercise usually increases Testosterone levels. It can also improve sexual responsiveness in both men and women. The magnitude of these testosterone increases depends largely on the number of sets, repetitions, sequence of exercises and, perhaps most importantly, exercise choice.
For example, a set of jump squats will increase testosterone levels more than a set of bench presses (15% increase compared to 7%). In general, working larger muscle groups leads to greater growth.
The problem is, this testosterone boost is often very short-lived, especially in men who lift weights. Then, even more puzzlingly, posttestosterone levels often drop below baseline, sometimes for days.
This may be because of cortisol’s antagonistic relationship with testosterone: Elevated cortisol levels caused by strenuous exercise lower testosterone levels. This may well explain the chronic low libido seen in Hackney’s study.
However, there are a few other theories that could explain the acute (but not chronic) drop in testosterone after a workout. After a hard workout, several things happen.
For one thing, testosterone is converted to its metabolite DHT at a faster rate, which can affect total testosterone levels in blood tests. No worries though, DHT is more anabolic than testosterone, so no harm or foul in that regard.
Second, increased testosterone increases the receptivity and responsiveness of androgen receptors (it is this “androgen complex” that initiates muscle protein synthesis). That means more testosterone parks its ass in the welcome circle of androgen receptors, which also shows up as lower testosterone levels on any blood test.
Therefore, this may explain the frequent transient drops in testosterone seen in strength athletes. However, this is different from the chronically overtrained athletes Hackney evaluated in his study.
Hackney’s research dealt with the effects of overtraining on male libido, but there’s no reason to think the results wouldn’t apply to women.
However, most of the female libido and Awakening focus on the effects of a single workout. Their goal is usually to determine how the female genitals respond to exercise, and in general, anything that increases blood flow to the area increases sexual response.
Likewise, short bouts of exercise trigger a woman’s sympathetic nervous system (SNS), leading to an increase in “vaginal pulse amplitude,” which is a polite way of saying, and exercise makes it easier for women to develop female erections (increased vaginal engorgement).
But all of these are about short workouts (usually less than 45 minutes), not the hour-long, 5- to 7-day-a-week training sessions typically associated with CrossFitters, marathon runners, or addictive workouts in general.
When women are chronically overtrained, the most common problem is disruption of the normal function of the pituitary/hypothalamic axis (as in men), which manifests itself through lower levels of testosterone and estrogen.
Moreover, once the body fat drops below a certain percentage (about 11%), the reproductive system will go on vacation. Menstruation usually stops and the desire for sex is replaced by a desire for one of the Vyper 2.0 vibrating foam rollers, which unfortunately these women may only use for therapeutic purposes.
But there’s another factor, the musculoskeletal one, that can affect the sex life of chronically overtrained women — the pelvic floor. Sometimes, after childbirth, a woman may experience flabby or loose muscles, what Women’s Health calls “hammock” muscles. This looseness can make sex less enjoyable, especially if her partner’s girth is nowhere near that of the fire plug.
Conversely, overtraining can lead to overly tight pelvic floor. As mentioned above, it’s called “hypertonia,” and it can make intercourse painful. Normally, the vagina is designed to stretch when something is inserted, but if it’s not given (as seen in hypertonic situations), the brain interprets that as pain.
Tight muscles elsewhere compound the problem. According to leading pelvic floor physical therapist Julia Di Paolo, as quoted in Women’s Health, “Tight calves pull down your hamstrings, tip your pelvis and tighten the floor. That’s why maintaining Preparing your groin for a good time is no longer just about teaching the proper muscle contractions, but also learning to relax them. We call this training or reverse Kegels.”
Di Paolo explained that these women should imagine picking up the blueberry with their vagina and anus as they exhale, and then let the blueberry fall completely as they exhale.
Once the pelvic floor begins to relax, presumably through a combination of downward training of the body and pelvic floor, sexual pleasure increases.
If your libido suffers from too much (and too vigorous exercise), the obvious solution is to turn it down. Dr. Hackney reminds us that exercise can boost libido up to a point, but if you train beyond that point, you’ll experience a drop in libido. He calls it an “inverted U.”
A general rule of thumb, at least according to people who study such things, is to limit really high-intensity, full-fledged CrossFit workouts to about 3 times per week. You could also consider taking a week off to reset the hypothalamic/pituitary axis, but that might be like telling someone who smokes two packs a day to quit for a week.
Or, there may be a few things you can do to at least improve your decreased libido from compulsive overtraining. With sleep and good nutrition, this should be obvious.
Men may also consider using testosterone boosters such as Alpha Male®. It is not as powerful as true testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), but it will give most men a considerable boost in T levels.
Both men and women can try workouts like this Surge® Workout Fuelin a long list of workout-enhancing things, it lowers post-workout stress hormone levels.
Finally, both men and women should consider taking P-Well™our full range of supplements for vascular health and function.
Regardless, it all boils down to making a decision whether the obsessive quest for some vaguely defined definition of physical perfection is worth becoming a walking contradiction: a body seemingly made for sex, but spiritually, in In a way, physically, sterilized.
Hackney AC et al. Endurance sports training and male libido. Medical Science Physical Exercise. 2017 Jul;49(7):1383-1388. PubMed.
Lost libido? Why exercise can reduce libido. women’s health. January 15, 2018.
Ahtianinen JP et al. Heavy resistance training and skeletal muscle androgen receptor expression in young and older men. Steroid. 2011 Jan;76(1-2):183-92. PubMed.