Does life for a cyclist’s genitals always have to be this hard? Writer Lisa Bowman gets the cycling experts to answer the most pressing questions on everybody’s lips…
Whether you’re a seasoned cyclist or only started riding during ‘rona, one thing’s for sure – you’ve probably dealt with your fair share of issues downstairs. Yup, I’m talking eye-wincing stuff like thrush, ingrown hairs and painful bruising. A 2019 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 58% of female cyclists sometimes experience genital numbness and pain from their sport – but there are solutions out there.
When I first started clocking miles up after investing in a road bike back in 2016, I was unpleasantly surprised by the irritation that occurred in my knickers. While my body was flooded with feel-good endorphins, my vagina was flooded with discharge as I welcomed a yeast infection, a UTI and – to my horror – swollen labia. When the pain got so bad I had to stand up on the pedals for most of my commute, I knew it was time to seek help.
Here’s how to sort out your own vagina issues without sacking off the saddle.
A good place to start is seeing if you can tilt your saddle forward a bit, to relieve pressure on your labia. Prolonged cycling in the drop position can add to clitoral pain/potential numbness (more on that later) so it might be worth cycling in a more upright position until symptoms ease. If neither of those work, your next step is to test out some new saddles.
Back in 2016, I shuffled, wincing, to my nearest bike store where I plucked up the courage to tell the male store assistant about my bruised vulva. Unfortunately, most people who work in bike shops are men who usually can’t empathise with snatch-specific issues. Luckily, this particular male recommended the very reasonably priced Riva saddle from Specialized (it was £25 at the time), made of soft foam with a cutout (or ‘flap gap’ as I liked to call it) that was medically tested to relieve soft tissue pressure. That saddle is no longer available but they currently have a huge array of vulva-centric alternatives.
In fact – and for fear of this sounding like a sponsored Specialized gushathon (other saddles are definitely available) – I’ve heard rave reviews of their Power Mimic saddle from Biola Babawale, avid track and road cyclist, and chair of Velociposse, a cycling club for women and non-binary people in London.
“I got a bike fit from Contour and it was really useful as James the fitter measured my sit bones, but I also had a frank conversation with him that I was getting pains riding track,” explains Babawale.
“That was two years ago when Specialized brought out their Power Mimic saddle and it’s revolutionary. The front of the saddle has memory foam which is supposed to mimic the softness of flesh and I really felt a difference on my track riding – I was getting bruising and soreness but the Mimic saddle’s been great for me – it’s on all my bikes now as a standard. I can now ride as long as I want, and if I take time off the bike I no longer dread getting back on as there’s no re-bruising or battering of your nether regions.
“I feel more saddle manufacturers are starting to realise that you need to be creative with materials that you use.”
It’s important to note that we all have very different genitals, so heaven for one person may be hell for another. As such, it’s best to go get expert advice and try out some saddles to find the right fit for you and your precious privates.
Wearing the right kit is essential when cycling long distance if you want to avoid sores.
“When I do the longer rides, I have bib shorts which have a padded area on the bum and that helps a lot,” says cyclist April Shannon, who commutes on a folding Brompton and uses a road bike for weekend rides.
“Trying to find a pair of bib shorts that weren’t completely see-through was a sport in itself, but that’s a whole other story! I completely cover the whole area where I have contact with the saddle in a super thick layer of Sudocrem before a big ride and that helps ease chafing.”
Former British Cycling physio Phil Burt is so wise when it comes to bike fits, he opened the world’s first saddle health clinic in Manchester. He advises finding a chamois cream that works for your particular skin type, rather than assuming that a fancy one from a bike store will work best. He recommends trying Doublebase gel and Dermol 500 lotion, both available from your nearest pharmacy.
Make sure you buy the right type of kit for your discipline (different styles of riding require different types of padding) and always get the correct fit – you don’t want any unnecessary movement/chafing causing added grief.
Shannon was expecting saddle sores when she amped up her mileage, but she wasn’t anticipating internal issues.
“I did a 75-mile ride on my road bike the other day that my downstairs is currently recovering from,” she says. “I took steps to reduce chafing and sores, but I didn’t realise it would sting to pee after such a long journey. That wasn’t a pleasant experience when I got home.”
“Exercise, in general, can increase the risk of yeast infections and UTIs,” Dr Zahra Ameen, consultant gynaecologist and obstetrician at the Cadogan Clinic tells me. “Sweat creates a moist environment, the perfect conditions for yeast and bacteria to thrive. Pressure from the saddle, heat and friction caused by cycling may cause further irritation.
“If the balance of vaginal bacteria is disturbed, this can lead to infection and inflammation. An overgrowth of candida albicans, a fungus that lives in the vagina, can cause yeast infections. If the pH of the vagina increases (it gets less acidic), the quality or amount of lactobacilli (good bacteria) can fall and other bacteria can multiply. This can result in infections such as bacterial vaginosis or thrush, which can cause symptoms including itching, irritation and abnormal discharge.”
To avoid infection Dr Ameen advises wearing clean cycling kit and knickers, changing out of kit and showering as soon as possible after riding, and always wiping front to back when using the loo. Staying hydrated will help water flush the system, allowing you to pass good amounts of urine and reducing the risk of bacteria build-up.
If you do have problems downstairs, it’s always best to see a doctor rather than self-diagnosing, as bacterial vaginosis is often mistaken for thrush.
Another common issue is ingrown hairs. The Team GB female cycling squad sussed this situation back in 2016 when they were advised to avoid waxing/shaving/epilating their pubic hair to minimise risk of ingrown hairs and infected follicles. Thankfully it worked, and team physio Phil Burt revealed that their podium squad didn’t get a single saddle sore between them in the six months leading up to Rio 2016.
This may be because pubic hair helps wick sweat away from the skin, keeping breeding bacteria away from hair follicles. Having a bit of a bush can also help reduce friction between your flesh and your clothes/saddle.
Google ‘female cyclist decreased sensitivity,’ and a plethora of sensationalist (geddit?) articles come up, but not much useful info.
“I had a cervical biopsy a couple of years ago, and as the doctor was undertaking the obviously not very comfortable procedure, she asked me how I was feeling,” says Velociposse’s kit officer, Helen McKenzie.
“I said I was OK and she replied, ‘Well, cyclists generally don’t have much feeling down there.’ I was a bit shocked. I lay there thinking, ‘Have I already damaged myself from cycling?’ She said it like it was completely normal to not have any feeling down there if you’re a cyclist, but I don’t think there’s a piece of scientific knowledge that says when you cycle you get numbness – potentially forever -– down there.”
Interestingly, a 2006 study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine using a sample of 48 competitive female cyclists and a control group of 22 runners, did reveal an association between cycling and decreased genital sensation (compared to the runners). However – crucially – all participants had normal sexual function, and not a single one complained of sexual distress. The same scientists published a study in 2012 looking further into modifiable risks, finding that riding with handlebars lower than the saddle was more likely to increase genital numbness.
A 2017 study in the Journal of Urology surveyed 2,691 women, of which 658 (39%) were cyclists, and the rest were runners or swimmers. It showed that while cyclists had more perineal numbness, they also scored higher for sexual desire, arousal, lubrication, orgasm and satisfaction. Win!
So while aforementioned issues like UTIs, saddle sores and thrush can obviously put a dampener on your sex life, there’s no solid evidence that cycling should negatively affect your time in the bedroom. If it’s affecting yours, speak to your GP.
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It’s good to talk; by being a bit more vocal about our issues, we can smash taboos and share tips and tricks on being more comfortable in the saddle. Babawale says downstairs issues are topics that come up frequently with Velociposse members.
“We have new members come and they’re looking for advice on saddles, and because we create a really nice, open environment, people feel comfortable asking questions which they would never ask in a mixed group with people who identify as men,” she tells me.
“In my first few months of joining Velociposse, I learned the technical term of flap mash which I think was first coined by awesome cyclist Emily Chappell. It’s the worst thing when you’re not feeling great and the thing you want to do which makes you feel great is cycling, but you can’t go as you have a saddle sore. It can be quite difficult so we provide each other support in that way.”
In 2019 pro-cyclist Hannah Dines even wrote a piece for the Guardian calling for better women’s saddles, after having to have vulva surgery following years of chronic swelling.
So, while there are plenty of potential issues for people with vulvas who love to get in the saddle, there’s no reason they should get in the way of our rides. Chat things through with fellow cyclists for hints and tips, but when in doubt see your GP.
Cycle faster, longer and stronger by joining a Strong Women Training Club training programme today.
Images: Getty / Pexels