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Women’s Health & Cycling: What Are the Risks and What Are the Solutions?

By Megan Flottorp

For men and women alike, there is no shortage of health benefits associated with cycling. In addition to reduced risk for heart disease and increased immunity, cycling is a great endurance building sport that is easy on your joints and helps promote positive thinking. That being said, when it comes to a woman’s anatomy, cycling can pose a few problematic risks if not approached carefully. Here we’ve provided a summary of some of the most common issues or concerns and how to address them in a safe and healthy way.

Yeast and urinary tract infections

Although these are problems that most women will have to deal with at some point in their lives, cyclists face increased risk due to the fact that bacteria multiply quickly when you’re sweating a lot inside close-fitting clothing. Yeast and bacteria thrive in moist hot environments and that can allow problems to arise quickly.

The Solution?

Your best defence is to minimize the chance for bacteria and fungus to multiply in the first place. After a ride, get out of your shorts as soon as possible, shower, and make sure to dry the area thoroughly. Baby wipes or witch hazel and a dry towel are also a good fix if a shower isn’t readily available.

Eating probiotic-rich foods like yoghurt and kefir can also help make you resistant to these problems. If you think you already have an infection though, act immediately. You can try an over-the-counter cream, but if one application doesn’t work, see your doctor for an antifungal and topical steroid cream for quick relief.

Swelling or saddle sores

The technical name for swelling is labial hypertrophy, and this is when the labia (either the inner or outer or both) become swollen and enlarged. Pressure causes swelling and once things are out of balance, a vicious cycle can quickly exasperate the problem and cause major discomfort. In addition, ‘saddle sores,’ the umbrella term that includes infected hair follicles, chafing, and open ulcerations anywhere in your chamois region—all have the potential to be quite painful and even dangerous. Consistent pressure and chafing in the same place will irritate and inflame your skin, leaving it susceptible to infection.

The Solution?

This really comes down to proper saddle fit for your unique body and alignment. Ironically, for some women, cut-out saddles—designed to prevent these exact problem—can actually make swelling worse. Most accounts seem to indicate that if you have a fleshier vulva, cut-outs may not work for you due to the fact that those tissues sit in the cut-out space, which allows gravity to pull fluid into them as you ride.

In addition to the right saddle, you want to practice proper lubrication and careful hair removal. Chamois cream is designed to reduce friction between your skin and your shorts and you can find women-specific creams, which are specially formulated to help you maintain a healthy pH balance in that area. Carefully hair removal will also help prevent issues, because sore razor bumps, ingrown hairs, and infected follicles will become even more irritated when cycling. To avoid this, use a sharp razor that provides a close shave and if you’re prone to bumps, apply a light layer of antibiotic ointment after shaving.

Cycling and sex

As you may know, cycling, like all exercise, improves sex drive—yay! Unfortunately, not all the news is good. Although, from a women’s perspective, there isn’t much research yet available, there have been a couple of studies into the effects of being in the saddle on a woman’s area, and sadly, many report that it causes a lack of sensitivity.

In one case, up to 62 per cent of competitive women cyclists reported feeling genital numbness, tingling, or pain within the past 30 days in a small study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine. If this is something you experience, don’t ignore it. Not only does numbness make sex less enjoyable, but it also means that you’re compressing your nerves and could do long-term damage.

The solution?

As with the problems mentioned above, the right saddle is going to go a long way in preventing these issues. Standard knowledge is that, depending on your riding position, you want the majority of your weight to be resting on your ischial tuberosities (the hard bones you feel when you sit down) or the pubic rami (the pelvic bones further forward), and not on your soft tissues. In addition to changing the shape or size of your saddle, this often means shortening your reach, handlebar or saddle height, because being too stretched out places pressure on the soft tissue.

Once you’ve got the right saddle, don’t skimp on getting a quality pair of padded cycling shorts. You’ll enjoy your ride more and are less likely to experience desensitisation.

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Cycling with your period

There’s no doubt that motivation can be lacking at this time of the month, and it’s important to listen to what your body needs and not overdo it. That being said, if you want to ride, having your period shouldn’t stop you and there are a few things you can do to feel more comfortable.

Most cyclists recommend using tampons or a menstrual cup because these options won’t move around while you’re riding and will reduce chafing as, unlike sanitary towels, there is no extra material to rub against your skin. If it’s cramps that are getting you down, take an ibuprofen at the first sign of your period to ease pain and discomfort. Drinking a small dose of caffeine can also help to kick start the pain relief and give you a boost.

Also make sure to fuel properly and remember that your body needs more from you at this time of the month, especially if you’re going to be burning major calories on your bike. Not to mention, low blood sugar and racing hormones are not a good mix, so now is not the time to be worried about eating an extra chocolate croissant after your ride. Also, keep in mind that those hormones mentioned above can cause emotions to run high, so don’t be surprised if you experience more tension or anxiety when riding at this time of the month. You’re only human and the feelings will pass, so take it easy and don’t forget to thank yourself for doing something good for your body.