Women’s Cycling: Looking After Your Lady Parts
You don't need me to tell you that women are different from men. You know that already. Unsurprisingly, the issues we face when cycling can be very different to those experienced by men. Historically, cycling has been a very male-dominated sport. For every three male cyclists, there is one female cyclist, which may explain in part why most cycling gear, experiences, and advice are directed at men.
Part of the problem is that most issues relate to "down there" and "down there" remains a very taboo subject. It shouldn't be. It's just another part of the body. And as cyclists, it's the main part of the body in contact with the bike, so it's pretty important and we should be able to talk about it. This is the first of a short series of posts regarding female-specific bike issues.
Possibly the side effect from cycling that we complain about the most, saddle sores create that horrible pain which can have our eyes watering on the saddle and wincing as we step into the shower afterwards. But what exactly are they?
A saddle sore is inflamed skin, affecting any part of the body which has contact with the saddle. The inflammation is caused by a combination of friction against the saddle and the production of sweat. It creates a warm, moisture-rich environment, which can be the perfect breeding ground for yeasts and bacteria. In their mildest form, saddles sores might just be a bit of red skin, but at the other end of the spectrum they can be large abscesses requiring antibiotics, or even surgical intervention in the most extreme cases.
Usually, new cyclists are more prone, as skin can build up a tolerance to the repetitive chafing over time. However, even seasoned cyclists and triathletes can struggle because they spend a lot of time ‘locked' into the TT position, and can't make those micro-adjustments to our position on the saddle in order to alleviate pressure.
Women also may be more prone. When a woman rides in an aero position, a lot of pressure is distributed on the vulva, whereas for men, it is on their perineum. Not only is the skin of the labia a bit thinner and more sensitive than that of the perineum, but by its nature of being two sets of lips, it is also more mobile. That is to say, things can move about down there! You might start off at the beginning of your ride feeling that everything is ‘tucked in' and ‘well situated', but an hour or so in, and your labia may have shifted, and all of a sudden, you're acutely aware of friction and pain.
Historically, all saddles were designed for men, who have a smoother, more robust perineum to take the pressure. Thankfully, over the past few years there has been a gradual trickle of female-specific saddles arriving on the market. Women have wider pelvises, so if you're sitting on a men's saddle, chances are that it's too narrow and won't be providing accurate support to your sit bones, which will likely be floating on the edges of the saddle. When this happens, the pressure is diverted directly onto the vulval region. A wider saddle (most women need about 155 mm width) will better support the sit bones, which are sturdy and designed to take the weight, and relieve pressure elsewhere. This might not work for everyone; some women will have paradoxically narrow pelvises and may even find that wider saddles actually increase chafing. It's all about experimentation and finding what works for you.
Clothing, Chamois & Creams
What do you wear between your skin and the saddle? Do your shorts have a chamois pad in them, and is that chamois pad suited to the shape of your pelvis? As with saddles, a male or unisex chamois pad is usually going to be too narrow and won't protect the skin in the right places. The chamois in Tri Sirena styles are specifically for women. Shorts should also fit well: the Goldilocks of cycling shorts is not too tight (digging into your hip creases) and not too loose (riding up with fabric bunching at the top of the thighs and chafing) but just right! It's important that the clothing you select doesn’t impede your movement, wicks away moisture, and has the proper stitching to avoid chafing. Picking a brand that specializes in cycling, like Tri Sirena does, ensures that all of these factors are taken into consideration.
Do you wear underwear underneath your shorts? I'm always surprised by the number of women who do, but again, if nobody's talking about it, how are we supposed to know any different? To explain, if we think about the seams in our briefs, they lie right in that crease at the top of the thigh – exactly in that spot where so many of us experience chafing. The way our legs move when we pedal – it causes the seam to either dig in, or rub the skin, or both. If you've never considered ditching the panties before, give it a go, it could be a complete game changer.
Experimenting with chamois creams can also go a long way. These are lubricating creams that are applied directly to the skin, to the chamois pad, or both. I recommend applying directly to the skin, because you will know where those painful ‘hot spots' are, and you can slather on the cream directly to those areas to protect them. Many chamois creams also incorporate some anti-inflammatory or anti-septic ingredients as well. They come in a wide variety of thicknesses, from a butter-like consistency to a thinner more liquid consistency: again, experimentation is key, finding the one that feels the best for your skin.
After-care can be just as important. If you are prone to saddle sores it is important to remove your sweaty bibs and hop in the shower as soon as possible. Your sweaty shorts create a moisture-rich environment, which is all snug and cosy for bacteria and yeasts, so the sooner you take them off and rinse the skin, the less likely these opportunistic pathogens are to settle into an inflamed hair follicle or abrasion, and cause infection. The skin in and around the vulva is very sensitive, so mild soaps are best in this area. Strong and perfumed products can irritate the skin even more and alter our natural pH balance.
If the skin is still particularly angry after doing these steps, consider using an aftercare product. It doesn't have to be anything fancy, sometimes a light un-perfumed moisturizer might be all that's needed to prevent the inflamed skin from drying out and breaking down. I know some people love using nappy (diaper) creams too: their thick consistency acts as a barrier against further chafing from anything clothing you put on after the ride, and they often have a mild antiseptic quality as well. If these aren't doing the trick, you may want to consider a dedicated aftercare cream or gel. My favorite one has a bit of aloe vera in it, which has a delightful soothing sensation, as well as some natural anti-inflammatory ingredients – it's like a sigh of relief for my skin when I put it on!
- Before: consider chamois cream; chamois pad; underwear; shorts; depilation
- During: match the saddle to the shape of your pelvis
- After: quick change; showering; after care
Remember there is no universal advice, and always ask yourself, is this what works for my body? I hope this has given you something to think about.
Happy cycling ladies!
Vulva – the external female genitalia. Basically, everything you can see from the outside.
Labia – often referred to as the ‘lips’, they are two folds of skin within the vulva. The labia majora is the outermost fold. Between the labia majora are the labia minora, which are made from a thinner and more sensitive type of tissue. They have a protective function, shielding the structures underneath.
Perineum – the space between the genitalia and the anus.
Sit bones – also known as the ischial tuberosities, these are the bony parts under your buttocks that you sit on.
A Note From Natasha:
Please note that whilst I am a practicing physician and have used my medical experience to guide the content of this series, I am not a specialist. The advice given is based on general medical knowledge, the very limited literature available, personal experience and years of talking to any female cyclist who’ll listen to me! As with any other part of your body, if you have any genuine concerns, please discuss these with your doctor.