Cycling Can Be a Pain In The Vagina Janine Kaye September 28, 2016 Musings 5 It’s time we all stopped pussyfooting around the subject of vaginal pain, and just talk about it. So we asked Janine Kaye to put pen to paper, and share her thoughts and experiences on why cycling can sometimes be a pain in the vagina. Text by Janine Kaye | Images by Witsup Now that I’ve got your attention … Quite often I refer to a vagina as a “lady garden,” because it’s a lighthearted way of discussing this subject without making people feel too uncomfortable. I mean, later in this article there is a strong case of too much information, but I feel like the more open we are about discussing issues we have, the more chance we have of getting things fixed quickly. So if referring to your vagina as the map of Tassie, fanny, lady parts, crotch, vag, snatch, front bottom, or Frank, makes you feel more comfortable, then carry on. During training and racing, your nether regions will be continuously subjected to heat, moisture, chafing and pressure. For a lot of us, this adds some often-unexpected issues that we either battle through alone or head to Dr. Google for answers. My recent experience with an issue “downstairs” made me realise how many of us have problems in our private regions occasionally, especially relating to cycling, and we might not be as bold as I am to talk about it to get the answers, support or help we might need. So here are some general topics you may (or may not) want to consider when it comes to triathlon and your lady garden. This might be bordering on the realms of TMI (too much information) but I am known for being an over-sharer. Supportive dudes proceed to read with caution. Bike Saddle There is always a ton of discussion on the interwebs about the best saddle for ladies and which ones are the most comfortable. Good saddles often have hefty price tags so I understand why people take to forums to try to narrow the selection down before parting with a wad of cash. Sadly, what works for one person, might not work for you. Saddle discomfort can come down to a lot of factors specific to you including your pelvic anatomy, leg length difference, restricted movement of muscles or strength variations, body alignment, flexibility and many other physical factors. Discomfort can also relate to the amount of padding in the saddle, the width of the saddle and the position of your sit bones on it. Often it’s a case of trial and error to find the best one to suit your physiology and bike position. Sometimes, the saddle is great but it might need a little tweaking to suit you personally. From my own experience, I was suffering a great deal of saddle discomfort when I recently switched to a new saddle. I was close to giving up and spending hundreds on a different style, but instead took myself off to a local physio who specializes in bike fits. He sat me on a pressure pad that measured my body position and created a pressure map of my sit bones and my movement on pedaling. It turned out I was taking most of my weight on the left sit bone when I was pedaling, which was causing an almighty HOT spot. A couple of tweaks to the saddle position and the pain disappeared, and now I love my saddle! If you are suffering from some saddle discomfort, you need to think about where it hurts and that can help you narrow down the solution to fix it. If you are increasing your cycling time or distance, it could just be beginners bum and it will pass as your time in the saddle increases and your anatomy gets used to this new normal. Sit bone pressure discomfort – If your saddle is too padded or too narrow, it often feels like it is digging into your sit bones and you might want to look at a wider or harder saddle. Chafing – If you have a wide saddle and you are experiencing chafing on the inside of the thighs or along the bikini line, your saddle might be too wide for you. Numbness – Numbness or pins and needles down the legs or in the genital area can be a result of the width of the saddle or the height causing pressure issues on the nerves in the area. Simple tweaks in the saddle height or position may relieve this issue. Otherwise a different shape (flatter) or narrower saddle might help. Genital pain – Labial pain is a common but often unspoken issue among female cyclists. It is usually caused during movement when the vaginal lips bunch up and press painfully into the saddle, which can result in labial abrasions/bleeding that are very painful. It can be helped by having a saddle with a cutout centre or recessed channel down the middle, or changing the tilt of the saddle to relieve pressure in the area. Applying chamois cream/lubricant can also help minimize friction. This is where you really need the help and advice of someone who knows something about saddles, which usually means a trip to your local bike shop. This can feel really awkward, as most bike shop employees are male. Talk candidly and honestly. Explain your issue and don’t assume they don’t want to help you or won’t have any solutions for women specific issues. Give them a chance to try. They might have some other options or suggestions for you, and at the very least, they may have a selection of saddles you can try before you buy! Knicks You may have a lady garden of steel and can ride in anything for hours without discomfort (and if that’s you I salute you in jealousy), but most of us will suffer some discomfort on our sit bones as we start to spend more time in the saddle regardless of what clothing we have on. Cycle knicks definitely help with keep your lady garden happier on a bike, but finding the right pair can also be a trial and error situation. A simple thing to start with is to check the padding of the chamois and make sure it is a nice even thickness and is wide enough to cover your “bits”. Check that it doesn’t have thick seams or ridges in the padding that can rub or create hot spots. I had one pair of knicks that had a really narrow gusset and very thick stitching on the seams. The seam sat right along the soft skin of my bikini line and every time I rode for longer than an hour in them, that seam rubbed on my soft skin like sandpaper, which caused me endless hours of pain long after I got off the bike. Those knicks have now been retired (i.e. put in the bin). When I started cycling, I was gob smacked when I learnt that all the cyclists I had ever seen were going commando under their lycra. I also thought the thicker the padding on both my knicks and seat (I was thinking nappy on a lounge chair), the more comfortable I would be. Turns out I was wrong. Often saddle discomfort is caused by hot spots from the bunching of fabric and the position of the seams, rather than the actual thickness of either the saddle or knicks padding. This is why you don’t wear underpants under knicks, as they have more fabric that can bunch up. My current saddle has very limited padding and as long as my knicks don’t bunch or rub, then I am generally pretty comfy. Triathlon knicks have much less padding in the chamois, but it is still important to check the width of the padding, the seams (and anything else that might cause chaffing) and to make sure the foam doesn’t bunch up with movement. Just like riding aero, you will need to build up your tolerance to less padding. So, the more time you spend in the saddle, the more “hardened” your lady garden will become, and you’ll be able to ride in tri knicks for longer periods of time without discomfort. The most important thing whatever knicks you are wearing is making sure they are a tight fit. Lycra is not always that flattering or forgiving. I get that. It might be tempting to upsize to avoid muffin tops, or sausage legs, but it is designed to be super tight for a reason. Any extra fabric can bunch up which will can quickly lead to chafing or pressure pain. Chamois cream is also something worth considering. It provides an extra barrier against chafing and irritation, but it will not always make the problem go away. There are women’s specific brands available that can help keep things balanced in the ph department downstairs too! Bald or not? This would be a totally personal choice. I know a lot of ladies who are more cycle savvy than me that swear by going totally hair-free down there to create a frictionless surface to help with saddle discomfort. Some ladies like to keep it au natural and believe the hair acts like a lubricant to reduce chafing. Others like to keep it really short and very under control. Discomfort can be caused by the hair catching and/or pulling, which can have you wriggling around on your saddle trying to find a more comfortable position. Hair free, or reigned in, can also have the added bonus of not having to worry about stray bikini line hairs in your running shorts or when you are wandering around in your bathers at swim training too! You should probably also consider how you remove the hair. Shaving can often lead to ingrown hairs and itchiness issues with some people. It can also create a prickly surface that can lead to discomfort or skin grazes when you are pedaling. If you have sensitive skin you should be aware of this and consider waxing or some other form of hair removal (creams, IPL etc) Stuff that can happen down there: – Saddle sores A saddle sore is a tender spot that often looks red and raised, and is in an area that rubs on your saddle. For most people, a saddle sore looks like a pimple or an ingrown hair, and it is basically the same thing: a bacteria-filled pore. They usually appear in sensitive areas (like the back of your thighs or lady garden) where you have pressure or chafing from your saddle. They can be very painful and make riding really NOT fun. You can treat them with antibiotic creams and hot compresses. You can avoid them by wearing clean cycle shorts and shifting around occasionally on your saddle while you ride. – Bacterial/yeast infections Apparently Vaginitis (crotchitis), bacterial infections and yeast infections are the most common vaginal problems that women cyclists encounter. Some causes of these problems include warmth, moisture, poor hygiene, overzealous hygiene, chafing of the inner labia, oral medications (such as antibiotics) and allergies. Using Chamois cream can help and the most important thing is to wear clean knicks and get out of them as soon as you’ve finished your ride. Wearing breathable underwear when you are off the bike makes it less inviting for germ growth too! – Cysts (sebaceous/Bartholin): The Bartholin’s glands are tiny glands located near the vaginal opening that produce fluid that lubricates the entrance to the vagina. They can become blocked, causing a cyst to develop, which can become tender. If the cyst is small and not too painful it can be treated with good hygiene, warm compresses and antibacterial soap is often recommended. If they become large, they cause discomfort when riding, walking and even sitting. In these cases, treatment usually requires them being drained by a doctor. – Genital Abrasions: Ok, here’s where I add my own horror story. Prepare yourself to wince a bit. During IMWA last year, I managed to tear a small hole in my vaginal wall. I am putting it down to being wet, no chamois cream, and a whole lot of wriggling around in the saddle to avoid vomiting on myself as I was experiencing the side effects of seasickness for the first 100km of the ride. It turns out it was also an area of weakness from having kids with big heads. After Ironman, I was very sore in the area. I assumed it was a saddle sore but after two weeks, the pain was increasing and I noticed a small amount of blood on the toilet tissue. I took myself off to the GP who found I had a 4mm tear at the back of my vaginal wall, but she had no idea how to help me fix it. I was given a referral to a Gynecologist but of course, it was almost Christmas and all the specialists were on holidays. (c) B Kaye Finally I got an appointment with one for late January and he wanted me to wait a month without riding (or any other physical activity down there.. wink wink) to see if it healed naturally. That was a long month for me (and my husband). It didn’t heal and I was booked in for surgery. They had to cut a bigger hole to create a clean edge to stitch together. Lordy. It turns out it is quite rare to do this to yourself riding a bike (I am very clever that way). He explained to me that it was usually an injury seen from sexual abuse, overzealous sexual exploits or trauma on a trampoline. He also explained to me post surgery that he had biopsied the area as he was worried I had a weakness caused by cancer and that the hours on the bike I did in training and racing had opened it up. Thankfully the biopsy was all clear and although healing was very slow and a little painful, eight weeks later I was given the all clear to get back on my bike and resume normal life. Here are my quick tips for a happy and healthy lady garden: Get the Right Saddle – Test different saddles for comfort. Adjust saddle height and position, including tilt. Bike Fit – Get a bike fit with a bike mechanic or bike-fitting specialist. If your saddle is too high, you’ll have to reach for your pedals, which can cause either pressure or chafing. If your saddle is too low, your legs won’t support the body will put extra pressure on your crotch. Buy decent knicks – Get shorts with even, seamless padding. Go commando – you’re supposed to! Keep it clean – Practice good hygiene downstairs. Wear clean knicks. Get out of your knicks as soon as you’ve finished your ride. Use chamois cream if it helps you. Ride more – Everyone’s bum hurts when they start riding or increase their time in the saddle. Riding more will get your muscles and tissues used to the position and it will hurt less. Until you start riding too far…! 5 Responses Julie September 28, 2016 This is a good article, but it would be good if you were absolutely specific about anatomy and use the correct words. I know that the word “vagina” is generally used for the outside part, but the vagina is not the vulva (the actual name for the outside parts of the female genitals) and we sit on our perineum on the bike seat (the bit between the vaginal opening and the anus). The vagina is the tube that the baby comes out; you say that you once wore a hole in it? Or did you wear a hole in your vulva/labia? It makes a difference, because a vaginal hole is quite a bit more serious. These are our body parts and they are not embarrasing. Although we might use a variety of words to describe these parts in general conversation, when talking about the specifically it is good to get the terms right otherwise it is just confusing. Reply Anonymous September 28, 2016 Hey Julie, thanks for your feedback.. and you are totally correct.. I used the generalised term regarding the area as I was aiming to keep the article lighthearted and not too confronting, but realise I should have been more specific with my terminology. It wasn’t due to embarrassment, more that I wanted to make it more approachable as a subject for everyone to read. To clarify though, I didn’t wear a hole in my vaginal wall. I developed a tear on the posterior wall of the vagina, at the entrance, behind the perineum. My Gynaecologist assumed it occurred during Ironman as that was when I first noticed the discomfort. His first concern was that I had a weakness in that area of the vaginal wall due to an underlying cancer and therefore biopsied it. Thankfully it wasn’t. He told me he is unsure why it occurred but I thought it was worth sharing in my article in case anyone else experiences something similar and it might help them get treatment sooner than later. Thanks again for your feedback! xx jk Reply Julie September 29, 2016 Lol. Thanks JK. I was thinking to myself “wore a hole *in* your vagina?! Now that is an injury I would like to avoid!” ;) Reply Marie January 15, 2018 Just had a ride this morning with a long-legged friend’s bike (which needed a special tool – which I didn’t have – to adjust the height). Great to find this article with all the info and sympathy! I’ll also be more choosy with my own saddles in future. Thanks! Reply Corinne January 20, 2018 Finally an article that discusses the perils of labial pain and abraisians. Noone else has gone there and im sure this is a challenging issue for many women. Thank you for your honest article. 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