There’s no question that a cycling habit—either the indoor or outdoor variety—is a great way to stay fit. But if you’ve ever taken a class, you’re familiar with getting off a bike and feeling sore, or even numb, down there. It’s not exactly the most inspiring side effect of a cardio workout.
While there’s no doubt it’s uncomfortable, it might make you walk out of class wondering: Can this cause any lasting damage? Turns out, cycling may not be the kindest sport to your vagina—but you don’t need to cancel your SoulCycle membership just yet.
First, a quick rundown of our anatomy.
The pudendal nerve is the main nerve in our pelvic area. It gives feeling to the female genitalia and perineum (the area between the anus and vulva). It also supplies sensation to the clitoris (and in men, the penis), plastic surgeon Andrew Elkwood, M.D.], tells SELF.
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The nerve runs along bone. If there’s pressure applied in the area, it can impact the nerve. Some pressure is good and pleasurable, but too much pressure can cause the nerve to become compressed. “In people who have compression of that nerve, the result is analogous to carpal tunnel syndrome, in which nerve compression against the bones of the wrist results in tingling and weakness of the hand,” says Elkwood. Temporary compression will make the area feel like it's "falling asleep," but will go away once the pressure does.
Chronic compression over time can, in rare cases, cause actual damage. The nerve can become pinched (called pudendal nerve entrapment) and result in neuralgia (nerve pain). Yes, riding a bike can cause it—but we're talking hours and hours of biking over the years, like someone who trains for Ironman races or triathlons regularly would do.
“Some women also get this nerve damage as a result of childbirth. It can even manifest years later,” Elkwood adds. “However, most pelvic pain comes simply from bad luck, by the way some people are anatomically constructed." Trauma, either acute or chronic, from something like surgery or an accident, can also damage the nerve.
At the end of the day, your lady parts can actually tolerate a whole lot.
“The pressure from constant sitting in a somewhat awkward position can cause numbness. It should not cause any long-term damage or negative impact on one’s sex life,” Jaime Knopman, M.D., founder of Truly-MD.com, tells SELF. Of course, if the tingling and numbness doesn’t subside an hour or so after cycling, it might be worth checking in with your doc to make sure there’s nothing going on. But if it’s fleeting and stops soon after you climb off your bike, there’s really nothing to worry about.
The more likely problem? Chafing. Using an ointment or skin lubricant like Vaseline, Body Glide or Aquaphor can alleviate this. In addition, you should time your cycling classes around your wax and shave sessions. “It’s probably not great to do a cycling class minutes after getting a Brazilian wax," says Knopman. "The skin is a bit raw and sitting on a bike immediately after may not be the best idea.”
Lisa Masterson, an ob/gyn in Santa Monica, California, and host of the daytime talk show The Doctors, tells SELF that it’s usually long-distance cycling that causes this temporary numbness and tingling, not a 45-minute class. “Most cycling classes where you move off the seat, this doesn’t happen.” But it’s possible, which is why correct cycling form is important.
The more frequently you ride a bike, the more comfortable you (and your vagina) will be with it.
“For most riders, over time your bottom becomes used to the seat and cycling. That initial discomfort disappears,” Knopman explains. But setting up your bike correctly and riding with proper form is key, too.
“There is a study showing that handlebar position can affect pressure on the pudendal nerve—the problem is greater with the handlebars positioned lower than the saddle," says Elkwood. "That’s because in that stooped riding posture, the body’s weight is on the perineum area, putting increased pressure on it.”
However, the condition can arise from any positioning or motion that causes the seat to strike the pelvis—even seat width can be a factor. “The bottom line is that the seat should not press against the pudendal nerve, whatever adjustment that entails,” advises Elkwood.
“For proper form, you want to be sure that the seat height is in line with your hip if you were to stand alongside the bike,” Sarah Shelton, instructor at Cycle House LA, tells SELF. As you pedal, ensure that your knee doesn't fly past your toes on the downstroke. “Your knee should stay nicely stacked on top of the ankle as you drop down. Keeping a flat back and tight belly will always keep you stable,” Shelton instructs. Also, make sure the resistance is high enough to minimize bouncing.
Speaking of bouncing: Elkwood cautions against doing jumps. “Jumps are an advanced technique, which means beginners or those without proper instruction may not be doing them properly,” he says.
What you’re wearing to class is just as important as your positioning on the seat.
There are other elements impacting our vaginal health, such as what we are wearing. Masterson warns that sweat and tight clothing creates the perfect environment for yeast. Make your vagina happy by wearing underwear and pants made out of breathable materials like cotton or something “sweat-wicking,” and when class is over, change into something dry.