Protecting your lady bits: 6 tips to a comfortable ride
The title says it all...
In 2018, I put together an e-book titled “Protecting your lady bits - 6 tips to a comfortable ride”.
It was available as a free download on my one of my websites and did quite well, even though I wasn’t very good at promoting it... I pulled it off the internet in late 2019 because I was working on an updated version, but then covid happened and like almost everyone else, my world kind of turned upside down. It was not until February 2023 when I got around to finishing the new version and it went back on the internet, again as a free e-book download on my website.
I realized that having it as a download is all nice and well, but since it is free anyways, I might as well post it here, for all the internet to read, because the whole goal is to get this essential information out to as many women as possible!
Men - Keep reading. Or not. Its up to you. I will say this - You very likely have women in your life who ride bikes. Maybe your partner, daughter, friends, 3rd cousin, etc… You might be a fellow bike fitter or coach, or a health care provider / sport scientist, so this could be beneficial for you too, not to mention that some of the information could apply to you also. If you decided to keep on reading, here is a virtual high five . If not, that’s cool too. Either way, forward this to the women in your life please!
Protecting your lady bits: 6 tips to a comfortable ride
Have you ever experienced discomfort during or after riding, down there? If the answer is yes, I want you to know that you are the norm, not the exception. If the answer is no, well... You could possibly be a unicorn.
Saddle woes can certainly have a negative impact on your riding, regardless of how experienced you are in the saddle. While women are more susceptible to problems compared with men, for some reason, we simply do not voice our concerns as often and as openly as men do, creating a vicious cycle, as it is harder to fix problems if they are not openly shared and discussed.
Most women do not talk about how their lady bits are feeling during and/or after rides and some think saddle related discomfort is normal and just something they have to live with. I am here to tell you that does not need to be the case: Cycling should not feel uncomfortable!
The most notable barrier is that many women are embarrassed by this kind of conversation, unsure if they should discuss their lady bits troubles with others and how to bring up such a sensitive topic. Who do you even talk to about that stuff, anyway?! That dude working at the bike shop? Is that TMI to share with your friends or coach (if you have one)? Well, you can talk to me about that stuff, anytime, and I basically make women share as needed when I work with them (men to, obviously).
The thing is, by having a better, open and public conversation, bike industry brands will be able to listen, which will hopefully lead to positive change and innovation to help solve the problems almost all women face on the bike. And we definitely need more women in the cycling industry, but that's a topic for another day.
You need to have fun riding a bike and being comfortable is a big part of that. While some issues can not be avoided all together, the good news is that they can be minimized significantly. I put together my top 6 tips to a more comfortable ride, because I want you to be happy in the saddle, love your ride and spend more time on the road or the trails.
Grab a coffee (or heck, a glass of wine) and lets get into it (in no particular order)!
1. Cycling Hygiene
Chamois time is always a good time… It is time well spent on the bike, preferably with friends, ideally including a stop(s) for coffee/beer/cider/snacks... Sadly, the reality is that it also equals more bacteria multiplying time, which can lead to problems for us women who need to maintain healthy vaginal bacteria.
As soon as you get off the bike & walk into your house, bike shorts / bibs must come off. No exceptions, unless it will put you in a potentially awkward situation... Like when your in-laws are visiting or something, in which case, I trust you will use your best judgement. Leave the snacks, texting, social media checking, reel filming, Strava uploading, selfies and stretching until after you showered, or at least until after you got out of your cycling shorts.
If you plan an extended stop in the middle of the ride or at the end of your ride, be prepared by carrying some wet wipes in your jersey pocket or saddle/bar bag, so you can refresh on the go. Some brands have specific products that are perfume free, etc and some also come in single packs, or you can use a small zip-lock bag. I have them in my saddle bag to be used to clean my hands in case of a flat or other mechanical, but that is besides the point.
After riding, you need to let some air flow in. The goal is to let everything down there breath after being kind of squished and compressed for the duration of your ride, especially if it was a long one! I suggest you avoid hot air flow in the area, but if its a hot day, some cool breeze can certainly be welcomed, so if you choose to go commando, I certainly won't judge.
If there is swelling and discomfort, which could sometimes happen even if you are doing all the right things (like, during a multiday/multiweek event or after really hard racing/training), consider using a cool compress on the area: You could soak a pad in water, put it in the freezer for a bit and then place it on your sensitive bits. You could also use witch hazel on said pad, which will add some anti-inflammatory properties.
Some women are more prone to yeast infections and UTI's than others. While not directly related to cycling in most cases, cycling can increase the risk if you are already susceptible. If that sounds like you: 1) follow the above steps, 2) pay attention to gut health, 3) Consider a chamois with antibacterial properties and 4) Chamois cream.
Last but not least, a very important yet often embarrassing tidbit - never, ever wear underwear of any kind under your bike shorts. Nothing should come between your skin and your chamois. Nothing!
2. Cycling Shorts
Proper bike shorts make a world of difference! While they will certainly help, they might not solve all your problems and will not compensate for poor saddle choices and/or a bad bike fit. The right shorts can sometimes be hard to find and are a very individual choice.
Seams/stitching in the wrong places, feeling a bit like a stuffed sausage, shorts that are not tight enough, chamois that is too large/too small/just not in the right place, the dreaded muffin top and/or sausage legs... Yes, the struggle is real. I totally get it!
Many cyclists have a brand or two they swear by, but what is proper shorts for one, might not be for another! This is why I will not go into specific brand recommendations in this guide and instead, provide tips for picking the right shorts for you (in no particular order):
Wear the right size! If you are in between sizes, sometimes it might be best to go for the smaller size. Yes, the sausage effect is real and soul crushing, but chafing and saddle sores are far worse. It largely depends on the short design too, therefore you might be better off exploring a different brand with a different cut and design so you won’t need to compromise.
Tightness: Directly tied to getting the right size. Make sure there is as little bunching as possible around the crotch and that the shorts are tight enough around your hips. This is to avoid extra unnecessary friction, so the chamois stays in place (or moves a bit with you) and the back of the chamois doesn't get caught in the saddle nose when getting on/off the bike.
Simulate riding position when trying on shorts. The shorts need to fit well when you are in a riding position and posture, not when standing up or sitting down. After all, that is how your body will be positioned when riding and you need to get out of your bike shorts asap when not riding, as established previously. Does the waistband feel good when you are in a bent over position, or is it digging in? Are the bib straps comfortable with your arms extended? Note that this might be more relevant for those wearing bibs vs shorts and is not applicable for tri shorts (tri suits are a whole other topic).
The bib debate: This is a personal choice, but I am personally firmly on team bibs. Bibs will stay in place better because they are held by the straps and you can say goodbye to waist bands that are either not tight enough to hold the shorts in place, or create that dreaded muffin top. What about going to the bathroom, you ask? Many brands create specific designs for women, such as a 'pull & squat function' at the back or straps with front closure so you don't have to take your jersey off. Almost all cycling jerseys these days have full zippers, so its easier and faster to get out them to take your bibs off when needed.
Your position on the bike matters for the shorts you use. If you ride in a more aggressive position, your pelvis position changes and your padding needs might be different than if you ride in a more upright position. Of course, those are two ends of the spectrum and there is a lot of variability in between. Once you have your bike fit dialed in, you can determine what kind of padding fits your body best based your position (upright/moderately upright/aggressive/tri or TT), as an added point of consideration when buying shorts
Chamois are not created equal. Check where the stitching is, the type of stitching, the amount of padding (more is not always better) and where most of the padding is. As well as being connected to your riding position, it also depends on your body shape (thighs and hips), as well as your hip mobility and pelvis tilt.
Note that tri shorts fall in a bit of a different category and there are additional considerations compared with cycling shorts. This is a topic for another time.
Can I use men's shorts? Yes, if they work for you… But I am going to go on a limb here and say that you probably don't want to. Both the cut and the chamois will be different and I think those things are important for both comfort and performance.
Fit and cut of the shorts or bibs aside, look for high quality foam that will maintain its shape better and last longer, making your dollars stretch further. The foam should also be durable, so it does not compress too much while you are riding for prolonged durations. Lastly, the chamois material should be breathable and offer some flexibility so it moves with you. Bonus points if the material also has antibacterial properties!
Side note - Wash your chamois thoroughly and rinse out several times if needed, especially if you seem to be getting a rash, as it is often a sign there was left over detergent in the material. And for the love of everything cycling, make sure you let that chamois fully dry before the next use! Riding with a chamois that is still damp is simply a recipe for disaster.
3. Bike Fitting
I may be super biased here, as this is mostly what I do for a living... I have been studying and doing bike fitting since 2005 (it started as a part of my biomechanics / physiology research at university), so I have been at it for a long time. This section includes a few key considerations of what to look at during a bike fit that could affect saddle comfort on the bike, not everything bike fit related (because that's a big topic!), and there is quite a bit of cross over with #4 - saddles.
Lets start by highlighting that communication during your bike fit session is really important. The best thing you can do for your health and comfort on the bike is to be open and honest with your bike fitter. A lot of women seem to find comfort in working with a female bike fitter on their saddle woes, but at the end of the day we are all adults. Male or female fitter, brace yourself for a candid conversation, and if your fitter is not OK with that, they might not be the right person to work with, regardless of their gender.
The key things that should be looked at in relation to being comfortable in the saddle are:
Reach to the bars and height of the bars. A part of how aggressive your riding position can be is typically determined by several factors including riding goals, current riding patterns, range of motion, posture, pelvic tilt, mobility, past/current injuries, etc. In a more aggressive riding position, your pelvis will be rotated forward more and you might be sitting on the urethra and clitoris. Your vulva can get compressed, which could result in numbness and excessive pressure. We do not want this.
On the other hand, in a more upright riding position, you will be sitting more on your 'sit bones' and your vulva will have less contact with the saddle. This is why a bike fit should include a saddle discussion too so the appropriate saddle can be selected that fits both your body and your riding goals.
Saddle height and fore-aft position. A saddle that is not at the correct height will have several consequences. These are mostly increased pressure and chafing, as well as potentially twisting (especially if there is also excessive reach).
The trouble with chafing is that it can lead to abrasions, then infections and saddle sores. The trouble with pressure, is that it can lead to numbness and / or cause swelling because lymphatic draining isn't happening, leading to a vicious cycle of even more swelling!
Of course, saddle fore-aft position is also related to your handlebar reach and height - It's all connected and making adjustments to one aspect of the fit affects everything else.
Saddle tilt is a bit tricky. In some cases it can reduce pressure, but it can also lead to instability on the saddle which is ineffective and can lead to other fit related issues (numb hands and shoulder tension, anyone?). Many saddle manufacturers make saddles with a slight dip through the nose, designed for the nose to look as if it is tilted down relative to the back of the saddle. Determining saddle tilt should be a part of your bike/saddle fit and decided based on the specific saddle you choose and individual variability.
Do you have issues on just one side of the saddle? You might have a left-right imbalance that can usually be corrected with a combination of key modifications to the bike fit, saddle selection and physiotherapy assessment and treatment. This issue will likely be present off the bike also.
Posture, good mobility, core stability and strength are important considerations when it comes to bike fitting and saddle comfort and stability.
There is also a very important connection between the feet and saddle comfort, which often does not get addressed. Assessing your feet, cycling shoes, cleats and insoles is an important of every bike fit, but the connection to saddle comfort often goes unnoticed.
It is important to add that while I do offer 'saddle sessions', I typically do not advise athletes to have a saddle only fit without looking at other aspects of the bike fit. This is because everything on the bike is connected and if you change one area of your fit (ie. saddle), other areas will be affected as a result. For best results, a more holistic approach is your best bet.
Lastly, a bike fit is never a 'once and done' process. You change, your goals get modified and your fit should too... I typically recommend a 'fit check in' every 12-18 months, or if you recently got a new bike or changed things like crank length, shoes, pedals, handlebars, stem and of course... the saddle.
4. Saddle Choice
I will eventually dedicate a whole post to finding the right saddle soon, as it is a major part of my day to day work... But here are the saddle selection 'cliff notes'. Lets start by saying that you do not have to ride the saddle that comes stock with your bike - Embrace change. But there are just so many saddles to choose from... How is a girl supposed to pick THE one?!
It has been established that saddle comfort/discomfort is linked to your position on the bike and the type of bike you ride matters too, as it will affect your position. When you in a more upright position, you will mostly be supported by your 'sit bones' (ischial tuberosity). As your position gets more aggressive, your pelvis rotates forward, at which point you are potentially placing pressure on soft tissue. There is a sliding scale for this, depending on your position, hip mobility and strength.
Same as the shorts section, we will not suggest specific manufacturers of saddle and instead provide food for though when looking at saddles.
Cut out: A saddle with a cut out is used to improve blood flow and prevent various soft tissue related troubles, with a small, secondary benefit too, in the form of slightly more ventilation. If the labia lips bunch up and press down on the saddle, a cut out is typically one of the solutions, along side a healthy dose of lubrication. The saddle cut out needs to be in the right place for your body + position on the bike and in the right width, because a cut out that is too large might actually mean that gravity will do its thing, more fluid will be pulled into the area and the end result will be excessive labia swelling when you get off the bike (ouch). If the cutout is too far back and you’re position is a more aggressive one, you might not get the relief its designed to create and vice versa.
Saddle padding and firmness: More padding is not always better! Too much padding on a saddle is not always a good thing, even though some people think it might be of help. You are likely to get used to a harder saddle, but a soft saddle will wear faster and the padding will sink (likely not equally, causing other issues). They can also increase pressure and cause saddle sores, especially as they wear (yes, I know that is counter intuitive). On the other hand, a saddle that is too hard can feel too stiff and you might notice every bump on the road too... At the end of the day, individual variability is key and this depends on the preference of the person riding the bike and sitting on the saddle. In case you are wondering, yes - A saddle with carbon rails and/or carbon shell under the foam can help with vibrations from the road. The same goes for some of the newer 3D printed saddles.
Saddle width: A saddle that is too narrow at the back, might feel like you are not supported while sitting on it and like the edges of the saddle are digging into your sit bones. Lack of stability and excessive movement on the saddle is common with a saddle that is too narrow. On the other hand, a saddle that is too wide could feel like there is restriction at the hamstring attachment with every pedal stroke, or around the inner thighs, if it the nose that is too wide. A too wide saddle could also push you to sit further forward, leading to more pressure on the hands, inadequate muscle recruitment and lack of stability. This also depends on core stability and hip movement on the bike.
I typically avoid measuring sit bone width as it is often not accurate and does not take into account the full picture. It's best to assess the best width by observing movement as well as posture on the bike instead and if in doubt, try the same saddle in two different width options. There is a misconception that women need wider saddles compared to men. That is true in many cases, but not all and most brands have several and similar widths available for both men and women. Individual anatomy, riding style and preference are key factors, not gender alone.
Sit bone discomfort: Your sit bones will likely hurt when you first start riding. Its normal, and happens to almost everyone. In the majority of cases, you will get used to it and no longer feel discomfort with consistent riding within several weeks. There will be an adjustment period, regardless on your fitness level or the amount of padding on the saddle, the material or shape. If the problem persists and a bike fit and other saddle do not provide relief, I found that it is often related to tight / weak muscles around the area (ie. glutes), which is something that should be worked on off the bike for the best outcome.
Saddle length: Another consideration in addition to width and padding. Short nose saddles have become popular recently and work very well for positions that are more aggressive and/or for those who tend to rotate their hips forward a fair bit. Note that the length of the saddle will affect the overall position on the bike, especially the fore-aft saddle position and reach to the bars.
My saddle was totally fine. Now its not. What gives? Your position on the bike matters and as it changes and evolves, the saddle might need to change with it. It is not a once and done! Saddles also wear and deform over time, which can lead to much more serious issues and injuries than being uncomfortable. The wings/edges on the saddle could collapse. The nose could warp and twist. The padding could sag... If these changes happen on one side of the saddle only, it can lead to a significant left-right imbalances.
Of course, your body changes too: Weight gain, weight loss, childbirth, changes in fitness level, all affect how you are sitting on the bike. Core strength, posture, etc need to be taken into consideration in regards with how you sit on the saddle too.
The good news is that there is usually something for everyone. Finding your saddle may involve some trial and error that should be properly guided by someone knowledgeable. Randomly trying all of the saddle is confusing and a waste of time and resources. Individual anatomy, bike position, fitness level, goals, etc all play an important role. Vulvas vary in shape, size, etc women to women, and that's not something that can be evaluated during a bike/saddle fit, so your feedback while trying saddles is extra important. In my practice, I also use saddle pressure mapping to assist in the selection process.
5. Grooming & Menstruation
Grooming - To have hair down there or not…?! Whatever your personal grooming preference is, avoid shaving or excessive trimming as it will be prickly and can cause abrasions with every pedal stroke. Yes, that is about as much fun as it sounds.
If you keep things au-natural, the softness will provide a bit of a cushion. Waxing it all off can reduce friction, especially with the right chamois cream, but the stages of growth before your next waxing session can prove to be tricky business. Sugaring can be the in between solution and of course, there is the laser solution.
If you opt for something like waxing, time it right so you can avoid heading out the door for a ride within ~24 hours, as the area will be tender and sensitive, so the last thing you want is get all sweaty and compressed down under.
Ingrown hairs are a challenge on their own, as they can get infected easily, causing a whole bunch of issues. There is no right or wrong here and whatever your personal preference is, I just wanted to give you some points to consider.
Menstruation - Your period + increased blood flow (which is increased during exercise as it is) = more sensitivity down there. Not necessarily a winning combo when riding a bike! There is not much that can be done for that, other than being aware of how you are affected personally, and luckily many women do not notice a difference. Phew! I just wanted to mention this, just in case. Other things that could affect you on the bike that you should keep track of throughout the menstrual cycle are lower back discomfort during ovulation and/or your period, cramping before or during your period and how bloating affects your position / posture while riding.
This a big topic on its own and I touched on this before here.
If you are using tampons, make sure you tuck that pesky string in. Rope burn is a thing and its not pleasant if it happens. In case of emergency, carry a spare tampon in your jersey pocket, as well as some wet wipes. If you aren't into tampons, another option is the menstrual cup, just make sure you are well practiced inserting it before heading out of the door to ride. No pads though, please. They will not stay in place properly, increasing the likelihood of chafing during your ride, not to mention not doing their job properly if they move around! There is a brand making period safe bibs, which could be a solution, too.
6. Lubrication, etc
Lubrication matters, and no, I'm not talking about that kind of lube...
Back when I started riding in the early to mid 90's as a tween, we just used Vaseline, because that was all that was available (I shudder thinking about that). Now days, there are much better options.
Chamois cream will provide an extra protective later against chafing, irritation, pressure, etc. There are many products on the market, some unisex and some female specific ones.
Which one is right for you? This comes down to a personal preference. I suggest reading the ingredient list before buying so you know what you are slathering down there. If you can try a few different brands, that is even better.
Do you really need the female specific ones? In many cases, yes you should opt for a female specific one! It depends on your sensitivity to pH changes, the brand formulation and some of the ingredients they use. Many brands change the ingredients in their female specific product so there is nothing that is too cooling, as that will usually cause tingling (and not in a good way). They will also use a different formula and include more anti bacterial ingredients (such as tea tree oil)
How much to use? about a quarter size should do the trick!
Are you experiencing itching and dryness? This could be unrelated to cycling and a hormone related issue. If you have taken all the steps in this guide into consideration, including bringing some extra chamois cream on your ride to 'top up' as needed and it is still a problem, this could be related to hormonal fluctuation if you are getting close to or in menopause or stress related. Some women in menopause / post-menopause could benefit from using topical estrogen cream to promote healthy skin and lubrication instead of chamois cream, but I suggest you speak with your doctor about this.
I didn't include information about saddle sores, but all the tips above should help... The most important part is to deal with them asap as the consequences can be serious otherwise.
There you have it, my 6 tips for protecting your lady bits to a more comfortable ride! The most important part? Go ride your bike and have fun doing that, comfortably, knowing that you are in control of your cycling experience.
Questions? Comment? Use the comment section… And please share this post with other women in your life who ride bikes!
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