Comfortably Numb? Fix These 4 Cycling Discomforts, Fast
That, of course, is good news, but it’s not to say you’re 100-percent immune from cycling pain and problems below the belt. This includes bouts of nerve damage, numb bits, and other more superficial issues like saddle sores, says Andy Pruitt, founder of the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center (formally the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine) and medical consultant to numerous World Tour teams and riders.
“Men have got better about understanding the importance of saddle selection and fit,” he says. “But there’s still some work to do to make sure everyone gets the message about what is acceptable discomfort and what is not.”
Here’s what to watch for and how to keep everything safe and sound.
It goes without saying that genital numbness is never a good thing. Some riders can ride nearly any saddle all day and not experience genital numbness, because their nerves and veins are buried under many layers of tissue and aren’t affected. Others need to be more careful. The important thing to realize is that no amount of numbness is okay, says Pruitt.
“I’ll have guys say to me, ‘I only get numb after four hours in the saddle.’ Or ‘I get a little numb, but it’s gone by morning.’ That is not okay—numbness of any kind or duration should not be tolerated, period,” says Pruitt, because it means nerves are being compressed. And if your nerves are being compressed, your hollow structures—a.k.a. the arteries feeding blood into your penis—are being compressed. Sure, they all may bounce back so to speak after an hour or so, but you could be doing long-term damage if you ignore it.
Numbness of any kind or duration should not be tolerated, period.
“Imagine taking an electrical cord and garden hose and driving over them with your car again and again and again,” says Pruitt. “They may rebound initially, but over time they’ll stay collapsed and won’t function as well.” Same with your nerves and plumbing. Nerves will scar and become less efficient. Veins and arteries will collapse and scar internally. “That’s why you’ll have a 40-year-old who is fine, but then he turns 60, and he’s having problems and wondering what went wrong.”
What went wrong was he was tolerating numb nether regions from an incorrect saddle, an ill-fitted bike or both. Saddles with grooves or cutouts are well known to reduce pressure on the perineum, but the size and shape of the saddle still need to match your shape and physiology. And the saddle needs to be in the right spot.
“The right saddle in the wrong place is as bad as the wrong saddle in the right place,” says Pruitt. 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), depending on how aggressive and aero your position is, and not on your perineum. “Along with testing various saddles, get a good professional bike fit.” That means dialing in your reach (being too stretched out places pressure on soft tissues), your handlebar height (both in and out of the drops), your saddle height, fore and aft angle, as well as the shape and size of your saddle.
“Saddle sore” is a bucket term for everything from infected hair follicles (folliculitis), chafing, and open ulcerations—all of which have the potential to be quite painful. Like many saddle woes, the right saddle and proper bike fit can go a long way in preventing these maladies. Proper hygiene also helps.
Other preventative steps include:
1. Lubricate: Chamois cream is designed to reduce friction between your skin and your shorts. You can rub some on the chamois itself as well as your skin for maximum protection.
2. Manscape: If and where you stop shaving your legs is a matter of personal preference. But get too close to the “Speedo line” and you open the door for sore razor bumps, ingrown hairs, and infected follicles. If you’re prone to razor burn and infected bumps, try applying a light layer of antibiotic ointment to the area after shaving.
3. Add Glide: Guys with larger or close-set thighs may have issues with inner-thigh chafing, as the sides of the saddle rubs that sensitive skin raw. Triathletes (who are very prone to chafing since they jump right on the bike soaking wet from the water) often use anti-chafing gels, which are specifically designed to prevent chafing from skin rubbing on skin or skin rubbing on clothing, by forming a silky protective surface on the skin.
4. Switch Chamois: Like saddles, chamois comes in all shapes and sizes, and some may fit your behind better than others. You want a seamless chamois that stays put and doesn’t irritate your skin or cause hot spots when you ride. And never wear underwear with bike shorts; they’re meant to be worn commando.
Should a sore pop up, you can treat it yourself with a healing, protective ointment, which often contains tea tree oil. Moleskin with an area cut out around the sore can also help keep pressure off the sore itself, so it’s less painful.
Cycling shouldn’t be a pain in the family jewels. Like numbness, if you feel soreness, a dull ache, or any sensitivity in your testicles after your ride (assuming, of course, you didn’t actually whack yourself on your top tube in some unfortunate mishap), something is wrong. And that something is—you guessed it—an improper saddle choice, bike fit, and/or both.
You have a nerve called the pudendal nerve that runs between your genitals through your perineum to your anus. Compressing that nerve can cause pain in the scrotum, penis and/or perineum. To avoid it, follow the same steps you would to prevent and alleviate genital numbness.
The connection between cycling and prostate-specific antigen (PSA) levels, which are often used as a key test of possible prostate problems, is a subject of much debate. It appears that long-distance cycling could temporarily elevate PSA levels. In a study published in February 2013 in PLOS One, researchers checked the PSA levels of 129 cyclists participating in rides averaging 102km in length both before the ride and within five minutes of when they finished. Their levels rose by an average of 9.5 percent, which led the researchers to recommend that men might want to avoid long rides before their regularly scheduled prostate exams as to not get an artificially elevated result. But otherwise the study raised no cause for concern.
“This is pretty much old news,” says Pruitt. “We did a similar study during Ride the Rockies back in the early ’90s and found the same thing. We speculated that the saddle and vibration caused the PSA rise, but that it was not a cause for concern because it returned to normal quickly.”
Like other saddle issues, you can minimize or even eliminate this one with proper saddle adjustment and bike fit, says Pruitt, who’s worked with men with prostate disease using PSA as a bike-fit marker. To do that, he and researchers would draw their PSA before a bike fit; do the bike fit; send the cyclists out for a two-hour ride and then immediately draw their blood at the lab when they returned, with tests showing little to no change. “It just illustrates that saddle choice and overall fit is crucial to urinary and sexual health, not just avoiding going numb down there” he says.