Cycling — at pretty much any pace and over any terrain — can yield significant health benefits for the body.
For example, a research review published in Medicina in August 2019 found that indoor cycling has been linked to improved blood pressure, body composition, and aerobic capacity. Another study, published in the September 2021 issue of JAMA Internal Medicine, found that cycling helped people with diabetes live longer, in part because it lowered cardiovascular disease risk.
Your joints will likely love it, too. The activity is considered low-impact, which means you won’t be stressing your knees, hips, and ankles the way you would with a high-impact sport like running. A study in 2018 in PeerJ looked at older people with knee osteoarthritis and found that cycling not only improved symptoms of that condition for many of them but also boosted overall quality of life.
That said, avid cyclists know that the activity can lead to some not-so-pleasant effects. While some of the most common inconveniences can happen to recreational riders who spend 30 to 60 minutes in the saddle, others are reserved for those who cycle long distances or ride for hours. Here are some of the common ones you might experience, along with what you can do about them.
Friction and moisture combined can lead to irritation, and that’s true when skin rubs against skin, as well as when skin rubs against clothing over and over again. Formally called intertrigo, and informally known as chafing, Mayo Clinic notes that this can happen most in moist areas of the body like the groin, between folds of skin, and under arms when you’re on a bike.
One of the most common causes of chafing is underwear worn with cycling shorts or bibs (clothing designed to be worn without underwear), according to Paul Warloski, a USA Cycling–certified cycling coach and NSSA-certified personal trainer in Milwaukee.
“Underwear defeats the purpose,” he says. “The foam material inside the shorts is not just for padding, it’s designed to reduce chafing and keep your booty and private bits happy and secure.”
What to do about it If you’re wearing gear designed to be worn without underwear, skip the undergarments.
Just be sure to wash between wears, advises Warloski. “I usually wash mine in warm to hot water, then hang them to dry.” While some might be dryer safe, air drying will prevent material from shrinking, disintegrating, or losing elasticity.
Also important is to switch riding positions more often, such as moving farther back on the seat, shifting weight from one side to the other temporarily, or leaning forward enough that you can lift most of your butt off the seat for a few seconds.
2. Saddle Sores
If chafing continues to be an issue, that’s when you might notice little bumps on your butt or between your legs, especially where you make contact with a seat — which is why they’re called saddle sores. It can happen to beginners as well as experienced riders. “When I wear new bibs [a type of cycling shorts with suspender-like straps to prevent them from slipping or bunching] or bibs that fit slightly differently, hot spots usually happen on my upper and inner thigh,” Warloski says.
These are sometimes caused by friction on its own, but can also involve sweat getting trapped in hair follicles, leading to infection that can range from small, pimple-like outbreaks to larger boils that can be painful, he says. Even if they’re minor, it’s important to treat them, he adds, since they can worsen with more riding, according to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM). Even small ones can be extremely uncomfortable, but they can become infected if they burst, which is why you should try to do something about them, Warloski notes.
What to do about it Padded cycling shorts often prevent the problem. Warloski says he also recommends using chamois cream, especially for longer rides. This type of cream reduces friction and chafing. He also suggests getting off the saddle every 10 minutes for a few seconds to relieve the pressure on your backside. (You don’t have to stop riding, just ride standing up for a few moments.)
And, if you notice mild chafing, apply first aid cream ASAP. If you experience more severe chafing with sores or bumps, see your doctor, who may prescribe a medicated cream like cortisone, an antifungal, or an antibacterial preparation, according to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.
Other causes may be a poorly fitting bike or seat, and taking long rides without proper training. If the problem is particularly severe, you may have to take time off from riding to let the sores heal, according to AMSSM.
3. Numbness ‘Down There’
Another disconcerting effect of rides — particularly long ones — can be numbness in the genital area, which comes as a result of body mechanics, says the Manhattan, Kansas–based Garret Seacat, CSCS, a USA Cycling–certified cycling coach.
This can be especially true for women. A study in the June 2021 Sexual Medicine found that cycling increased the risk of microtrauma to the genital area for women because of perineal pressure (pressure to the pelvis and areas around the opening of the vagina). Not only does this contribute to numbness, the researchers noted, but could also affect sexual function. Men are certainly not immune to this — previous research suggests there are potential associations between cycling-related numbness and erectile dysfunction.
What to do about it Much like saddle sores and chafing, this is another issue that can be prevented and minimized with padded cycling shorts or bibs, frequent position changes on the seat, standing up occasionally, and regular breaks.
“Riding for shorter distances doesn’t usually build up the same friction as longer rides,” says Warloski. “Thousands of pedal strokes rubbing on the same spot can be a challenge. That’s why moving in your saddle helps.” He adds that chamois cream for women seems to help perineal pressure.
Seacat adds that if strategies like these still result in discomfort, consider changing your seat or making sure you’re properly fitted on your bike — even a minor amount of improper fit could increase pressure in the wrong places, he says.
4. Runner’s Itch
Despite the name, this is an issue that can happen with many types of sports, particularly if you’re repeatedly doing an unfamiliar motion.
As you begin warming up, you experience increased blood flow throughout the body but especially in the legs, says Lily Adelzadeh, MD, a dermatologist at the Berman Skin Institute in California. As the capillaries expand and more blood is directed into your muscles, it can fire up the nerves. So, although it may feel like an itch, what you’re really experiencing is a nerve reaction, she says.
Another factor as you keep riding could be a mild allergic reaction to laundry detergent or soap, since increased sweat causes pores to open up more. That can be particularly problematic if your cleaning products have a strong fragrance, which tends to be a top culprit for contact dermatitis, she says — that’s when you’re experiencing an actual itch, not just a nerve response.
What to do about it The more you ride, the less often this should happen, until it goes away completely, says Dr. Adelzadeh. Conditioning your cardiovascular system through regular riding means you’ll optimize blood flow and nerve regulation, making it less of an issue. Just in case, she also suggests switching to a mild, unscented laundry detergent.