Sign up for our newsletter

How will cycling affect my sex life?

13 Feb 2020

Investigating the impact of spending long hours in the saddle on other pleasurable activities

Words: Rob Kemp

There’s no doubt about it, cycling is still on the up. Not just in terms of numbers and profile but among the multitude of physical, mental, social and environment benefits it brings according to most major modern studies.

And now things are on the rise in the nether regions too. The physiological impact of cycling on the body – and particularly the popularity of endurance rides – has led to a sharper focus on fertility implications for male riders, and the incidence of trauma to female riders’ sexual organs.

But first off, let’s rejoice in the positive benefits a love of cycling can have upon a passion for other activities. Cycling is definitely sexy.

If you don’t believe us, then check out research from the British Heart Foundation – their survey of 600 men and women found that almost one in four would rather date a cyclist than any other athlete.

Among those riders already hooked up, the figures are even more appealing. The UK Cycle Scheme survey into the impact of cycling on sex reported 79% of respondents claimed that cycling home puts them in a good mood for their partner, friends and family, while 66% think that their relationships improve as a result of cycling, and 39% say commuting by bike gives them more energy which has improved their sex life.

Boost your ride

The science behind these success stories lies in cycling’s ability to make us more sexual. ‘Cycling is a major contributor to improved cardiovascular health and increased blood flow,’ explains Roger Walker, consultant urologist at Spire St Anthony’s Hospital in Surrey.

‘Both are proven benefits for healthy sexual function. Cycling has been shown to be an ideal low-impact means of addressing the issues linked to sexual dysfunction, especially among men approaching or in middle age.’

Indeed, it’s the aerobic benefits and the boost to blood flow that’s been shown to make cycling a sexual enhancement for many a man.

In Italy, where a healthy interest in sex and a long-ride culture make it an ideal place for such studies, Professor Romualdo Belardinelli, director of the Lancisi Heart Institute in Ancona revealed how cycling acts as a sex aid.

In trials comparing 30 men experiencing sexual dysfunction linked to weak heart muscles, Belardinelli revealed that by cycling three times a week for eight weeks those weak-hearted patients underwent a major transformation.

The men in question not only recorded improved oxygen uptake and blood flow – as reported to the American Heart Association – but in response to questionnaires, their wives and partners said that they exhibited improved sexual performance too.

Regular cycling has also been shown to help manage stress hormones – fight-or-flight chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol – which, when heightened, can hamper sexual arousal. Exercising on your bike or turbo is also associated with a decrease in incidents of depression – which can also cripple sex drive.

More recently, a study among cyclists in New Zealand and published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that the ideal sex-improving workout was interval training – either high or low cadence bursts – over a 30-minute session.

For many male cyclists, however, issues around the impact of a long sessions in the saddle continue to cause concern.

‘In men and women, problems related to numbness in the genitals, inflammation and bruising aren’t uncommon,’ explains Roger Walker.

‘Men who cycle a lot report a lack of sensitivity in the penis, regular discomfort around the perineal area (between the scrotum and the anus) and incidents of prostatitis (inflammation of the prostate) – although there’s no evidence of link between cycling and cancer of the prostate.’

One notable study into the side effects of the saddle on men was carried out by Norwegian researchers who evaluated 160 male cyclists after they took part in a 324-mile bike tour.

Post-ride interviews revealed that one in five of the men had experienced numbness of the penis, which lasted more than a week in some cases. Thirteen percent (21 men) also developed erectile dysfunction that generally lasted more than a week.

The numbness felt by riders has been examined further by researchers from the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) who examined police patrol cyclists in a unit in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Under pressure

The policemen averaged nearly 5 1⁄2 hours in the saddle each workday. While most experienced some genital numbness from time to time, those who rode the most were also found to be at the highest risk for erectile dysfunction – and the cyclists who were found to exert the most pressure on their bike seats had the most problems.

NIOSH researchers found that riders who used a no-nose saddle reported penile numbness far less often than those using a standard design of seat. In many incidents, these issues subside once the rider is out of the saddle for a length of time.

‘Advances in saddle design, awareness and more supportive clothing mean that while the number of men cycling is on the rise, the incidents of urological issues among cyclists isn’t especially increasing,’ says Walker. 

Peeled bananas

Many concerned cyclists may take some relief from the recent findings of a University of London study into the impact of long-term cycling on erectile dysfunction (ED) or infertility.

In the largest study of cyclists to date, researchers enlisted nearly 5,300 male riders to ascertain any links between how many hours per week they rode and whether they had experienced symptoms of ED within the past five years or had doctor-diagnosed infertility.

The ‘guinea pigs’ rode from 3.75 hours per week to more than 8.5 hours per week. ‘We found no positive association between cycling and erectile dysfunction or cycling volume and infertility,’ explains study author Milo Hollingworth.

Cyclists taking part in the trial included many who rode 200 miles a week – suggesting regular commute or club riding isn’t as harmful as feared.

Overall, the research team maintained that the many health benefits of cycling – aerobic challenges, burning calories, improving muscle strength and tone, and exercising key joints without the impact of running – far outweigh any potential health risks.

‘By turns, there are clear differences in the issue of cycling and saddle impact on the genital area among females riders, especially elite ones,’ explains Roger Walker.

Santini C3 chamois pad

In an interview with The Times, Laura Kenny explained in painful detail the under-reported side effects of devoting your life to training for Olympic cycling success.

‘It’s a known thing among women we’d be bruised and cut by the saddle.’ She went on to describe how hours spent in the saddle caused constant bruising and lacerations. ‘I’ve been in pain my entire career,’ she revealed.

Sort out your saddle

A report in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in January 2016 shed more light on the issue through data collected from women who habitually cycled for over two hours in a riding session.

Over half of the cyclists (50.9%) had at least one instance of genital discomfort that lasted 48 hours or less. While men may experience symptoms such as numbness and erectile dysfunction, women cyclists may suffer even more severe trauma.

In fact, concerns came to light in the build-up to the 2016 Olympics thanks in no small part to British Cycling’s head physio Phil Burt who raised the issue of pain being experienced by women within the team and in doing so opened up a hitherto taboo debate.

Back in 2012 the Institute of Sport had developed a special saddle for one female rider – but after the Games, Burt surveyed a number of female riders and discovered that all of them experienced issues affecting not just their training but their competition because of it.

As Burt put it: ‘It was clear something had to be done.’ That ‘something’ involved discussions with tribologists – who specialise in analysing friction – and even reconstructive surgeons before the team began to make changes to kit.

They trialled alternative widths and designs of saddle and shorts (Laura Kenny experimented with 12 different designs alone). Specialists, meanwhile, changed the make-up of skinsuits and chamois and devised an app for female cyclists to use for support.

Burt also found that if riders (both men and women) were to tilt their saddles’s noses downwards much of the pressure on their delicate bits would be alleviated.

‘We presented our findings to the UCI,’ he explained. ‘Their existing ruling meant saddles were only allowed a tilt of less than 2.5 degrees (with a 0.5 degree margin of error).’

Burt’s evidence, however, persuaded the UCI to increase the angle of tilt to nine degrees with a tolerance of one degree. The bottom line? Try tilting your saddle if your nether regions tend to feel numb after a ride.

Hot spots: saddle and sex sore points

Roger Walker, consultant urologist, highlights symptoms cyclists should be aware of...

Prostatitis: Inflammation or pain in the prostate area. If it’s exacerbated by cycling, investigating a different saddle or undertaking a bike fit may alleviate this.

Trapped nerve: In extreme cases, the pudendal nerve gets compressed on the saddle causing numbness in and around the penis or scrotum and problems passing water. Get this checked out – in severe cases a catheter may have to be used.

Numbness: This is when the pudendal nerve and blood vessels become compressed in the perineum. In men, the penis is affected. In women, the labia and clitoris. Staying off the bike while the swelling reduces may provide short-term comfort but personal investigations into riding positions, saddle type, seam or padding in shorts and a bike-fit may be needed, too.

Stuff to think about

It’s not always obvious what’s causing you to go numb down there, but take note of these... 

Position: Too much torso forward can cause numb genitals, so on long rides aim to shift around and stand up occasionally. Also, leaning too far forward towards your handlebars can put more pressure on the perineum. A shorter stem makes your reach more comfortable.

Saddle angle: Tilt the nose of the saddle downward and ride for a few hours or days to get used to the adjustment. Your backside should be touching the saddle, supporting your weight only by the two bones in your rear — nowhere else.

Seat down: If you notice that while you pedal your hips rock back and forth, it’s a sign that your saddle is too high. Try lowering it up to a centimetre at a time – enough to produce a slight bend of the knee at the bottom of the pedal stroke and reduce compression on the nerves.

Short seam: This produces an agonizing soreness when the seam in your shorts pinches nerves or blood vessels. Solve it by switching to seamless cycling shorts.

Pubic hair: Resist the desire to shave your nether regions as the hair helps with the transport and evaporation of sweat away from the skin. Specialist consultants to British Cycling reveal that hair removal methods such as shaving, depilatory creams or epilation create damage to the outer layer of the skin (epidermis) actually increase the risk of ingrowing hairs and hair follicle infections.

Well gel: Team GB cyclists have been also issued with Doublebase gel, an over-the-counter moisturiser containing liquid paraffin, to treat any tender spots and to apply ahead of rides instead of chamois cream. They also used Dermol 500, an antibacterial shower gel that can be used as a soap substitute.

No-nose saddles: In an article published in the Journal of Sexual Health nearly three-quarters of cyclists taking part in said study complained of numbness while riding with standard saddles. After six months of using the no-nose versions, however, fewer than one-fifth of users complained.

Looking for more health and training advice? Head to the Cyclist training hub for more on topics such as cycling while pregnant, road bike pedalling technique, knee pain when cycling and a whole lot more