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When it comes to triathlon, running, cycling, and swimming, there have long been many myths about women’s health. It used to be thought that women shouldn’t run long distances, lest their uterus become dislodged from all the jostling. Though it’s been decades since we’ve busted that idea, there are still plenty of unsubstantiated claims and outright false ideas about exercise and the reproductive tract. Some of it stems from a lack of research, some comes from pop culture (thanks, Gwyneth Paltrow!), and some is simply outdated information.
We asked Dr. Jen Gunter, OB/GYN and author of The Vagina Bible, to break down the most common vaginal and women’s health myths in triathlon today.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: Sweaty clothes cause yeast infections.
Blame outdated science for this long-held belief. Older studies that suggested a link between clothing and yeast infection are not of the same quality we have today, and the link was originally seen with non-breathable fabric, such as pantyhose. Today, we know yeast infections are not cause by clothing.
“The vulva [external genitalia] can be subject to chafing and irritation from wet clothing or clothing that rubs or is ill-fitting,” Gunter said. “Chafing can lead to a rash and painful skin breakdown. This irritation can be mistaken for a yeast infection.”
If there is excessive moisture in the groin combined with occlusion (a blockage or obstruction), then that could lead to yeast overgrowth on the external skin, but this is typically in the folds or the groin. Whether increased yeast on the vulva can lead to vaginal infections (which are internal) isn’t known.
Gunter said modern fabrics that wick moisture from the skin should reduce the risk of irritation.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: Pain, numbness, and swelling are a given when riding a bike.
Many women believe discomfort is just part of riding a bike, as the majority of the weight rests on the pelvic bone area. But if you’re experiencing pain, numbness, or swelling, that’s a problem with the gear, not the rider.
“Pain with prolonged saddle time may be related to the angle of the nose causing pressure on blood vessels, reducing blood flow to nerves,” Gunter said. “This can cause pain and numbness. It’s possible direct pressure on nerves could also be a factor.”
This can be remedied by a different bike saddle, trying different kinds of padding in the bike chamois, and getting a proper bike fit. Play around with various configurations of seat height and angle. Anatomical structure varies from woman to woman, so what works for one may not work for another. That’s why it’s important to experiment and work with a bike fitter who can make individualized recommendations on fit and gear.
Getting out of the saddle on regular intervals to help with blood flow is also a good idea. “Don’t wait until there is numbness or pain,” Gunter said.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: Removing your pubic hair is healthier and cleaner.
A 2016 JAMA Dermatology survey found that most women said they removed their pubic hair because they believe it’s “hygienic or cleaner.” But, in reality, that’s simply not the case. There is no data to show improved genital health with waxing or shaving; in fact, women who shave or wax are more prone to skin infection, including saddle sores.
“One function of pubic hair is protecting the skin,” Gunter explained. “Removal causes micro-abrasions, so the next time you work out, irritation may be easier. Hair removal will also likely increase chafing on the labia.”
Gunter said women who remove their pubic hair should consider letting it grow back. For those who want to groom their hair, trimming it carefully with scissors or a trimmer is the healthiest and safest option.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: Swimming in chlorinated water throws off the pH of the vagina.
A commonly-held belief is that the chlorine in pools creates a harsh environment for the vagina and its natural pH balance. The logic, so people say, is that if chlorine kills bacteria in the water, then it also kills the body’s normal bacterial flora, resulting in yeast infections or bacterial vaginosis.
“No, this is an urban myth,” Gunter said. “Water doesn’t get inside the vagina when women swim. The pH of the vagina is controlled by vaginal bacteria, mostly lactobacilli.”
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: A sweaty workout means you need to deep clean “down there.”
Because the groin is full of sweat glands, many mistakenly believe a sweaty workout requires a thorough cleaning afterwards. Years of advertising have convinced women that any smell coming from the vagina or vulva is bad, and that harsh soaps and douching products are necessary for cleanliness.
This is all overkill, and causes more problems than it solves, Gunter said. “The skin is built to withstand sweat. Douching is never recommended for anything; it is very harmful.” Gunter also advises skipping soap on the vulva, which can irritate the skin. Instead, use a gentle facial cleanser, like CeraVe or Cetaphil.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: All anti-chafe products are the same.
Chafing is the result of friction plus moisture. To reduce or eliminate chafing, you’ve got to remove those two variables. For your first line of defense, choose garments that fit close to the skin (but not tight enough that they bind) and wick moisture away.
For added protection, some women may opt to use anti-friction creams, gels, or oils. No formal studies have been carried out to identify superior products for preventing chafing and irritation in the groin, but a good rule of thumb is to avoid products that are scented, as these may cause irritation. Anecdotally, Gunter said some of her patients swear by Monistat Chafing Relief Powder Gel. Ointment, Vaseline, coconut oil or olive oils are also products that can be used either to prevent chafing or treat post-workout irritation in the groin. However, if you use latex condoms for contraception or STI prevention, note that these products can negatively impact the latex, so you want several hours at least between application and condom use.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: If you experience persistent chafing or discomfort, the problem is your anatomy.
When some women experience persistent pain or chafing in the groin, they may worry there is something abnormal about their genitalia. Labiaplasty—also known as labioplasty, labia minora reduction, and labial reduction—is a plastic surgery procedure for altering the folds of skin surrounding the human vulva to reduce physical discomfort. Gunter said it’s not necessary.
“I have heard some people discuss labial reduction for this, but I have never heard those same individuals discussing penile reduction or scrotal reduction for men who experience similar chafing or pain in the saddle,” Gunter said. “There is also no data to support the hypothesis that labial size plays any role in irritation.”
What’s more, the labia minora are sexual organs and engorge and have specialized nerve endings that enhance sexual pleasure. Surgically altering the structure of the vulva can result in damage to these nerves, among other complications.
Women’s Triathlon Health Myth: Try over-the-counter treatments before calling your doctor.
Yearly appointments with an ob/gyn should be on every woman’s calendar, as annual check-ups will be more likely to reveal changes or issues of concern. When it comes to problems, early detection is often critical to successful treatment.
But if concerning symptoms—persistent pain, itching, numbness, or abnormal odor—pop up between appointments, don’t hesitate to give your ob/gyn a call. Though you may suspect you have a yeast infection or a saddle sore, you need to know for sure before you treat, because using the wrong medication can compound the problem and make an infection harder to diagnose. An exam is your best bet for discovering the cause of the issue and getting the correct treatment—getting you back to health (and back on the bike) as quickly as possible.