by Joshua Cohen PT, MS
Question: Several years ago an article was written proclaiming that there are only 2 kinds of cyclist, those who have ED and those who will, and that cycling is the absolute worst thing a man can do if he wants to maintain sexual function. Should ED be a legitimate concern for cyclists? If so, how best can it be prevented, and can it be corrected if it has occurred? Is there any new research or studies on the topic? Funny that the topic has NEVER come up on a group ride! — Brian G.
Joshua Cohen PT, MS, Replies: Brian, I did my thesis on the topic of bicycle racing saddle design on blood flow in males and pored over voluminous research on the topic. I am familiar with the statement you’re referring to, made by Dr. Irwin Goldstein, a urologist, back in 1997. His comment made a lot of riders stop and think about how their bicycle seats affected their sexual health. The answer gets quite a bit more involved than I can succinctly cover in this response.
Statistics from various studies show a range of reports about the actual incidence of ED among cyclists. The rate of ED among cyclists has been reported as being higher than other athletic groups such as swimmers and runners. However, other studies report that it is no higher than the general population, and still other studies report ED in the general population as being three times higher than in cyclists.
The bottom line is that the “standard” tear drop-shaped bicycle seats can cause sexual-related dysfunction by compressing the nerves and arteries that supply the genitals in men and women. There is a spectrum of compression-related dysfunctions that range from irritation and numbness all the way to temporary ED or more long-term conditions.
It doesn’t take a researcher to know that the incidence of numbness and irritation caused by bicycle seats is significant. So it is to your benefit to be mindful of bicycle seat designs that reduce this risk, as well as good riding habits that can reduce your risk levels even further.
Many cyclists forget the simple things that can dramatically improve your bicycle seat experience. These can include taking frequent breaks out of the seat while pedaling to allow your tissues to decompress and improve circulation to compressed structures. Another important factor is proper bicycle fit and weight distribution. Issues such as seat height and fore-aft position are vital to avoiding excess seat friction and maintaining maximal pressure distribution on the seat.
You can also reduce your risks of seat-related issues by choosing a seat that supports your anatomy properly, based on your biomechanics and riding style. This involves understanding how your weight is distributed over the bicycle based on your distinct riding style. It is also important to understand how the curves of the seat interact with your anatomy and which parts of your anatomy are most suited to bearing weight on the seat.
Contrary to popular opinion, more gel padding does not mean more comfort. The same is true for cutouts in seats. The trend of having more cutouts in seats has been widely market-driven, and not well-supported by research, which has actually demonstrated that cutouts can increase the risk of compression-related issues.
To put all of this information, as well as recent research, in understandable terms, I wrote Finding the Perfect Bicycle Seat back in 2007, which details not only all of the anatomy, biomechanics, and studies, but also reviews bicycle seat design and suggests many design components to look for when purchasing a seat.
I also published An Illustrated Guide to Bicycle Seats. In this book, I explain the essential components of understanding what to look for in a bicycle seat and how the design affects your health. This guide takes a much more graphical and easy-to-understand approach to presenting only the most relevant information to cyclists who are interested in finding the best seat for them.
The Kontact Anatomical Saddle that I designed was based on the results of studies that investigated the effects of bicycle seat design on blood flow and oxygen levels in riders, and it does significantly improve those metrics as well as improving other components such as cycling efficiency and comfort. However, the design is helpful to relieve perineal pressure in both men and women and helps riders to reduce the incidence of many common seat-related issues, which is why I like to clarify that the seat is not purely for men. We have received many excellent comments from female riders as well.
Finally, I’m not surprised that no one ever talks about cycling-related sexual dysfunction on a group ride. That’s like talking about crashing. You know it’s a risk, but it doesn’t make for great conversation.
Joshua Cohen PT, MS, is the designer of the Kontact anatomical bike saddle. He holds a Master’s degree in Human Movement Science with an emphasis in Sport Biomechanics and Product Design. His research on saddle design has been published in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness.