February 11, 2022

How Triathletes Can Love their Labia

In celebration of all things love, Feisty Triathlon Head Coach & Educator Miranda Bush shares how you can show your labia some extra love.

Text by Miranda Bush, Feisty Triathlon Head Coach & Educator

Valentine’s Day sparks many opportunities for conversations surrounding romantic love. And thanks to Leslie Knope, a fictional character from the popular show Parks and Recreation, we also have “Galentine’s Day,” a pre-valentine’s day holiday to celebrate the love between friends. 

I know these holidays are imperfect, often shining a light on one’s loneliness. But I do love celebrating love. And if you follow my work and passion for triathlon you know that I believe we must start with loving ourselves. And this love includes all of us– our strengths, weaknesses, imperfections, and the entirety of our physical bodies

And for triathletes, this very much includes giving some extra love and attention to all areas “down below.” And this includes our labia. 

This blog was influenced by a recent Facebook conversation in a Women’s Triathlon group. Women were openly discussing undergarment options for long course racing. Most answered with the standard “no underwear at all” (as I would have for tri or bike shorts as well, for the same reasons they all cited). But I was happily surprised when the author of the question opened up about the discomfort that going “commando” caused her specific anatomy. Which led to an honest exchange on labia chafing. 

As a coach I have discussed this kind of chafing with my athletes and I have also experienced it firsthand as an athlete. And it most definitely falls into the “would not recommend” column when handing out advice. So I was beyond eccastic to see other women discussing this previously “taboo” topic publicly, trusting each other to answer without judgment. 

Yet another step in the right direction toward normalizing language around our unique bodies. Let’s keep the conversation going. 

A Quick Anatomy Lesson

For many of you, the word “labia” does not enter regular conversations. But I was blessed to grow up in a household where there were few gender, anatomical, sexual, or other topics that were not openly discussed. In college I took as many elective women’s studies courses as I could to complement my English degree. In my “Women in Childbirth in the U.S.” course the professor passed around a beautiful book of photographs of the many different represented vulvas and labias. I could tell it made some classmates squeamish, some reassured, and some were happy that this topic could be openly discussed (like me). 

The National Vulvodynia Association define the vulva as the outside of the female genitalia that helps protect the sexual organs, vagina, and urinary opening from infection. The external genitalia consists of many parts, including the labia majora, mons pubis, labia minora, clitoris, and vestibule. According to Medical News Today, vulvas vary greatly in size, shape, and color. Some people may also refer to the labia as the “lips.” The labia majora are the larger, or outer lips, and the labia minora are the smaller or inner lips. 

According to one 2017 study, 56% of vulvas have visible labia minora. This suggests that it is just as common to have visible labia, as it is to have hidden labia– all labias are different. Check out this gallery if you want to see for yourself. 

Your Labia Changes Over Time 

And it is important to note that your vulva changes over time. According to research, the labia may be somewhat swollen due to the passage through the birth canal and the effect of maternal hormones at birth. This wears off within a few days for the normal newborn female labia, which are thin and small. At puberty, the labia become gradually larger and thicker. After puberty, the labia become more easily visible and prominent. 

As a woman continues to grow more mature, there is also an increase in labial thickness and length. Fluctuating pregnancy hormones can also cause the labia majora and minora to look puffy or swollen or change shape. Increased blood flow during pregnancy and postpartum can change the color and/or cause varicose veins to form. 

According to the North American Menopause Society, during perimenopause, less estrogen may cause the tissues of the vulva and the lining of the vagina to become thinner, drier, and less elastic or flexible.

After menopause, as estrogen and progesterone decline skin tissue begins to atrophy all over the body, including in your vulva and labia. It is vital to your comfort and enjoyment while training and racing (and otherwise!) to understand your anatomy and try new ways to maintain comfort and enjoyment as your body changes. 

Practical Advice for Loving Your Labia 

So, how do you give your individual and unique labia (and entire vulva) some love as an endurance athlete? 

  • Get a professional bike fit. Ask friends, teammates, or Facebook forums for local recommendations. When you contact the fitter, inquire about their experience working with female athletes, as well as their follow-up policy. Be an advocate for yourself in the process. I recommend that all of my athletes include a fit (and the potential for new equipment) in their bike budget when purchasing a new ride. I also suggest getting fitted after experiencing significant body composition changes; when returning from injury; with new goals; and/or when changing stages of life. 
  • Find a proper bike saddle. Do not settle for a bike saddle that causes discomfort, numbness, pain, and/or too much pressure on any parts of your vulva. Click here for a good article on some of the best saddles for women cyclists. And here for a video that is more specific for triathlon. Many brands will allow you to try the saddle with a full return policy
  • Provide a barrier against chafing. Of course there are many amazing options out there. Don’t be afraid to keep trying new barrier creams until you find one that works well for you. And reapply during long sessions! Check out a list of great options recommended by women at the end of this blog! 
  • Be mindful of sexual care. Use lube to prevent dryness and discomfort if you desire participating in sexaul activities. Check out our Feisty Women’s Performance lube partner: Apres Delight
  • Consider your undergarments for training. Wear snug bottoms or underwear to protect from friction around seams or otherwise. Unless your specific anatomy requires underwear for comfort, I suggest going without. The chamois pad in bike and triathlon shorts is engineered to protect against chafing.
  • Be mindful of the type and time of hair removal surrounding your vulva. Many female coaches and athletes suggest not shaving your bikini line and vulva area within 48-72 hours before a long ride. Hair is thought to provide a barrier to friction, creating less potential for chafing, saddle sores, ingrown hairs, and infections. The longer the better, although that can lead to potential poor hygiene if you are not able to wash the area soon after exercise. Check out some more shaving and waxing hair removal tips for women who ride bikes here
  • Be aware of your changing pregnant body. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, stationary cycling can be a great way to exercise while pregnant (I am not stating that outdoor cycling is not, I believe that it is up to the individual’s comfort level and doctor). Be ready to adjust your position or your bike as your growing belly puts more pressure on your vulva. Ride to your comfort level. 
  • Give yourself time to heal. When recovering from vulva or labia pain, soreness, saddle sores, or chafing give yourself the grace to heal before returning to training. Be intentional about letting the area “breathe”. If you are concerned about losing fitness, replace your training with a structured strength session or more time in the pool (if the stinging/burning sensation when in water has gone away). 
  • Love yourself, including your labia. Practice loving self-acceptance and care surrounding your own anatomical needs. We are all different. And don’t be afraid to talk to other women. 

I hope on these Hallmark holidays and on all other days you will focus on some proactive self love and care, including learning about and loving all parts of your own body. It is the only one you get, and the one that has and will continue to be the vessel in which you do amazing things.

Chamois cream options recommended by women: 

Betwixt: https://teamzealios.com

Honeybutt: https://honeybutt.com

Chamois Butt’r Her: https://www.chamoisbuttr.com/products/her-anti-chafe

Salty Britche: https://getsaltybritches.com

Gooch Guard: https://goochguard.com

Premax: https://bigamart.com/product/chamois-cream-anti-chafe-protection-for-cyclists-womens-200ml/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIqYeBg9r19QIVpIFbCh13Nw6xEAQYAiABEgJki_D_BwE

Skin Slik: https://www.assos.com/us/chamois-creme-140-ml-186175.html?gclsrc=aw.ds&gclid=EAIaIQobChMI5aXCttn19QIVS_7jBx3nRwzDEAQYASABEgIsHfD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds

Aquafor and A&D Ointment Prevent were also recommended! 

(This list is not endorsed by Feisty Triathlon)

 ***

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Miranda Bush is the Head Coach and Educator at Feisty Triathlon. She is USA Triathlon and Training Peaks certified, as well as a certified Health Coach. She is also a graduate of Dr. Stacy Sim’s Women Are Not Small Men and Menopause for Athletes courses. As a longtime coach specializing in training women, her passion lies in using lessons from training and racing to teach athletes to evolve physically, mentally, and emotionally through sport. Miranda is also a longtime athlete and multiple Ironman and 70.3 distance podium finisher, maintaining a consistent racing career while working and raising her kids. She resides in Wisconsin with her three teenagers and husband who all love to race triathlon.

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