Professional cyclists call it riding ‘on the rivet’ – bent into an aerodynamic position over the handlebars with the body balanced on the tip of the saddle. But could doing so for long periods lead to a decrease in a man’s fertility and sexual health?
That was the suggestion in a recent report by Professor Diana Vaamonde, from the University of Cordoba Medical School in Spain, which found that triathletes, whose training regimes require them to ride hundreds of miles every week, had the lowest ratio of normal-shaped sperm.
A man’s fertility is dependent on both the volume of sperm he produces and the shape and size of individual sperm.
The study looked at triathletes who compete in the demanding Ironman races, in which competitors swim 2.4 miles, cycle 112 miles and then run a 26-mile marathon in straight succession.
It discovered that competitors covering more than 186 miles per week on their bicycles had just four per cent of normal-shaped sperm. To father a child, at least 30 per cent of sperm should have a normal shape.
The report speculated that poor sperm quality results from a number of factors: irritation and compression of the testes against the saddle, and the heat produced by wearing tight Lycra cycling shorts. Sperm production is highly sensitive to body temperature.
But, says Professor Richard Davison, an expert in sports physiology at Edinburgh Napier University, recreational cyclists do not need to worry.
‘For many men, quality of sperm can be as much of an issue as quantity,’ says Davison. ‘The journey sperm take to the egg is long and traumatic, and it requires healthy sperm to go the distance. But most men who cycle would not have a fertility problem.’
Davison points out that other factors are likely to result in low sperm quality among men who undertake the punishing training regimes necessary for professional cycling.
‘The volume of training they do can impact significantly on reproductive health. When the vast amounts of energy expended in training go towards building muscle, then other parts of the body suffer,’ he says.
In hard cycle training, riders can expend up to 800 calories per hour, while cyclists in the Tour de France peloton often need to consume up to 9,000 calories per day.
‘The volume of physical activity cyclists do on an annual basis is probably higher than any other sub-population in the world,’ says Davison.
‘In a career of, say, ten years of racing and training, the amount of energy used is huge, yet there is no evidence of dramatically lower rates of conception. If there was, we would know about it, anecdotally at least. Most cyclists I know have children.’
However, as British cyclist Chris Boardman knows, colossal training volumes can, in some cases, lead to a drop in hormones created in the testes. Towards the end of his career, Boardman was told by doctors that his body had stopped producing testosterone.
‘Testosterone and human growth hormone help recovery and anabolic growth – every time you train you are breaking down muscles and these hormones help the body to grow back stronger,’ says Professor Davison.
‘The result can be UPS – underperformance syndrome. The normal cycle of training, resting and recovery can break down as athletes become very tired, lasting for quite a long time. If someone trains too hard, their sperm count might go down.’
Racing saddles are designed for speed and aerodynamic positioning rather than comfort and most cyclists know that sore nether regions and even numbness are an occupational inevitability.
Prostatitis – inflammation of the prostate gland – is often mentioned in relation to cycling but no medical link has been definitively established.
However, simple saddle-soreness can lead to numbness, while long periods in the saddle are known to be a factor in erectile dysfunction.
‘Working hard for a long time on a saddle will always reduce blood flow,’ says Lee
Dumbarton, a body geometry technician from London cycle store Sigma Sports.
‘With a bad saddle it can go down to eight per cent of normal flow, but with a good, properly-fitted saddle it will only drop to 60 per cent. This problem can’t be prevented, only limited.’
Dumbarton recommends cyclists always use shorts with substantial padding, while even veteran riders should consider a bike-fitting consultation.
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Source: Daily Mail
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