A Guide to Women’s Cycling: Hormones and Physiology

· · 6 minutes read

In most cycling things, there is little different between women and men.  However, there are a few things that are women specific from a hormonal, anatomical and physiological point of view.  These are discussed below.


Just imagine the embarrassment for the men in the club meeting when this was discussed. However for women, it is part of our life – on average for 40 years, 480 times.  So in reality, cycling while menstruating is going to happen, or cycling will be severely curtailed.

There is an excellent article in the link below written by Bristol’s own Katherine Moore:

Essentially in her article Katherine lists the options:

  1. Go free – on light days the blood loss is low and will easily be absorbed by the chamois of your padded shorts.
  2. Tampons – no chafing, but they must be changed a maximum of every 8 hours which can be an issue on long rides.
  3. Disposable Pads – not particularly recommended, as can chafe as much as wearing knickers under your shorts and are not breathable, so can be hot.
  4. Menstrual cups – the environmentally friendly way of dealing with heavier days, and a great option for those bikepacking.
  5. Wearables – washable, so good for the environment, but again can chafe.

Cycling and menstruating is something that can easily occur at the same time.  Club runs over a few hours will stop at a cafe, providing the opportunity to use the facilities there as required.  And there are plenty of public facilities at locations the club frequently passes through, including in Usk, Tintern, Cheddar, Congresbury, Clevedon, Chepstow – usually the local public car park is the location of the village/town public facilities.  If you want to stop, ask the ride leader to do so, and do not hesitate or feel awkward about making this request.  There is no need  to explain why you want to stop.  Most public facilities are free, but bring up to 50p in 10p/20p money as those in some busy spots (e.g. Hay-on-Wye, Clevedon, Portishead) charge.


The loss of oestrogen/progesterone/testosterone is a natural phenomenon that occurs for all women, usually between the ages of 45-55 years.  The transition period can last for several years and some women suffer a lot of symptoms, others hardly any.  The loss of these hormones can affect women in many ways – affecting sleep, causing hot sweats, dry skin, aching joints and fatigue, altering cognition (“brain fog”), causing genitourinary symptoms, reducing muscle and bone strength and increasing risk of cardiovascular problems.

Cycling (and other exercise) has been shown to help with these symptoms and reduce some of the effects of long-term loss of hormones.  

An overview of the changes that occur during the menopause and cycling during this period can be found on this website:


Skin thinning can result in an increased risk of saddle soreness.  Tips to address this are found in the following flyer:


Strengthening and flexibility are also important.  Resistance exercises can help to maintain strength and bone density (important to avoid osteoporosis) and also can  support your cycling.  Many find that yoga, pilates etc. can be helpful for balance and flexibility training.

There is some evidence that exercise late in the evening can increase the risk of hot flushes overnight, so you should avoid this if it is a problem.

Of course, medication is something you may well want to consider.  There are medications such as HRT (hormone replacement therapy) which can be prescribed to replace this loss.  Other medications such as sage can be prescribed for specific symptoms. All have pros and cons, so you must always speak to your GP about this.


It is certainly possible to cycle whilst pregnant.  You should however consider changes and be cautious – such as keeping under threshold and avoiding high altitude and of course avoid falling off.  There is a good article on this in cycling weekly- an interview with professionals, Dame Sarah Storey and Lizzie Deignan, who both cycled whilst pregnant with their children.


Returning to cycling after pregnancy will depend on the birth and the person of course. Some have started cycling again by 6-10 weeks.  This should be discussed in detail with your midwife before you start cycling again.  It will take longer for ligaments to tighten back up and for all the changes that occurred during pregnancy to resolve, so exercise needs to be built back up slowly.  Laura Kenny and Lizzie Deignan have returned to winning form in professional racing after having a child, demonstrating that it is possible to return to full fitness.


Physiologically, regarding cycling, the major difference between women and men is the impact of testosterone. The presence of this during puberty and beyond results in men (on average) having a larger, stronger bone frame, bigger stronger muscles, a larger heart and lungs.

The other major difference is that women naturally have a lower haemoglobin level in their blood than men.  As haemoglobin transports oxygen to the muscles used for cycling, then it is not surprising that this is the second major physiological important difference in cycling performance between women and men.

Therefore, this does mean that the fastest man will be faster than the fastest woman – this is considered at Olympic level to be 10-15%.  Over longer distances this difference narrows, so at ultra-endurance level the difference is small and indeed the 2019 winner of the TCR (transcontinental race) was female.

Psychological differences are currently highly controversial and unlikely to be relevant to cycling.  However, it is accepted that on average men are greater risk takers than women.

What does this mean for group riding at Bristol Road Club?

Not all that much.  Yes, it is unlikely that a woman will beat every man up a climb, but she can certainly be in the mix, and be happy to know that, physiologically pro-rata, she may actually be performing better than the men.  On hills, the fastest riders in the group will wait at the top for the slowest, and groups will go out aiming to put riders of similar ability together, so differences are small.  Down hills, again, some will be faster than others.  Do not take unnecessary risks – go down at the speed that you are happy with.  The best advice is to ride today in a manner that means you will be riding again tomorrow – discretion is always the better part of valour. In the main the group will ride together, two abreast, on gentle downhill roads. However on steeper, narrower descents the group will naturally split and ride singly for safety.  Do not worry, the group will then ride slowly at the bottom, or wait, until the whole group is back together.