Do you ever come home from your rides with dry, red eyes? It's more common than you think for your eyes to hurt after cycling. One of my collegiate teammates would complain about his sore and strained eyes in the hotel room after every race. There are four likely causes of sore eyes in cycling. Let's look at them and some potential solutions.
What Is Eye Strain?
Eye strain is very common in computer science and other screen intensive occupations and involves a variety of symptoms related to overused eye muscles and inactivity of the eyes (lower rates of blinking). Symptoms include:
These symptoms are most commonly caused by flexing eye muscles too much and not blinking enough. Eye strain can also occur when driving, with our eye muscles flexing to see signs in the distance or observing other cars. Even incorrect prescriptions or slightly bad eyesight can amplify eye strain. For cyclists these problems can be amplified by domain specific issues.
Allergies Can Cause Sore Eyes
For a cyclist out for a 3-4 hour ride, there is a massive chance for coming into contact with pollen. Although for most people allergies tend to be well-controlled, exposure to larger than normal quantities can occur when riding. Sweat can pull pollen from your forehead and drip it into your eyes or pollen from the nearby field can swirl into the air and eventually come into contact with your eyes.
After this contact, the body releases histamine in response to the allergen. Histamine increases the local swelling, increases redness in the area, and causes our blood vessels to dilate. All of these effects can make our eyes sore, especially after cycling when we're tired already.
If you sore eyes problems are allergy based, one solution is to take an oral antihistamine one to two hours before your ride. The antihistamine should be a daily oral antihistamine rather than an emergency version as the daily ones tend to cause less drowsiness. This antihistamine can help reduce your body's production of histamine in response to the pollen.
Another solution is to take allergy eye drops. Antihistamine eye drops can be a great solution as they provide the medication directly to the source of the issue. There are a few brands with different strengths, so check your local pharmacy to get the appropriate dosage.
Dehydration Can Make Eyes Red
If a cyclist is out for a long ride, it's likely they are sweating. Sweat is the body's way of cooling us off so we don't become hyperthermic. If we don't replace the water and electrolytes in sweat, then we finish our ride with a deficit. If we further fail to replace the water we lost after the ride, our dehydration will continue to get worse.
One symptom of dehydration is dry, red eyes. This makes sense, our body does not have enough spare water to continue to produce enough tears to lubricate the eyes. As simple as this issues is; the solution is equally so, drink more water. Ensuring proper hydration during and after rides is a big step to recovering properly and can also prevent some eye strain related symptoms. Other solutions include getting non-allergy eye drops if your concern is simply hydration.
Glasses Can Fail Their Job
Do you wear glasses when you cycle? Do your glasses adequately block the wind from getting in your eyes? One area to investigate is the effectiveness of your glasses at preventing pollen or other contaminants from getting into your eyes. These contaminants can cause irritation and pain. Even without contaminants, the dry air we're exposed to when cycling can suck away the liquid lubricating your eyes and cause them to feel sore.
Glasses with larger, connected lenses tend to block more wind than smaller, separate lenses. When purchasing glasses for cycling, try to stand in front of a fan at the bike shop (they always have at least a few in the back for their mechanics on hot days) to see how much wind you feel. Sunglasses are also made for different faces. Genetic variability in humans dictates that not all sunglass designs are equally useful for each individual. Finding a pair of sunglasses with decent polarization and effective cover of your eyes from wind, bugs and flying road debris (gravel, etc) is essential.
Eye Fatigue Can Give You Sore Eyes
Cyclists are constantly scanning their surroundings; from the road for specific obstacles and potholes, to cars nearby, to signs, to the curve up the road, to the beautiful nature they are hopefully experiencing. Their eye muscles are constantly flexing and changing distance and moving. Does this eventually fatigue the rider? Do we forget to blink in these situations?
Eye fatigue can be caused by exhausting the muscles used to move the eyes. It is undeniable that cyclists spend a lot of time absorbing information through eyes to help them ride their bikes. Is it possible that these muscles get excessive fatigue after a long ride? Possibly.
One solution is to change your bike position to accommodate a more neutral neck position. Some of the muscles controlling the eyes wrap around the skull and fatigue on the back of the neck can transfer forward to the eyes.
Another solution is to look into getting prescription glasses as they can reduce the work done by the eyes. Vision that is only slightly off can cause excessive fatigue on the eyes to bring the world into focus. Prescription lenses help relax those muscles and can potentially reduce the strain related to them.
The first step to fixing sore eyes after cycling is to cover all your bases. Start with testing allergies, dehydration, and cycling glasses for a possible solution. If none of those work, it may be time to investigate prescription cycling glasses. With that being said, prescription glasses can be expensive and when you want glasses for performance sports even more so.
Overcoming obstacles is the challenge of cycling, so get out there and try some new things!!