Cycling, like any athletic activity, requires a certain tolerance for discomfort. As the saying goes, "No pain, no gain!" But it's important to distinguish between the soreness that comes from normal or extreme exertion and the pain that signals injury. When you feel that burn in your butt cheeks, stay alert for signs that medical intervention may be needed.
The Glutes Defined
"Glutes" is shorthand for the gluteal group of muscles, also called the posterior thigh muscles. This group comprises the gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, gluteus maximus and the tensor fasciae latae. As you might guess from the name, the gluteus maximus is the largest of the glutes. It makes up the greater part of the visible butt cheek. It's your primary hip extensor, powering your downward stroke when you pedal. Of all your glutes, the gluteus maximus gets the brunt of your cycling work out.
Muscle Soreness During Cycling
Your muscles require oxygen in order to convert glucose into energy. The harder you work out, the more oxygen your muscles need. But during a really intense exercise session, your body's oxygen delivery system eventually falls behind your muscles' energy demands. When that happens, your body relies instead on an anaerobic process for metabolizing glucose. This backup process has a nasty side-effect: It results in an accumulation of lactic acid, or lactate. Lactate buildup is what causes that burning sensation in your glutes when you're cycling hard. The pain should pass if you take a break and give your body a chance to slow down.
Muscle Soreness After Cycling
If you experience glute pain over the days following an extra-intense bike ride, however, you can't blame that on lactic acid. Delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), characterized by muscle tenderness accompanied by a loss of strength and range of motion that usually peaks 24 to 72 hours after an extreme exercise event, has not been found to correlate with lactate levels during the exercise event. Exactly what causes DOMS remains unknown. Most research indicates that has to do with an inflammatory-repair response to muscle cell damage sustained during extreme exercise events. Anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen can reduce the soreness, but they can also slow down the damage repair process.
It's possible that what you experience as glute pain isn't coming from your gluteus muscles at all. In the case of piriformis syndrome, the piriformis muscle swells and irritates the sciatic nerve, which usually passes beneath the piriformis but in some people runs right through it. Piriformis syndrome is characterized by pain deep within the buttocks which sometimes radiates down the thigh or up in to the lower back, following the path of the sciatic nerve. Treatment for piriformis syndrome usually consists of progressive stretching and physical therapy under the direction of a sports medicine physician. Stubborn cases sometimes require corticosteroid injections.