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Saddle Discomfort : Solutions for Women Cyclists

featured in and RBR Newsletter

Saddle comfort can be the deciding factor between an enjoyable ride or a miserable one. It can stop some women from riding there bikes all together, it's that painful. So many people have beautiful bikes that they should love riding, but that darn saddle discomfort ruins the whole ride. Why can the saddle be such a “pain in the butt “?

The main reason is that the soft tissue at the front really wasn't meant to be bear weight. We have sit bones, aka ischial tuberosities, for that job. But on a bike, in a bent over riding position, your body weight is shared between the 2 sit bones and the pubic bone in the front, which means pressure on the soft tissue at the front(the perineum)

Saddle discomfort is one of the most difficult areas to address in a bike fit. It affects how you sit on your bike, and it changes your posture. As a result, it changes all the rest of the angles below and at the front of your bike. The ensuing chain reaction of poor posture to relieve the pressure from an uncomfortable saddle can lead to neck and back pain. It can alter how the whole bike feels. It may be necessary to try a number of saddles before completing your bike fit. Or you may have found the “right “saddle, but your position on your bike is making it uncomfortable.

Factors that Cause Saddle Discomfort
If your bike is the right size, here are a number of bike fit faults that can cause saddle discomfort for women cyclists:

Poor Saddle Choice
The most common cause of saddle discomfort is a poor saddle. Some saddles are hard as a rock while some are too cushy. A saddle that is too thick and soft will make you sink down into your saddle, causing the middle of the saddle to push up and place more pressure on your soft tissue.

A firmer saddle is usually better, especially for longer rides. A proper woman's saddle should have good padding for the sit bones and a cut-out or groove in front to provide relief from pressure on the perineum and to allow good blood flow. It is important that the cut-out or groove is extended far enough forward to remove pressure in the correct region. A women specific saddle is essential for most women. Bikes that are not women specific are equipped with a men's saddles, which were not designed for the female anatomy.

Width is also important. The sit bones should be sitting in the middle of the widest part of the saddle. Specialized and Bontrager both offer saddles in different widths. Specialized has something called the “ass-o-meter “ which is a simple piece of memory foam that leaves an imprint of your sit bones to determine the correct saddle width. A saddle that is too narrow causes the sit bones to hang off the sides, creating uncomfortable friction at the sit bones where the hamstring tendons attach. If your saddle is too wide, support isn't where it is needed. Having a choice of saddle widths is important for petite women that have narrow pelvises who would normally choose a narrower men's saddle. Now they can get a woman specific saddle in a narrower width.

Saddle selection however is such a personal choice. Everyone's anatomy, weight and style of riding is unique. As a result, one person may love a saddle, while another will hate it. When purchasing a saddle, make sure the local bike shop will allow you to return it if you don't like it. Otherwise, you can spend a lot of money trying to find a saddle that's “just right “ for you. Here are a few examples of popular women's saddles that many women find comfortable:

  •  Specialized Lithium Gel, Sanoma, Jette
  •  Selle Italia Lady Gel Flow
  •  Terry Butterfly, Liberator, Damselfly
  • Selle SMP
  • Adamo
  • Brooks
  • WTB Deva

Poor Saddle Tilt
A saddle tilt that is too nose-up will put additional pressure on the front soft tissue. This usually causes poor slouched posture on your bike.
A saddle that is too nose-down will cause you to slide forward on the saddle and make you sit on the wrong part of the saddle. The sit bones will no longer provide adequate support and more weight will be placed on the hands, causing numbness and pain in the hands.

The saddle on a bike should be either level for a more upright rider, or slightly nose-down, just a degree or two down from horizontal, for a more forward riding position. On a time trial bike, the saddle should be more nose-down, as the pelvis is rotated more forwards at the front of the bike. A seat post with infinitely adjustable angles is ideal, as it allows you to find that perfect tilt. Many posts have saddle clamps with notches that often leave you with the choice of being either too nose-up or too nose-down.

Saddle is Too High
A saddle that is too high will take the weight off your pedals and place more weight on to your saddle. It will also cause your hips to rock, causing side-to-side movement across your saddle, and chafing.

Saddle is Too Far Back
Moving the seat forward, so that the knees are over the pedal axis, changing the pedaling angle usually improves saddle comfort.

Drop Between the Seat and the Handlebars is Too Large
A more aggressive position at the front of the bike will put more weight on the hands and the perineum at the front of the saddle.

Handlebar Reach is Too Far
Too stretched out at the front will reduce the support from the arms at the front and place more weight on the front of the saddle.

Tips for Preventing Saddle Discomfort

Wear Good Bike Shorts
Wear a good pair of cycling shorts with a good quality seamless chamois. As with the saddles, shorts and the thickness of the chamois can be a personal choice. The chamois material should wick away moisture. Some have anti-bacterial fibers to reduce bacterial buildup.

Do not wear underwear. Put your shorts on right before you ride to keep them clean and dry. Remove them as soon as the ride is over. Never wear the same pair of shorts 2 days in a row with out washing them.

Use Chamois Creams
Similar to a runner uses vaseline on areas of repeated friction to prevent chafing sores, the same need applies to the saddle area in cycling. The pedaling motion creates a certain amount of side-to-side movement on the saddle, which can cause uncomfortable painful chafing of the soft tissue. It is this friction more than pressure that causes saddle sores.

Some sort of cream is a must, especially for long rides and rides on consecutive days. Chamois creams prevents chafing by creating a thin lubricating layer between the shorts and your skin. I use Bag Balm ( also used on the udders of milk cows and Shania Twain's skin) and rode 6 days in a row in France with out any irritation at all. Other popular creams include Penaten or other diaper rash creams and commercially-made cycling products such as Chamois Butt'r or Bliss, to name a couple.

Get off the Saddle Regularly
Every 10-15 minutes or so, get off your saddle and stand to either stretch or take a few pedal strokes to stretch the legs. Similar to moving your hands around regularly to prevent pain and numbness in your hands, getting off your saddle will relieve constant pressure and improve blood flow. Make sure you stand on the pedals or lift yourself up a little when you ride over bumps.

Allow Time to Addapt
The first ride of the season never feels very good. The saddle area needs to get used to that new pressure again. Start with short rides and gradually increase your distance and time.

Practice these preventative steps rather than waiting until you are uncomfortable and it is too late.

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