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Saddle Discomfort—Solutions for Women Cyclists

Q: What are the most likely causes of female genital pain while cycling?

Saddle Discomfort Solutions for Women CyclistsMary Paterson: Saddle comfort can be the deciding factor between an enjoyable ride or a miserable one. It can stop some women from riding their bikes all together, it’s that painful. 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 there is pressure on the soft tissue  (the perineum) at the front.

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 and  can alter how the whole bike feels. To fix the problem often requires trying a number of saddles before completing the bike fit. Or you may have found the “right” saddle but how you sit on the bike is making it uncomfortable.


CAUSES

If your bike is the right size, here are a number of bike fit faults that can cause saddle discomfort:

Poor Saddle:

The most common cause of saddle discomfort is a poor saddle. Some saddles are hard as a rock and some are too cushy. A saddle that is too thick and soft will make you sink down from the weight of your sit bones and cause 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 improve blood flow. It’s important for the cut-out or groove to  extend 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 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 3 different widths. Specialized has something called the “ass-o-meter”, 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, the gel support isn’t where it is needed. Having a choice of saddle width is important for petite women who have narrow pelvises and would normally choose a narrower men’s saddle. Now they can get a women-specific saddle in a narrower width.

Saddle selection is a personal choice. Everyone’s anatomy, weight and style of riding is unique. As a result, one person may love a saddle whereas another will hate it. When buying 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 tissues. This also usually causes a slouched posture on the 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 hand pain.

The saddle on a road bike should be either level, for a more upright rider, or slightly nose down—just a few degrees 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 forward at the front of the bike. A seat post with adjustable angles allows you to find that ideal 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.

The Saddle  is Too High:

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

The 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.

The Drop Between the Seat and the Handlebars is Too Large:

A more aggressive position at the front of the saddle will put more weight on the hands and the perineum.

The Handlebar Reach is Too Far: Having to stretch too far out at the front reduces support from your arms and places more of your weight on the front of the saddle.

PREVENTION

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 are 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 without washing them.

Chamois Creams:

Just as a runner uses vaseline on areas of repeated friction to prevent chafing sores, so cyclists should apply cream to the saddle area. The pedaling motion creates a certain amount of side to side movement on the saddle, which can cause uncomfortable and 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 prevent chafing by creating a thin lubricating layer between your shorts and your skin. I use Bag Balm (also used on the udders of milk cows and Shania Twain’s skin) and last year in France rode 6 days in a row without 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.

Get Off the Saddle Regularly:

Every 10 to 15 minutes stand on the pedals to either stretch your back, or use a few pedal strokes to stretch the legs. Just as moving your hands around frequently will prevent numbness and pain, getting off the saddle will relieve constant pressure and improves blood flow. Make sure you stand on or lift yourself up a little from the saddle when you ride  over bumps.

Allow Time to Adapt:

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

Practice these preventive steps—don’t wait until you are uncomfortable before taking action.

Mary Paterson is a physiotherapist and a certified bike fit professional. An avid road and mountain cyclist, Mary has over 19 years of sports medicine experience. Her business, Bike 2 Body, offers physiotherapy and bike fitting for cyclists.

Mary brings her medical knowledge of sports injuries and biomechanics to the diagnosis and treatment of cycling injuries and applies them to the ideal bike fit.

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25 comments to Saddle Discomfort—Solutions for Women Cyclists

  • Thanks for this article and everyone’s comments. I’m at the investigative stage of purchasing a “real” road bike after doing a 40 miler on my “museum” quality 35 year old 12-speed. My much more experienced cycling friend pointed out (post ride) that I was torturing myself on a male specific saddle. Let me just say it was a ride to remember. When I find my perfect match, I’ll share the details.

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  • Ray Boaz

    Hi, just so you know, despite my name I am a woman!
    Thank you so much for this article. It made me realise I’m not alone. I cycle by myself and don’t know anyone to ask about this pain.
    A few of you have asked about creams etc to help with soreness. I got horribly sore at the front a while ago, and nothing really helped until I tried a lubricant (like what you use against vaginal dryness, for sex when you get a bit older!). I use it liberally before I set out, and it makes a big difference. I carry some in my work bag, in an anonymous little plastic pot to avoid any possible embarrassment.
    I do hope this helps even just one woman.

  • Mary Miller

    Great article…thank you!! I’m currently in the process of trying out saddles. I was on the stock saddle with my Trek, and am going to return a Terry Liberator X gel today and not sure what to try next. It still seems after 12 miles or so, the soft tissue becomes painful. I am riding a road bike in aero position, which I know is part of my problem. Any suggestions would be appreciated! Thanks again.

  • Michelle

    Great to find some information about women’s cycling issues! I live in Europe and am new to cycling this year. I have a women’s Orbea with a selle Italia saddle and have had a bike fit done, but I am still finding it hard to ride more than 30 km, without discomfort. I don’t feel pain in the sit bone area or the perineal area, my problem is forward of the sit bone area at the top where the leg meets the pelvis. I don’t know if this is just a matter of time , if the saddle is too wide at that point or if it is something else altogether! Any information would be greatly appreciated.

  • Thanks Mary! This was such a helpful post. I am currently preparing for a 7 day ride across Iowa and I have a few discomforts that I do need to address to ensure I enjoy myself fully. Your clear and detailed advice will serve me well!

  • Elizabeth

    My problem seems to be severe pain in the area of the sit bones themselves! I believe this is called ischial tuberosity? Do I need more padding? Should I look for a wider saddle? The only relief I can get is to slide backward OFF the saddle! I am 72 years old. I sit in upright position. I ride my bike extensively for errands as I don’t own a car.

    • LS

      Hi Elizabeth,

      You could try a wider, better padded saddle. But take your bike into the shop with you and explain the problem. They can check your alignment on the bike, and let you test different saddles.

      Let me know how it goes.

      Laurel-Lea

  • Rachael

    I did contact pearlizuma but they don’t make any like they use to. They changed who made the shorts. They are focusing on other features. Thanks for the suggestion.

  • Rachael

    I do a lot of long, mountainous bike touring and have used pearlizuma ultra sensor shorts for years and they have great padding. The newest versions of the shorts however, are terrible. They changed the padding and made them so they sit on hips. Does anyone know of a realy good bike short similar to the old version? I’ve also thought about taking the padding and putting it in a different short since the padding is fine it’s just the rest of the short that is fraying . I have several old pairs.

    • LS

      Switching the padding might be the best short term option. Have you considered getting in touch with Pearl iZUMi? They may be able to recommend a pair of shorts that more closely resembles the the older version that worked for you.

  • Sue Whaites

    Hi, great article, I only cycle with a group of men and have’nt been able to discuss the problem of chaffing and saddle sores with them, well not with any sensible responses anyway!!! I’ve never had any problems in this area until last week whilst on a long cycle training for a sportive this weekend, things are improving slightly but really worried that I wont be able to sit on my saddle for 75 miles, apart from new cycle shorts and lashings of vaseline have you any other suggestions to enable me to survive at the weekend??????

    • LS

      Hi Sue,

      I’ve used an organic diaper cream that worked well (live clean (baby)). You probably don’t get the brand in the UK but you’d have something comparable. Those creams generally sooth chaffing and have a really good moisture barrier. Worked for me.

      Have a good ride.

      Best,
      Laurel-Lea

  • Colleen

    Thank you for posting this information. It is a sensitive topic and not one I wanted to discuss with the male staff at the bike store. I get little bumps under my skin, in the genital area. It is very painful. I am going to try these suggestions, including the cream which I have not yet tried. Happy riding.

  • lena G

    I recently went back to rode bike riding and I have experience saddle discomfort on my genitalia its awful I have try everything for sores or pain and it seems like nothing helps :( and I really would love to go for a century ride but with this problem in my way,,, its very frustrate I was reading your advice in chamois cream and diaper rash creams before riding I normally use chamois cream but after riding can I use diaper rush creams? do you have any other suggestions ? it is good after a 40 mile ride to put some ice bag on your genitalia area to decrease some inflammation ? thanks

    • LS

      Hi Lena,

      If the suggestions in the article haven’t worked for you, I don’t know what else to suggest. I’ve used natural diaper rash creams to sooth post ride rashes. But if none of this works for you it may be time for you to see a doctor.

  • ange

    This article is great I have just got back into riding after a couple of years one of the reasons was an ITB problem in which I have adjusted my seat & leg positioning, but now leaves me with a very sore perineum after about 30km. I wish Mary lived in my region.

  • Barbara Klestzick

    I’ve been dealing with blisters on the top of my legs and I’ve tried nearly everything. What led me to the solution was a sales person at REI. She steered me to shorts with less padding. It was a big improvement, but didn’t solve the problem. I decided to try riding with regular work out pants. It was great! I still haven’t used them on a ride longer than 45 miles, but my blisters have been shrinking and they’re almost gone.

  • Stanley

    Any discussion of saddle discomfort should mention that it’s not an issue for riders of recumbent bicycles. It’s not just a male problem or female problem, it’s a human anatomy problem. We’re not evolved to put weight on our crotch, which is where conventional bike saddles put it. Before I switched to a recumbent bike, I had tried all kinds of saddles, even one that had separate pads for each side of the butt to put weight on the “sit bones” (ischial tuberosities). Nothing was comfortable on long rides. Then I tried the broad seat and back support of a recumbent. What a difference. Also, conventional upright bikes put too much strain on the palms, wrists, etc. We’re not like gorillas, who knuckle-walk. We didn’t evolve to put weight on our arms. Read this: http://www.bikeroute.com/Recumbents/BentMedBenefits.php . Look here for some well-designed recumbent bikes and trikes that aren’t very expensive: http://www.sunbicycles.com/products.php?cl1=RECUMBENT .

  • Veronica

    Unfortunately I’m the opposite, loved my bike and saddle until I had back surgery and now nothing fits right!

  • Patricia Bowen

    This is the very best article that I’ve seen on this subject. Thank you!!!

  • Susan Sparrow

    Graet article on the seat comfort. I changed to Selle Gel Flow acouple of years back, and it did help my dicomfort somewhat, But when I started to ride again this spring after a copmplete hip replacement last Dec. 31st, there was no pain at all. I guess the hip pain made sit poorly when riding. What a difference, something I never expected!

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