Saddle discomfort is quite a common complaint in cycling, but it’s not something you need to put up with; here's how to avoid saddle pain and improve your riding experience. You’ll enjoy riding more, probably ride more regularly and go faster if you’re comfortable.
For this expert advice, we spoke to former British Cycling head physiotherapist Phil Burt.
But first, what is saddle pain? To avoid it, it’s best to get a clearer idea of what’s going on down there...
“Pain is often multi-factorial so it can be a number of different things,” Phil begins. “We’re adaptable and then your bike, equipment and position are adjustable—you just have to work out which one to alter.
“You’ve got pressure, you’ve got friction, you’ve got heat, you’ve got sweat and moisture quite often, and all of that can put the skin under a hell of a lot of pressure.
“Cycling’s unique because you’re sitting but your legs are independently moving away from you on both sides all the time. Friction can be a cause of saddle pain and these issues tend to occur in your gutters at the side of your groin.”
“More common is too much pressure on your vulnerable soft tissue areas.”
Phil points out that saddle pain differs for male and female riders: “Women do suffer from much more saddle pain and discomfort than men because men have a much more simple anatomic presentation down there.
“Women are on massively different spectrums—there can be very small amounts of soft tissue to quite a lot, and in different places, so that’s a consideration as well.”
It’s also not just about investing in the right equipment—saddle, shorts, chamois cream—the right set-up is important too.
“If a saddle is not in the right position or place then it can’t work, and that can be down to many different things,” Phil notes.
“For example, people who suffer from unilateral saddle sores quite often have some asymmetry going on with one leg longer than the other and so they sit differently on the saddle.
“In those cases, it doesn’t matter what saddle you’ve got, there are other things you need to do to solve saddle pain.”
Before going into what changes you can make to help avoid saddle pain, Phil stresses that the process is important too...
“I believe in an evolution process so don’t change everything at once," he recommends. “Always make one change at a time and then you can assess whether it’s making a difference.
“If you try a new pair of shorts, a new saddle and a new position, then how do you know which one of those is working or not working?”
By changing one thing at a time you can react to the difference it is making, whether good or bad, and then try other solutions if that change didn’t work out.
“I would trust your initial thoughts,” Phil says. “You hear lots of people saying you have to sort of break your skin in or you just have to get used to it.
“Yes, there’s an element of that right at the beginning when you first start cycling. Some people can get slight saddle discomfort and then get used to that.
“It’s also normal to be a bit saddle sore if you’re trying to do 100 miles a day from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and you’re just not used to riding that far yet. You’d expect a little bit of saddle pain. It’s just like having a bit of a sore back after getting off the bike if you’re doing really long miles.
“Those types are pains are fine as long as they go away the next day—it’s just exposure pain.
“If it’s carrying on to the next day and getting worse than that—it’s persistent—then that’s probably a sign that something’s going wrong because that isn’t a good pain.
“I think sometimes we dismiss discomfort too easily,” Phil admits. “If something’s not comfortable then that’s probably the time to move on and try other things to see if you can get something better—having a bit of a process about it.”
Phil asks, “Are you on the right type of setup for the type of riding you’re doing?” Pressure is applied differently in relaxed and aggressive riding positions and therefore support and relief from the saddle is needed in different places.
“If you’re a serious racing cyclist then you’re likely going to be in a more aggressive position and therefore your pelvis can be rotated forwards,” Phil explains.
A saddle with a wider channel allows you to sit far forward while also providing good bone support.
“If you’re doing long miles distance, in a more upright position, then it’s going to be much more about getting your sit bones comfortable rather than how you’re going to be rotating down into the flat racing position,” says Phil.
Knowing your sit bone distance is important as this relates to the width of the saddle. A saddle needs to be wide enough that sufficient support can be given to your sit bones.
“If you constantly feel like you’re pushing back on the saddle that’s normally a sign that you’re trying to find support for your sit bones,” Phil explains.
“You’ve got so little support because the width is too narrow that you’re basically almost gripping the saddle between your legs to keep support there and that can create pain at the front.”
Phil points out that women generally have wider pelvis systems than men for the process of childbirth and therefore quite a lot of women have saddle pain because they’re riding on a men’s width saddle.
“They just haven’t got the base of support there and it can be really game-changing for them if they get the right width saddle,” Phil says.
At the other end of things, if you find yourself sitting further forward on the saddle that could be a sign that your saddle is too wide as you’re trying to get away from the support.
Saddles with a cut out can be a solution for many as they relieve pressure in the soft tissue areas.
“Gap saddles were invented for dealing with penal numbness as there’s a nerve underneath the penis and you want to avoid too much pressure there,” Phil explains.
“Some women have also turned to these and if their anatomy is suited then that’s absolutely fine, but other women run into problems here.”
The problem is that women’s soft tissues can fall into this gap and this can cause unpleasant swelling.
One solution could be Specialized Mimic technology which instead uses soft multi-layered materials in this central part of the saddle to minimise soft tissue swelling for improved comfort.
For more on the technologies Specialized uses in its saddles to solve different types of discomfort, check out our guide on how to decide on the best Specialized saddle for your type of riding.
The angle your saddle is tilted at can make a significant difference to comfort.
“I went to the UCI in 2015 and challenged them because there used to be a rule that you could only tilt your saddle down two degrees,” Phil recalls.
“If you tilt the nose of your saddle downwards that can really improve comfort, and so they agreed to change the rule based on that.
“It can just be a simple check, is it flat or is it nose down?”
The pad inside the short plays an important role in distributing pressure as well as wicking away sweat, and it needs to stay securely in place too.
“You want a well-fitting short,” Phil says. “You don’t want what I call ruffling at the top. That’s why you need a good leg gripper so that the shorts don’t ride up.”
“I don’t think spending more money is a guarantee that the pad will be more comfortable. If you can, the best thing is to try and feel them before you buy them, by going into a shop.
“If it looks comfortable and feels comfortable, it probably will be comfortable—it’s what I call a comfort filter.”
Endura has different width chamois’ that could help some riders. “The same size chamois going into an extra-small short and an extra-large short doesn’t really make sense,” Phil says.
If you're looking to match up your shorts with your saddle, Shimano has used data from bikefitting.com pressure mapping to create a chamois for its Tenku bib shorts that's designed to match the race-focused Pro Stealth saddle for improved comfort when going fast. More on this over here.
“Often people who are suffering from saddle pain will turn to chamois cream thinking that’s the solution,” Phil notes. “Chamois cream is great for reducing frictional issues with saddle pain, but it isn’t going to help you deal with a poor position or wrong saddle that is creating too much pressure.
While chamois cream doesn’t distribute pressure better it does have the benefit of reducing friction.
Phil himself has been developing a chamois cream system with Endura as well as with guidance from skin healthcare teams and dermatologists. Along with the chamois cream itself, their system includes a wash that takes it off to let the skin breathe and a post-ride moisturiser so the skin can absorb anything that it has lost.
“Our system is designed around providing that friction-free environment but then looking after the skin really well too,” Phil notes.
“The skin generally starts to break down either when water’s lacking or water escapes a lot, and that’s an issue with your skin health.
“This new cream has a barrier function that stops water from coming in and out of the skin and it’s used in hospitals to manage pressure sores caused by patients lying on one side all the time.
“It also doesn’t have any smell or colour as those are the things that generally annoy skin.”
What you do once you finish a ride is also incredibly important for avoiding saddle pain on your next outings.
“Some people just have vulnerable skin so they’re going to have to work a bit harder at managing that and our system may end up being a solution for those riders as it can help them take better care of their skin,” Phil believes.
We’ll be getting some in for review on road.cc when it launches to give our verdict on its effectiveness…
“The worst thing you can do is sit around in sweaty lycra when you finish riding,” Phil stresses. “Get out of your lycra and then wash, but don’t wash too aggressively or you can damage the skin even more.”
Phil also recommends paying attention to the style of clothes you put on afterwards, where you can. Tight casual clothing should be avoided to help with your recovery after cycling.
“If you can try to keep it baggy, wear loose shorts for an hour or two, that allows air to help your skin recover and that can make a big difference, for both men and women.”
“A lot of people get folliculitis,” Phil points out. “This is an infection around the hairs down there and it’s often down to sweat and poor skin hygiene.
“For riders having these sorts of issues, a bit of hair really helps create a barrier.
“If you have very short stubbly hairs all the time they are much more prone to getting sore and then those type of saddle sores can become modules and a bit more painful.”
Some people may have subtle pain on one side because they’ve got leg length difference.
Riding with a longer crank amplifies any asymmetry you may have so Phil recommends shrinking your crank length as that can help with saddle pain—and makes no difference to performance.
“More often than not people are on too long a crank and that’s a parameter that can be really easily manipulated to help out,” Phil says.
“We reduced crank length massively in British Cycling and Team Sky for time trialling positions because the lower you are at the front the more closed your hip is getting and it’s harder to breathe as that position is so extreme.
“Once we disconnected crank length being important for power—because it’s not in sub-max cycling— why would you pedal a bigger circle? It’s just going to cost your joints more and it’s harder to do.”
Phil also notes that we get tight hip flexors from being stuck in a limited range when cycling. “Every 2.5mm we drop crank length you give about two degrees back to the hip and open it up, so that can really help with lower back pain, hip pain and knee pain.
“This then relates to saddle pain because if you’re more comfortable on the bike overall then you can choose to sit in a position that you actually want to."
Working on increasing your flexibility off the bike can also help.
“If someone’s really stiff in their pelvis and lower back, by working on themselves they can actually adopt a better position which can reduce their saddle pain,” Phil says.
Stance width—that’s the difference between your pedals—is nearly the same on all bikes, no matter the size, Phil points out.
“I’ve had great success with some women who suffer from saddle pain on either side, by increasing the width—either moving the pedal cleat wider or employing wider spindles or even washers.
“This can help because women have wider pelvises and it makes some difference to that sort of side pain you can get with cycling because it will align the hip/knee better so you’re more free at the saddle.”
Do you ride pain free? What did you find is the best saddle/short combination for you?