Are you sitting comfortably?
The relationship between rider and saddle is crucial to both enjoyment and performance in cycling. Yet being typically British we don’t tend to talk about matters ‘down below’ and often accept that the human body and the bicycle are simply not wholly compatible with each other, or at best they can tolerate each other for a short while before ‘falling out’! An anonymous survey of the female members of the GB track cycling team (many years ago now) showed that 100% reported having had symptoms that affected their ability to train or race effectively. Very few of these had reported any issues before the survey. Maybe because they feared for their place on the team, maybe because cyclists expect to have saddle discomfort or maybe because we Brits don’t like to talk about stuff going on downstairs….
Defining saddle discomfort
Saddle discomfort encompasses a few different issues, but all are typically due to pressure and/or friction. This can cause symptoms of pain and numbness / paraesthesia (pins and needles). Folliculitis (inflammation and/or infection of the hair follicle) is quite a common occurrence and we also have the ubiquitous saddle sores. These are most likely a progression from folliculitis, with the development of an abscess and soft tissue thickening under the skin (referred to as ‘champignons’ or mushrooms in the pro-peloton). Symptoms can also be in varying locations and on one side, both or central. The sit bones (ischial tubersoities), the pubic bones (pubic rami), the genitalia or the perineum (fleshy area between genitals and anus) are the typical sites for problems to occur.
Why should we consider these issues now?
The move from real world (outdoor) cycling to virtual reality (indoor) cycling presents even further provocation to this strained relationship. This piece is primarily aimed at those cyclists who were, on the whole, comfortable riding outside but are becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their indoor set-up. Equally it may be of help in preventing issues from occurring in the coming months, as we spend more time in our garages, sheds, spare bedrooms or conservatories. If you are having problems, consider making some of the practical changes discussed below, but have faith; the human body is adaptable and the bicycle is almost infinitely adjustable. Very rarely is the answer to go out and buy (yet another) saddle; I know, I’ve been there and I will bet that the majority reading this will have spent a small fortune trying to find that elusive holy grail of a comfortable saddle.
Our current predicament revolves around the reliance upon higher volume indoor cycling related to our current inability to maintain aerobic volume through both swimming and running. This ‘indoor’ environment presents us with 3 main issues. The first is that the bicycle is fixed firmly in place by your ‘turbo’ trainer. With very little fore/aft and lateral movement afforded. Secondly the dynamic, real world environment demands that we stand from the saddle at fairly regular intervals, whether that be to unclip at a set of traffic lights, to climb a steep hill or to navigate some rough road surfaces. The static indoor environment doesn’t ‘force’ us to stand. Thirdly, due to a lack of sufficient air flow to effectively cool the skin, sweat rate is increased on the turbo. Trapped inside lycra fabric whilst rubbing up against a leather saddle is not an enviable place to be (for the majority of us in any case!).
Now let’s consider the possible factors that may be causing or contributing to your saddle discomfort and I will suggest possible remedies for each:
Is it your Pain Cave’s Fault?
If you’re generally quite comfortable riding outside but are experiencing discomfort due to increased indoor riding then it may simply be due to the static environment that you are in. This is after all why turbo training can be so effective as you have nothing to be concerned with except your effort level. Reduced movement of the bike and the rider alongside reduced air flow could all be contributory factors. Whilst we can’t do much to eradicate these, we can make subtle changes to our environment and our behaviour.
If nothing else stand regularly from the saddle. Sounds simple, but you may well need to set a cue or indeed timer as a reminder to do this. On zwift, stand on the inclines as you would do outdoors or stand during the recovery period of interval sessions etc… Consider regular cadence changes as this will probably change both your position on the saddle and your contact pressure with it (although subtly perhaps it may be enough to help). Also consider changing the inclination angle of your bike with a front wheel riser block (a home-made version will suffice but make sure it is safe and secure). This will mimic a small gradient on the road and will therefore change the contact patch of you and saddle. If you wish to go one step further and have a Wahoo Kickr then you could consider the Kickr Climb which replaces the front wheel of your bike; raising and lowering the front end in response to the virtual course that you are riding.
Improve airflow with a ‘strong’ fan (or multiple fans) blowing towards you amd consider targeting them at your saddle area. For those who would like greater control or interaction then consider a remote control plug adaptor that allows you to begin warming up without the fan on but allows you to switch it on whilst you remain on the bike (these are inexpensive although you could of course get a long stick to press the on switch with at no cost!). For those who want the full virtual experience Wahoo make the Headwind fan which varies the airflow in relation to your speed in game….
Are you the problem?
Although this would be best assessed by an “on and off the bike assessment”, it is possible that you have inherited or acquired characteristics that are contributing to your discomfort. For example, you may have a leg length discrepancy or curvature of the spine (scoliosis) that would dictate that you sit towards or bear weight more on one side of the saddle. You may have anatomical features, that are simply unfavourable for bike riding. Here we are talking about the fact that all of us are made slightly differently; you may, for instance, have an enlarged area of bone on one side of your pelvis, or a nerve that travels across a bone just at the place where you favour sitting on your saddle.
We also need to consider the specific requirements of female riders. The female pelvis is shaped differently to the male pelvis, being wider with greater variety of soft-tissue anatomy in the genital region.
Then there’s your flexibility, or lack of, and your cycling specific strength, or lack of. Again, this needs a detailed assessment to be sure, but if you cannot tilt your pelvis forwards and backwards (anteriorly and posteriorly) due to tightness around your hips and lower back then you will likely ride in a very fixed position on the bike. Notably here, position on the hoods of your road bike is different to the position when using your TT bars. When sat higher up the pelvis is naturally tilted backwards meaning that most of the pressure is borne by the ‘sit bones’ (ischial tuberosities) whereas the pelvis rolls forwards when we move to our more aero TT position. This means that we come to put more pressure on the pubic ramus and the sensitive soft tissues in the perineal region. If we don’t have the flexibility to adopt these positions then it is likely to increase the pressure against the saddle.
So, to know whether any of these issues relate to you may take an educated guess or a bike fit/physio style assessment. Again however, we can suggest some possible remedies.
Do your strength and flexibility work off the bike! Focus on increasing your range of motion in the hips, pelvis and lower back. On the bike, utilise muscular endurance drills (low cadence intervals) and neuromuscular/co-ordination drills (high cadence intervals) to ensure you are able to ‘hold yourself well’ on the bike.
Ladies may prefer a wider saddle especially for their road bike position as may men who have a larger bone structure. Those with a narrower frame may prefer similarly narrow saddles. You may also need to choose a different saddle to suit your position on your TT bike versus your road bike. Enter here the cut-off (nose-less) saddle and the 2-pronged (split-nose) saddle made famous by ISM. Not generally used for road riding but many people find them helpful for time trials and triathlon racing.
Other changes that can be made include changing pedals, cranks or adding shims to correct for leg length discrepancy. On another note here, reducing crank length should always help as the size of the circle that your leg travels around is reduced meaning reduced torque and lower forces through the pelvis. It is also possible to change saddle height, fore/aft position and tilt (see below), but if you are the issue then the cure also lies with you!
On a final note, and especially important if you get folliculitis or saddle sores. Have you considered your intimate hygiene regime and shaving preferences? Whilst not wishing to go into too much detail here, ensure that you remove sweaty cycling shorts as soon after your turbo session as possible, i.e. don’t sit in them while you have a recovery shake, check out who’s seen your workout on strava and post a photo of your legs on Instagram!! Always use a barrier cream, although it doesn’t have to be cycling specific and it may take a little trial and error to find one that suits your skin type. And finally, most controversially! Consider allowing your pubes to grow a little instead of shaving them off. They are a natural barrier between skin, chammy and saddle….
Should we blame your bike?
As stated earlier, the bike is hugely adjustable but this can result in a bike that does not fit our bodies or our preferred style of riding. Measuring and fitting can be a bit of a minefield and is best left to the professionals, however there are a few key points to mention. The most important consideration is the relationship of your contact points (with the bike) as the measurements between these will dictate how the bike feels to you. Think about the triangle formed between pedals, saddle and bars (or elbow pads) and how changing the geometry of this triangle will increase or reduce pressure at those points.
It is rare to see a saddle set too high but more commonly slightly too low. Both too high and too low can influence saddle pressure. Too high and you will likely rock from side to side in an effort to make each leg a little longer on the down stroke. Too low and it is difficult to support some of the body weight through the pedals meaning greater pressure through the saddle. Moving the saddle forwards and backwards (fore/aft) along its rails will also influence saddle pressure through its effects on reach (distance from saddle to bars) and effective seat tube angle (sitting position relative to the bottom bracket). These issues are best left to a qualified bike fitter.
The most simple thing to check regarding your saddle however, is to check that it is not ‘nose up’. Use a spirit level (old school) or downloadable app to measure the angle of your saddle from the back to the front (nose). Zero to 4 degrees downwards is the standard range to aim for (occasionally angles as steep as 7 degrees are used), but never an upward angle. The slight downward angle allows you to roll your pelvis forwards which can provide relief of pressure and discomfort. If in doubt tilt the nose down a little but certainly no more than 7 degrees.
If in doubt, it really is well worth the investment in a professional bike fit whether your goal is comfort (as discussed here) or performance. TT bike fitting will be different to your road bike, so you cannot take measurements from one and apply to the other. Also, on this subject, if you are riding a ‘spare’ bike on the turbo then double check the measurements match your race bike as close as possible.
Does your saddle match your style of riding, bike type and gender/bone structure? If, with your new-found knowledge it becomes obvious that this is where the problem lies then you may need to purchase a new saddle. If possible, try a test saddle or borrow from a friend prior to purchase as the options are literally endless here. Women generally prefer wider saddles for both road cycling and time trialling. Men with narrower bone structures may find that the 2 pronged or ‘gap’ saddles are too wide, meaning the saddle causes pressure or irritation on the soft tissues as it is wider than the pelvic bones.
If you’ve always been comfortable on your saddle until recently then check it for signs of wear and tear. Has the stitching frayed? How resilient is the foam padding at the point you typically sit? Any damage to the saddle rails? The simple remedy here is to purchase a new version of the same saddle (if still available of course!).
Phil Ellison - Triathlon Coach with Total Tri Training