6 factors affecting saddle sores
Saddle sores happen to the best of riders and can seriously affect your cycling performance and enjoyment. Saddle choice, shorts, skin care and bike fit all play a part in keeping you comfortable.
Picking apart the reasons for your saddle sores can be a right pain in the backside, there are multiple and interacting reasons that could lead to saddle pain, pressure and sores. We learnt how critical saddle soreness can be to an elite athlete in the build-up to the Rio Olympics, it affects their number of rest days, their ability to train and therefore ultimately how they compete/perform. It matters for everyone, saddle comfort is crucial to your enjoyment and to getting the most out of your cycling.
For the 12 years I worked with British Cycling I was able to go anywhere in the world to get answers to these problems, I have spoken to leading experts in fields from dermatology to material manufacture, but working with elite athletes is just the finishing polish. For the ordinary cyclist at the other end of the scale a small thing can have a massive impact!
Working with athletes has helped me develop a layer system to identify the problem, this can be applied to any rider or any ability or experience. Some factors are intrinsic – to do with us; our body shape, our injury history, skin type and even attitude to rest days. Extrinsic factors include our choice of saddle, shorts and riding position.
Let’s start at the bottom and work up.
1) Your body
Before looking anywhere else let’s start with you. The first point of contact being your bare skin (Note bare! No under wear here please) with your chamois. Some people have skin that is innately more sensitive than other peoples, you need to work out what is normal for you. If you are relatively new to cycling you may find your tissues toughen up over time, if you have been riding for years you need to monitor the pattern of when you get saddle sore; is it distance, type of training or race, type of terrain. This is all useful knowledge.
Body hair is a useful as a functional barrier , it’s there to provide a barrier between skin and the outside world , so whilst I’d hesitate to tell anyone how to style their under carriage it is worth remembering that a little bit of hair is a good thing. Frequent shaving or waxing can also lead to folliculitis – inflammation of the hair follicles – another reason to cut back on cutting back. This is on the best authority, a Professor of Vulval dermatology at Cambridge University.
How stable you are on the bike has a huge impact on saddle comfort. However good your position is your stability can make the difference. If you are rocking and moving and your weight is just dumped on the saddle it can lead to soreness.
We are all asymmetrical to greater and lesser extents but the more asymmetry your body has the more likely you are to weight the saddle more on one side or rock/chaff as you ride. You might have one leg longer than the other, or it might be discrepancy caused by injury. Don’t think just about your legs, a back, shoulder or arm injury can also make you sit unevenly.
Another ‘you’ factor you can control is your attitude to training, recovery and body care. If you have sore or broken skin it needs time to heal, if you struggle to enforce rest days this may be having an impact. Personal hygiene is critical in preventing saddle sores but make sure you don’t wash too aggressively or with too harsh a soap as our natural skin oils also act as an emollient. Finally make sure that you wear good quality, close fitting, good, clean Lycra (without pants!) every time you get on your bike.
2) Chamois Cream
Choosing – and using – the right chamois cream is important. I found with experience that using creams with a good emollient factor-or lubrication-more simply put work best. The cream doesn’t have to be cycling specific, it is more important that it works with your skin, provides the necessary lubrication and that you use it every single time you get on your bike. Experiment with different brands including those available from your pharmacy, not just your bike shop. It’s more important to find a cream that works for your individual skin type and needs than buying ones that are gender specific.
The chamois or pad in your shorts can make a real difference to your ride comfort, it needs to work for your body shape and your event. Pads come in many different styles, we found at British Cycling that it wasn’t necessarily the most expensive material that mattered more the cut,fit and its position in the shorts.
Choose the right chamois for the job – i.e., the type of riding your doing. A road cycling chamois will not help with the kind of pressures experienced in riding a in a TT position.
If you compete in different disciplines, you may find you need a different short for time trials to your long training rides. When in an aero position your pelvis rolls forward putting more pressure on your pubic bone so you need more pad at the front. On an endurance ride where you sit up right you need more padding at the rear beneath your sit-bones.
Your shorts are an extrinsic factor but how you look after them is down to you. They need washing after every ride with an anti-bacterial detergent that works at 30 degrees to prevent damage to the Lycra. Halo sports wash is a great option, it is similar to the products used in hospital laundries, works at a low temperature and removes bacteria and viruses.
How the short fits your body is critical, make sure you try them on in your riding position so you can feel how the bib and leg gripper will sit. You can’t tell if short fits wearing them in a normal standing position. Look at every aspect of the short; the number of panels, quality of the seams and positioning of the leg grippers. Always choose function over fashion! Shorts that wrinkle, go baggy or bunch up are a recipe for chafing and soreness.
Create a ‘wardrobe’ of shorts for different conditions; long steady rides, road races, time trials and interval sessions as how you ride will affect where you sit on the saddle and how your shorts and chamois need to be positioned. Don’t just keep your oldest crappiest pair of shorts for indoor training, if you spend a long time on the turbo or riding on Zwift then the combination of sweat, training intensity and position deserves a decent pair of shorts to protect your tissues from soreness.
One thing I have learnt about saddle choice is that everyone is different. When it comes to the presentation of our genitalia we are all unique. These differences can be structural, as in the shape of our pelvis, or it can be down to our tissues. Our saddle choice needs to reflect our intrinsic make-up, which mean you need to be familiar with your own down below.
A key issue for men is pressure on the pudendal nerve, which runs through the middle of the base of the penis and perineum , which can lead to numbness and erectile dysfunction. This was the reason the ‘gap’ saddle was first invented. Gap saddles can work for some women, but not all, it really depends on your own shape and tissues. For some the sensitive areas fit within the gap where as others the tissue folds overlap the gaps actually increasing pressure. The width of the gap varies between saddles so it is worth experimenting. For some women a well-padded saddle with a narrow nose is the best solution. As it removes pressure form the inner labia.
Overriding every one of these other factors is position. You can buy the best saddle, wear the best shorts and slap on the chamois cream but if your position is wrong it is compromising every part of you.
In many ways position is both the start, and the end, of our picking apart the saddle sore conundrum. If you have saddle sores then checking your position is the best place to start, once your position is right you can work through the other things on the list and make sure they are right too. On the other hand, if you have tried everything on this list and still have saddle sores then it is time for a bike fit!
Bike fits are expensive, but they are not a luxury, think how much money you can throw away on fancy creams, shorts and different types of saddles without finding a solution. When it comes to throwing darts we want to be Eric Bristow not a chimp as my good friend Scott Drawer once said- let’s go straight for the bulls-eye on solving this problem.