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Preventing saddle soreness

Training

An untrained eye probably looks at a bike saddle, notes the linear, slender, streamlined lines and thinks, “wow, that must be uncomfortable!”
Every cyclist knows the opposite is true as the long, tapering design is essential for allowing thigh movement. Of course, every cyclist also has a story or two to tell about saddle soreness, sometimes only pins and needles, other times proper pain. Saddles are basically thorny topics. These narrow, essential supports are one of the five contact points of the body with the bike (the hands and feet are the others). The area in question is the perineum, which is a delicate part of the body that cyclists might simply call the saddle contact area.

Sitting on a bicycle is completely unlike an afternoon in an armchair, so after 5 or more hours of graft, some reddening of the skin or light pain in the sit bones is normal.

The solution is simple: some chamois cream to be used before and after cycling; make sure you wash the saddle contact area properly; and freshly washed shorts for every ride. These solutions are widely known; the causes less so. Let’s explore them.

Saddle soreness: rubbing and compression

Look carefully at the elements involved in saddle soreness and two major culprits come to light: rubbing and compression. Rubbing is constant, repeated, but it is eased by choosing a pair of perfectly fitting shorts, with the right padding in the seat area and a wicking material. There are almost endless excellent options available these days, often made of synthetic fabrics, perhaps with an anti-bacterial treatment.  Compression is a trickier issue as it involves various factors, such as, cycling style, athlete’s weight and road smoothness.

Two contact points

To get an idea of the correct position on the saddle, imagine an x-ray taken from the side. You would see two distinct contact points between the pelvic area and the saddle. The main area is towards the rear, where the sit bones touch the saddle. The other is less evident, further forward, the pubis.

Clearly, choosing the right shape for a saddle needs to start from understanding the shape of the pelvic area. The distance between the sit bones is what determines saddle width, while the angle of the pelvic area when on the saddle is key to choosing the extent of the central recess.

Cycling style is another factor. For example, if the athlete favours a more relaxed, upright position, a larger, more padded seat will be more comfortable. For a more aggressive, forward posture – the classic race position – the best bet is a narrower contact point, with less saddle padding.

 

ciclismo problemi

Saddle angle

Everything above is only useful if the saddle is correctly positioned. And this requires not only getting the correct height and fore-and-aft position, but also the angle. This is not especially complex, but you do need to be precise. The tip of the saddle should be ever so slightly inclined, but never more than 3 mm, otherwise your pelvis might slip.

Does cycling cause genital problems?

Current scientific evidence provides no clear correlation between cycling and urogenital disorders. One study suggests the numbness felt by many cyclists in that area is not tied to sexual dysfunction. Other studies have argued such problems are linked to the saddle type used and incorrect posture on the bike, rather than to cycling in general.

 

Since this is a delicate area of the body, the additional stress caused by cycling can, if there are other factors present (e.g. age, enlarged prostate or prostatitis infection), make things worse, leading your GP or a physician to recommend a temporary suspension of cycling so you can recover fully. But, once you are better, there is no reason you can’t get back on your bike, as this won’t increase your chances of a relapse.

References

  • Baradaran N, Awad M, Gaither T W, Fergus K B, Ndoye M, Cedars BE, Balakrishnan AS, Eisenberg ML, Sanford T, Breyer BN. The association of bicycle‐related genital numbness and Sexual Health Inventory for Men (SHIM) score: results from a large, multinational, cross‐sectional study. BJU Int.2018 May;23.
  • Baran C, Mitchell GC, and Hellstrom WJG. Cycling-related sexual dysfunction in men and women: A review. Sex Med Rev 2014;2:93-101.
  • Awad MA, Gaither TW, Murphy GP, Chumnarnsongkhroh T, Metzler I, Sanford T, Sutcliffe S, Eisenberg ML, Carroll PR, Osterberg EC, Breyer BN. Cycling, and Male Sexual and Urinary Function: Results from a Large, Multinational, Cross-Sectional Study. J Urol.2018 Mar;199(3):798-804.

Having graduated in Sport and Movement Science, he is now the athletic coach and owner of “Reaction", a centre in Saluzzo offering a range of sports and exercise programmes, from rehabilitation to performance training. In addition to being the athletic trainer for Alex Zanardi and Vittorio Podestà, who won gold medals at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympics, his main areas of interest are biomechanics and functional assessments to improve athletic performance. He loves endurance sport and is an accomplished long-distance cyclist. He has been part of Equipe Enervit since 2014.