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Ouch! My butt hurts!

"Hey Frank, I have a question. Tom and I did our longest ride ever! We went 35 miles on that bike trail we told you about ..."

"Wow! That's great! Congratulations!"

"... but our butts hurt! When we got done, we were really sore! What can we do so our butts don't hurt?"

That was the start of an actual conversation. And the problem it describes isn't unusual. Saddle soreness makes many people think they can't bicycle. Most often, I hear it as an excuse: "I don't see how you can sit on that tiny seat. I could never do that. I sat on one once and it hurt!"

OK, I admit, when I was a beginner at cycling, I had a saddle problem too. But I solved the problem, and millions of other cyclists have solved it. What do they know that you don't know? What can you do to prevent saddle soreness?

Luckily, there's a lot you can do. Here are some tips, with the cheapest, easiest tricks listed first, and the expensive, more difficult ones last. This way, you can just work (or spend) your way down the list until you're comfortable!

1. Stand up! 

For most people, 35 miles on a flat bike trail (like the ride mentioned above) means at least three hours of sitting. That's three hours of pressure, reduced blood flow, reduced ventilation, and perhaps sweat on your nether parts. Your butt would be sore if you were sitting on a lawn chair! So do your butt a favor. Stand on the pedals now and then to take the pressure off. You can stand while coasting down any little hill. You can stand while climbing a hill. You can stand and pedal even if there is no hill. And, of course, you can stop the bike and stand up to rest. But do stand up to let some blood and air circulate! It really helps, it's easy, and it's free! (Can't stand up? At least slide forward or backward on your saddle, to change the pressure points.)

2. Tilt up 

Or maybe, tilt down. That is, adjust the tilt of your saddle. Changing saddle tilt is an easy, one or two wrench job. Adjust so the widest part of your saddle supports your weight mostly on your two "sit bones" or ischial tuberosities, the ones that hold you up if you sit on the corner of a desk. If your saddle is tilted too far back, it can put pressure on soft tissue at the front. But be careful - if you tilt it too far forward, you can find yourself sliding off the saddle, and resisting that with excess pressure on your hands. For most people, the top of the saddle should be roughly level, but experiment to see what works for you. A small change can make a big difference!

3. Grease up. 

Or maybe, powder up. Some saddle soreness comes not from pressure on the wrong bits, but from chafing. Some riders apply skin creams, or petroleum jelly, or medicated ointments, or baby powder to reduce friction. Some even like cornstarch - it's slippery and it's organic! But if chafing is part of your problem, lubrication means less friction and less hurting.

4. Change your underwear. 

But not the way Mom meant it. Instead, try a different style underwear. If you're wearing cotton skivvies with thick seams, you'll end with four layers of folded cotton right at the highest pressure points. Those lumps hurt! If nothing else, at least consider some thin styles with minimal seams. But see #5, below.

5. Adjust your bike. 

Are you sure your bike is fitting you right? If your saddle is too high, it may make your hips rock side to side to reach the pedals. That can cause chafing. If your handlebars are too high or too close, you can be sitting too far upright, and putting extra weight on the saddle. Remember, you want your weight balanced between your pedals, your hands and your butt. If necessary, stop in at your bike shop to have them check and adjust your bike fit.

6. Suit up! 

No, not the wool pinstripe power suit. Bite the bullet and get a pair of real bike shorts, the tight lycra variety. This is often the most cost effective move, because these things work. The tightness keeps the fabric flat and prevents layers of wrinkles. The padding does the same - it's not so much a cushion, as a way further resist wrinkles in the most critical area. (Baggier mountain bike shorts are better than ordinary pants, but in my experience, nothing beats lycra for comfort.)

Oh, and it's true: Bike shorts are intended to be worn next to your skin. No skivvies. That removes yet another cause of chafing.

7. Lose weight. 

OK, this isn't easy, but at least it can be inexpensive! In general, wispy thin folks have fewer saddle problems than chunkier folks. If you've been wanting to lighten your bike/body combination, work on the heavier part. That's you! Every pound you drop is that much less pressure on your saddle.

How do you lose weight? My favorite methods are: Eat less, and ride more.

Besides reducing saddle pressure, there are other side benefits. Riding more makes your butt tougher, which also helps prevent saddle soreness. Losing weight makes getting up hills easier, and may even reduce your flat tires. And of course, it makes you look better in that lycra!

8. Change your saddle. 

So what if all the above doesn't fix your problem? Well, you may need a different saddle. Here's where we get into some expense, and some complication.

Choosing a Saddle

The choice of a new saddle isn't easy. Different riding styles may call for different saddle types. In general, wider and softer saddles go with shorter, slower rides. Narrower, firmer saddles work best for faster, longer rides.

Think about it! It makes sense! To go fast, you'll push harder on the pedals. And the harder you push down on the pedals, the less of your weight remains on the saddle. Also, faster cyclists bend low over the handlebars to escape the wind. Both of these reduce the weight on your butt - which further helps, because now your butt muscles can do more work, making you even faster, meaning it takes less saddle time to do a long ride. Of course, you've got to be in good shape to do all that, so you've got to ride lots - which also toughens your butt, remember?

Bottom line: When you see a fast guy on a narrow saddle, don't pity him. His butt's probably more comfortable than yours!

On the other hand, a person who takes a leisurely ten mile cruise about once a week, doesn't push as hard, doesn't care about aerodynamics, and doesn't need his glutes working hard. He won't have a tough butt. He'll sit up straighter to enjoy the view more, and he'll put more weight on his saddle. He'll probably want a wider, cushier saddle. And he won't care if it's not comfortable on a 75 mile ride, because he's not going to do one!

So, narrow and firm for speed and distance; wider and softer for slow, short comfort. To buy a saddle, you need to know where you are on the cushy-to-rock-hard scale. But that's not all!

Your personal saddle measurement

There's a critical measurement you'll need to know when you shop for a saddle, and it's not easy to get. You'll need to know the distance between your sit bones - that is, your "ischial tuberosities". Again, these are the two bony knobs that you can feel supporting your weight if you sit on a desk corner, facing out.

So how do you measure your sit bone width? It is pretty personal, after all!

If you've ridden for a while, you may be able to tell by looking at your saddle. It may have noticeable wear at the spots the sit bones have been pressing. Or you may be able feel that distance by hand and judge it pretty well. Once, I even saw a special foam measurement pad in a bike shop; you'd sit on it, your sit bones would leave pockets that you could measure.

But one way or another, learn your sit bone width. Then buy a saddle wide enough to support your sit bones. A narrower saddle can have your sit bones hanging off the sides. All your weight will be on the soft tissues in between, and trust me, that will hurt! But don't get a saddle too much wider. A too-wide saddle can cause nasty chafing, and interfere with pedaling.

By the way, as a general rule, women's sit bones are significantly further apart than those of men. Therefore, most women need a saddle that's a bit wider, and perhaps a bit shorter front to back. Still, I've known women who did great on men's saddles, and I've known guys who were more comfortable on a saddle supposedly designed for women.

What about the fact that bike saddles cause men to become impotent? The short answer is: Hogwash! One infamous urologist has built a career out of that claim, but the facts (and most other urologists) are against him. Indeed, cycling seems to be good for that problem, just as it is for so many other medical problems. Some men do experience penile numbness under certain conditions, like long rides in flat terrain. Don't ignore this, but don't give up cycling! Instead, use the tips in this article.

What about the "hole in the middle" saddles designed with that problem - or women's comfort - in mind? And what about "gel" saddles? Well, for both types, all that can be said is: some folks like them, and some folks don't. You've got to see for yourself. Which leads to a major principle of saddle choice: We're All Different Down There!

Just as with shoes, a saddle that feels great to Sam may feel terrible for George, and vice versa. People's butts are as individual as their feet. You've got to try on different saddles to find one that's comfortable.

What about saddles with big springs? And what about special saddles that have no nose at all? Or oddball saddles consisting of two separate pads, one for each sit bone?

Well, they may work for you. We're all different down there. But I'd advise against those. Spring saddles work for some slow cruiser types, but few are made with good quality, the springs tend to squeak, and the bouncing wastes energy. Noseless saddles, or separate pad saddles, remove some of the bike control you get by body English, and often cause problems by digging into the back of one's thighs. There are good reasons these have failed badly in the market place.

Finally, what about leather saddles, like the famous Brooks? I'll admit, a true, certified Retro-Grouch will ride nothing else. And there are countless super-long-distance riders and tourists who would give away their first-born sooner than they'd give away their Brooks. Good leather saddles break in to fit your butt, they breathe, they have just the right amount of give, and they may be wonderful for you ...

... but they don't work for me. Oh, I tried, for thousands of miles. But I was never comfortable on a Brooks. Remember: We're All Different Down There!

You may benefit from this difference, though, if you have biking friends. Many cyclists have a "bad" saddle in their junk box - but their worst saddle may be your best. See if you can swing a trade, or a bargain-price sale.

No luck there? Then get to a bike shop where you can try several saddles on a test ride, perhaps on a trainer. See if you can swing a trial period, or perhaps an exchange if you buy one and it doesn't work out. But keep trying until you find one that fits your anatomy.

Personally, I do best with a "modern" saddle with fairly firm padding and a leather cover. Two of mine have holes in the middle, the rest don't. One is gel with lycra covering. None are super-narrow. I've found the width and firmness that works well for me, and I've now got it in several brands of saddle.

If you do some trial and error, you can do the same.

So, let's review the saddle buying tips:

  •  Know the distance between your sit bones

  •  Buy a saddle wide enough to support your sit bones.

  •  Buy a saddle that fits your riding style - wide for leisure, narrower for speed.

  •  Keep trying until you find one that fits your personal anatomy.

  •  Remember: We're All Different Down There!

9. Change your bike. 

If none of the above experiments makes you comfortable, there's still hope. You can change your bike. If necessary, practice saying "Honey, I love cycling, but that bike is never going to be comfortable." With a pitiable-enough tone, you may be able to get a new bike - a brand new, perfectly fitting bike with a brand new, perfectly fitting saddle.

And finally, if you really want to try something different:

10. Get a Recumbent. 

There are folks who believe you should change not only the bike, but completely change the style of bike. They think sitting on a conventional bike just makes no sense. They'll pull you in the doorway of the Church of the Recumbent.

Recumbent bikes have you sitting as if you're in a lawn chair, and in fact, many of their seats resemble lawn chairs. Recumbent lovers praise the seat comfort, the lack of hand pressure, and the more relaxed view. But before you switch, remember there are disadvantages to recumbents. It's generally agreed that they're quite a bit slower going uphill, they're harder to transport by car, they use non-standard parts (possibly complicating repairs), and they are more expensive.

And one more thing: They sometimes give you a very sore butt! It's a malady sometimes called "Recumb-butt," and it comes from sitting for a long time, unable to stand, so the blood supply is cut off from your nether parts. Sound familiar?

But many recumbent lovers have no such problem. So if you're a nonconformist type who likes unconventional designs, and you have a sore butt - go for it!

11. What if your butt really, really hurts?

I don't want to scare anyone, but: there's a difference between a sore butt and a real saddle sore. Saddle sores are a medical condition, usually caused by extended pressure and friction. They are usually a form of skin infection in a form similar to a boil or pimple, but severe ones can be open sores. Real saddle sores can be painful in the extreme, and require attention.

The good news is, you normally need to ride many, many hundreds of miles to get true saddle sores. Eddy Merckx, the greatest bike racer of the 1970s (and perhaps all time) was plagued by saddle sores. But again, he rode more miles in a year than many cyclists do in a lifetime.

To prevent saddle sores, all of the above tips will help. In addition, cleanliness and dryness are important. Be sure you and your bike shorts are washed and completely dried after every ride. And be careful to increase mileage gradually. Saddle sores can pop up when your weekly mileage suddenly jumps from 50 to 500.

If you develop true saddle sores, take time off the bike, try antibiotic creams and/or hot baths, and if necessary, see your doctor.

 

Let's review!

So there's a lot you can do to be comfortable on a bike seat. Again, to summarize:

1. Stand on the pedals once in a while (or at least shift your position on the seat).

2. Adjust the tilt of your saddle

3 Grease Up 

4. Try a different style underwear

5. Adjust your bike.

6. Get a pair of real bike shorts (and ditch the underwear altogether)

7. Lose weight... Eat less, ride more

8. Change your saddle

  • Know the distance between your sit bones

  • Buy a saddle wide enough to support your sit bones.

  • Buy a saddle that fits your riding style - wide for leisure, narrower for speed.

  • Keep trying until you find one that fits your personal anatomy.

  • Remember: We're All Different Down There!

9. Get a new bike

10. Get a recumbent

11. Treat true, infected saddle sores as a medical problem.

Try working your way down that list. Don't give up! Like millions of other cyclists, you too can be comfortable on your bike.

- Frank Krygowski

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08/16/11
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