Reducing saddle soreness - Choosing the right seat

January 08, 2013

Imagine the scenario, it’s a beautiful summer’s day. You have a couple of hours to spare and you take your bike out for a ride. Soon into your ride, your saddle starts to hurt. Not long after, your ride is reduced to a painful slog on what feels more like a bed of nails than a bicycle seat.

Saddle soreness is caused by excess pressure on soft tissue. Saddle soreness is not to be confused with saddle sores, which are caused by among several things, bacterial infection. In this article, we will address the causes of saddle soreness and how to best avoid them.

Saddle soreness comes down to anatomy. Sitting down on a chair, your body weight is spread over a large area. On a bicycle seat, all that weight is spread over a very small area, and things can get uncomfortable very quickly. There are two ways to minimize and avoid saddle soreness: 1. Selecting the right seat and 2. Conditioning your backside on the bike. We will focus on selecting the right seat in this article.

When sitting down, two small bones called ischial tuberosity support your body weight. Let’s just call them ‘sit bones’ for simplicity. The problem is that not all sit bones are the same. Some people have ‘wider’ sit bones and some people have ‘narrow’ sit bones. Others have ‘long’ sit bones and others ‘short’ sit bones. These differences in anatomy make a big difference to what shape seat you choose. Put simply, you choose the seat that best supports your sit bones. Now, lets go a little deeper.

What kind of sit bones do I have? 
We must first determine two things: How wide your sit bones are and how long they are? To determine how wide they are, you need to lay down on your back with your feet on the ground and your knees bent. This way, your gluteus maximus muscles are ‘deactivated’ and it makes it easier for you to feel your sit bones. Using your fingers, feel for the two bony protrusions underneath your bum. Using a ruler to measure the distance between them. This is the width of your sit bones. When you go into a bicycle store, you will look for saddles that have the supporting parts as wide apart as your sit bones. If your seat’s supporting areas are narrower than your sit bones, you will be resting on delicate tissue instead! Women cyclists suffer the same problems as men, and the same logic in determining the correct seat should be taken. 
To determine their length, feel for how far they protrude around the surrounding soft tissue. If there is a lot of soft tissue around your sit bones, and they feel to be buried in, you have shorter sit bones. If your sit bones protrude beyond the surrounding soft tissue, you have longer sit bones. Armed with this knowledge, lets look at the basics of bicycle seat anatomy and how the different shapes suit different people: 
- Flat seats 
These seats have a flat top that is suited for people who have short sit bones. As the sit bones are relatively short, you need a flat top section to the seat to keep pressure off the soft tissue between the sit bones. 
- Curved seats 
Featuring a pronounced curve across the width of the seat, these seats are designed for people who have longer sit bones. The sit bones are able to support your body weight whilst keeping the soft tissue between your sit bones supported. Issues arise if people with shorter sit bones ride these types of seats. A lot of pressure on sensitive bits and pieces can lead to discomfort and even numbness. 
- Cut out seats 
These seats have a cut out that runs for most of the length of the seat. These seats are designed to reduce the pressure on the perineal nerve. These cut outs can be found on both flat seats and curved seats and are an alternative for people who experience discomfort whilst riding. These seats have been especially popular with women who may experience discomfort on traditional seats. 
The second most important thing to look at in a bicycle seat is the type of padding. You’d think that more padding would result in a more comfortable seat. To a certain point, this is true…however if you use your bicycle for longer rides, it may work against you. The problem with lots of soft padding is that your sit bones sink into the padding. Now, your body weight is also being supported by soft tissue, which can cause numbness as your compressing delicate bits and pieces that weren’t designed to be compressed. A well-shaped seat should only require minimal amounts of padding to keep out excessive vibrations from coming up the bicycle. 
Types of padding: 
- Gel Seats 
A gel insert provides comfort against road vibrations. These seats are good for isolating road vibrations, but tend to be too padded. Look for padding that is less than 5mm thick. 
- Foam Seats 
A sportier style of seat, a thin layer of foam provides the necessary cushioning. Seat shape is crucial because it can’t hide behind excess padding. These are the favored style because of their tradeoff in terms of required padding and functional fit. 
- Leather Seats 
These old style seats are designed like a good pair of leather gloves. Nice and tight when purchased, but mold to your shape over time to provide what people who ride them say is a comfortable seat. Key emphasis on the ‘molding to your shape over time’ because these seats are hard and unforgiving when brand new and soften up through use. 
- No Padding 
‘Race’ style seats that are traditionally made out of carbon fiber and reinforced plastics, these seats are for people looking to shave every possible gram. 
Personal Tip: I rode a carbon fiber seat for a while. An unforgiving, hard as stone seat weighing only 75g. Was I nuts? No…do I still have any? Yes. It was one of the most comfortable seats I have ever used because the shape was just perfect, padding or no padding. My cycling shorts had just enough padding in the chamois to keep vibrations from ruining my undercarriage. The point I’m trying to make is that extra padding will not make a poor fitting seat more comfortable. 
So what’s the conclusion to this whole story? Given the hundreds of seats on the market, choosing the right seat is not black magic that should leave you mystified. It simply comes down to anatomy and armed with this basic knowledge of what’s out there and what you need to look for, you might have a better chance of finding the right seat for you. 

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