Pain in the ass.
If you are new to cycling then this may be news to you, cycling can be a real pain in the butt. As a new cyclist, you may never have considered the battle waged between the legs of amateurs and pros alike. The battle for comfort, against overwhelming pressure, friction, heat, moisture, and skin. We are talking about saddle sore, or more scientifically, Folliculitis (the infection of a hair follicle) and the comedically named Furuncle (a boil). Both of these ailments are common to the veteran cyclist but can be extremely serious if not treated or prevented in the first place. Even the venerable Eddy Merckx had to pull out of the Tour De France in 1976 due to saddle sore from training. Cyclists have been dealing with the issue of soreness since the saddle was invented. There is no shortage of products aimed to alleviate the problem and restore the delicate pleasures of a Sunday ride. How do you know which is going to work and what is best for you? let us try to help.
Cause and effect.
Identifying the causes of saddle sore is the best way to decide which methods can be used to prevent or treat it. The number one cause for new cyclists is pressure. An unfamiliarity with the saddle means that the rider will sit with more weight on their hips, just like you would sit on a chair. The pointy sit bones rest on the saddle carrying the weight of the rider, this becomes hot and sweaty as the cyclist travels. The friction from constant pedaling causes the skin to become inflamed and then an infection can take hold. More experienced cyclists with a lower (more aero) riding position face the same cause and effect but the symptoms will appear closer to the perineum ( the area between the anus and genitals). This is due to the hips tilting forward which is more likely on a road bike or sporty mountain bike. Low blood flow in this area due to pressure speeds the process of infection as the body cannot defend itself with white blood cells. Excess sweat is trapped inside our clothing and together with the heat of our bodies, creates the perfect habitat for bacteria to grow. Other causes of saddle sore can be general hygiene, badly adjusted bike, wrong shape or size saddle, too aggressive position, too upright position, or clothing choices among a host of others.
Adjustments for FREE pain relief.
There are a number of bike specific factors which may lead to developing saddle sore when riding. These are the easiest to adjust and can be tested free of charge before the need to buy any products. Don’t get sucked in by snake oil advertisements without trying the basics first.
With much of your body weight resting on the saddle, the angle becomes very important. Leaning the saddle too far forward will mean your weight rests on the wide area at the back of the saddle. This can cause extra friction as your legs cannot rotate freely. This will often cause saddle sore to the inner thigh. A downward saddle can also cause the rider to slip forward when cycling, the need to constantly readjust sitting position is a surefire way to grow saddle sores on the sit bones. A saddle leaning backward will cause the opposite effect, the nose of the saddle will irritate the perineum, scrotum or labia and clitoris. Numbness in the genitals is often present when the saddle is too “nose up”. Putting up with this issue longterm can lead to serious lasting effects for men and women aside from the painful rash and boils. As a solution, try to adjust your saddle until it is level with the floor across its length, this isn’t the solution but a starting point. Test the saddle at small increments knowing that you can always return to the previous position should it feel worse. It’s best to do this over a few long rides to get a true feel for the changes. You can even take a tool with you to test as you go. You may need to obtain a seat-post with smaller adjustment increments if you find yours moves too far with each adjustment.
Saddle height can also be a factor when talking about saddle sore. Most commonly a saddle which is too high causes the hips to rock. This causes friction on the sit bones which leads to discomfort.If your saddle is too low you may place more weight on it than is necessary with the same results. Start by sitting in the saddle and placing your heel on the pedal, adjust the saddle height until this leaves you with a straight leg without needing to lean your hips to either side. Adjust in small increments from here and test as before. If you are unsure of how to set the saddle height then the best course of action is to visit a bike shop with a fitting facility and trained staff. Riders with leg length discrepancies from injury or birth defect are best seeking advice straight away.
Some experienced cyclists may attempt to ride a position which is too aggressive. This means that the handlebars are either too far below the saddle top or too far from the saddle. This is usually to recreate the look of a pro’s bike. Without the thousands of training miles and years of experience, the rider falls foul to soreness very quickly. The remedy is to be realistic with your bike setup.
A common mistake made by many new cyclists is to wear the wrong clothing. The first lesson is to always wear cycling specific clothes if going further than the local shops. Your bum will thank you. This may sound strange but underwear and cycling do not mix, wear cycling shorts or bib shorts next to the skin to be cooler and remove another cause of nasty irritation. The extra seams of underwear are one of the easiest ways to make yourself sore. Specific clothing has been designed to move the seams away from our soft areas and promote better ventilation. The fabrics are often capable of removing sweat which further reduces the likelihood of discomfort and infection if you do get sore.
As nice as it is sitting down to a cooked breakfast as you relive the post-ride highlights, take the time to remove your bib shorts beforehand. Sitting in dirty shorts is a major cause of irritation since damaged skin and hot open pores are pressed against the dirty fabric. Remove the shorts and have a quick wash down there to remove the salt. If you do use soap be wary to rinse properly as soap can block your skin pours easily. Never wear dirty cycling shorts, if riding multiple days in a single pair then wash and rinse them each night as a matter of urgency.
This is more of an adjustment of your riding itself rather than a bike component. If you tend to sit for long periods then your posterior will become hot and not get a chance to cool down or dry. Take 5-minute standing breaks during the ride to cool and dry off, this is also great for strength training. Look at Vincenzo Nibali who reportedly completed whole training rides standing to be better in the mountains. Standing is great for the core and uses different muscles to seated pedaling as well as giving the rump a rest.
For frequent sufferers of saddle sore, use an antibacterial soap or a natural replacement like tea tree oil but make sure to use as advised on delicate areas. Be wary of over shaving, for some riders, having hairy legs is a complete no go. Shave the legs but stop before removing the pubic hair as this can have a wicking effect which removes sweat from the sore areas allowing it to cool and dry. This may be an old wives tale as it has always happened to a friend of a friend, but as the story goes, two triathletes are having a conversation before an Ironman event. One mentions to the other that he should be sure to carefully shave all hair from downstairs the night before the event to help the chaffing. The effects of ingrown hairs are horrific. So, if you do decide to shave, be wary as this may make matters worse especially for women.
Prevention is better than cure.
After trying all of the free adjustments, if you are still suffering from saddle sore then its time to consider that something may be wrong with your bike setup. Saddle choice is the most obvious cause, a bike straight from the shop will have a “standard” size saddle chosen to fit the largest proportion of the potential customers. Not everyone will fall into this category and so its quite possible that the saddle is the cause. Don’t buy a new version immediately, ask about demo units so you can test them first, even borrow a friends saddle. Get as much time on as many different designs as you can, but don’t think that big equals comfy. This will help you make an informed decision when you do decide what to buy. Saddles with missing noses or central cut outs can work for some, but not for everyone.
Use of an anti Chafe cream or emollient cream is a great way to prevent saddle sore before it happens. Some brands even contain an antibacterial but we would avoid using these versions if you already have issues since they can tingle or outright sting if applied to broken skin. The cream reduces friction and helps your body function cooler to avoid wear and tear, just like the oil on your chain or the grease in your bearings.
Avoid cycling shorts and choose a bib short as they move less and therefore rub less. A nice pair can be expensive but you really get what you pay for, they can last 3-4 years if you treat them well. The nicer brands use more breathable materials and can move sweat away from your body.
Treatment is the only solution.
Once you have a saddle sore, you need to deal with it before making matters worse. The best solution is time off the bike whilst keeping the area clean and dry. Don’t try to pop any furuncles or ingrown hairs as an open wound is far more likely to become infected leading to more serious problems. If you cannot take time off of the bike then my personal treatment of choice is Sudocrem, this nappy rash formula seems to magically heal skin 50% faster, allowing you to be back on the bike sooner. We have heard that tea tree oil can be used but always check you aren’t allergic beforehand. Take plenty of vitamin C to help your immune system as this is your body’s natural repair method. Reduce your intake of any foods which may cause body-wide inflammation. Foods such as Sugar, Vegetable-Oil, Fried Foods, Refined Flour, Dairy, Artificial Sweeteners, Artificial Additives, and Saturated Fats are all known to increase body-wide inflammation which makes matter worse. On the plus side, eating tomatoes, olive oil, green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, and collards, almonds, walnuts, fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines, or fruits like strawberries, and blueberries will reduce body inflammation and speed our recovery.
If you ever struggle to walk or sit down (off the bike) then this is has gone too far and you should visit your doctor for some medication. Otherwise, time heals all wounds (saddle sore included). The more you ride, the better your body will become accustomed to your saddle. There is something to be said for not changing anything and just getting used to it. Money doesn’t solve every problem.