A guide to saddle comfort for women

A guide to saddle comfort for women

Riding a bike is the best gift you can give yourself, but it shouldn’t cost your comfort! Jessica Strange explains how to choose the right saddle and what to do if you are feeling sore.

It was the late American civil rights leader, Susan B Anthony, who famously stated in 1896 that the bicycle “has done more to emancipate women than any one thing in the world." This statement came a mere nine years after John Kemp Starley invented the 'Safety Bicycle', the freedom machine that would propel the women’s rights movement into the next century.

Suffice to say, however, that since its inception, the bicycle saddle hasn’t seen a great deal of change until of late. The function of a bicycle saddle is typically a priority for most manufacturers, to allow freedom of movement for your legs to pedal while offering a supportive perch for your bum to sit on. Sadly, this has often left comfort somewhere further down the priority list. Although, with the massively increasing number of bums on saddles, greater effort and consideration is being made to not only retain the functionality of a saddle but to help make them more comfortable without adding on weight.

So why is finding the right saddle so important? When riding a bicycle, your body has three contact points with the bike; hands, feet and bum. Arguably the most uncomfortable one of those contact points is your bum. Not only are our undercarriages riddled with thousands of sensitive nerve endings, but no two vulvas are the same, which is why there is no one saddle that fits all.

Whether you’re an innie, an outie or somewhere in between, we all have a type of vulva which works best with certain types of saddles. If you’re struggling to make sense of it all then fear not as this helpful guide to saddle comfort will help to get you onto a far more comfortable cycle path.

Types of saddle discomfort

Pedalling a bike is a very repetitive motion. As your legs power the pedals to turn, your soft areas are also repeatedly rubbing and moving from side to side against your saddle. This can lead to many uncomfortable symptoms if your saddle isn’t right for you or if it’s not set-up correctly. 

Your coccyx is the pointy bit that sits at the very end of your spine. It’s also susceptible to discomfort from cycling as prolonged pressure on the coccyx, coupled with impact and repetitive motion can lead to bruising and backache.

Coccyx pain

Avid cyclist, Penny Wood shares her saddle story; “I had awful coccyx pain using my road bike saddle, but I managed to sort it out by moving my saddle forwards a little. I was new to cycling back then, and didn't even know you could move saddles!”

Tailbone issues often stem from a saddle being too soft which causes your coccyx and sit-bones to sink in too far, a saddle being too narrow so your sit bones are properly supported, or that your saddle is in the wrong position for your riding style.

Cyclists who ride in a more sit-up position are likely to suffer from this issue.

Sit bone pain

Another common saddle symptom is developing sit bone aches, pains and sores as mountain biker, Bryony Paul, experienced; “I have pointy sit bones so I would never have been able to do two days of riding in a row. Good padded shorts helped and then very recently I 'measured' my sit bones by sitting on tin foil only to find out that they are quite wide. I bought a new saddle, and with some adjustments, I have now been doing 4-5+ hours rides with no real problems.”

When it comes to your saddle width, you want to ensure that both of your sit bones can rest comfortably on the saddle so they’re not teetering on the edge. Saddles often come in two different widths, narrow and wide. Just for the record, having wide sit bones doesn’t mean you have a big bum!

It’s not just your bum bones that can take a beating from an unsuitable saddle set up. The repetitive rubbing on the saddle, mixed with heat from friction and not to mention sweat, can all combine to create the perfect bacterial conditions for ailments like thrush and urinary tract infections. If at this point, you’re wondering how you’ll ever find comfort upon a saddle, we have a few tricks up our sleeve to help you out.

Finding saddle comfort

Padded shorts

Chamois shorts, also known as padded shorts, are typically constructed from Lycra, which provides compression and muscle support while incorporating a cushioned padding for your bum.

There are many different types of padding to choose from with the more entry-level shorts using materials such as foam, while the higher-end shorts typically use gel materials and more advanced fabrics for improved ventilation and antibacterial properties.

It’s like having a little cushion sewn into your shorts to help take the sting out of the hardness of your saddle. Top tip: It’s best not to wear any knickers under your chamois shorts. They’re designed to be worn commando so that you have fewer seams rubbing against you and it’ll help reduce the amount of heat that can build up down there.  

Chamois shorts are often coupled with lubricating chamois cream. It may sound a little strange if you’re not familiar with chamois cream, but the idea is to smear the cream directly onto the pad of your shorts, and onto your vulva and sit bones. The lubricant helps reduce friction when cycling, which, in turn, reduces your chances of developing blisters and sores.

Mrs Pradnya Pisal is a consultant gynaecologist and keen cyclist, having completed many long-distance events. When it comes to pro tips, you can’t get more professional than Mrs Pisal who shares; “You need to make sure your clothes are washed as soon as possible after a bike ride. Wear fitted, comfortable clothes and use plenty of lubrication. I apply chamois cream on the padded shorts directly, in the areas that come into contact with the vulva as well as on the labia itself.”

Avoid waxing and shaving 

Believe it or not, how you maintain your pubic hair also has a part to play in finding saddle comfort. In 2016, British Cycling advised their women’s team to grow their pubic hair as the moving layer between skin and shorts should dramatically reduce the discomfort of ingrown hairs and sores.

This is bad news for shavers and waxers, as Mrs Pisal confirms; “having pubic hair is likely to help reduce discomfort as it may act as a cushion to reduce friction directly on the skin. One can trim the hair if needed but best to leave it and not cut them, or just use pubic hair trimmers.”

Choose the right saddle 

Lastly, your saddle and set-up play a huge role in comfort when cycling. As previously mentioned, we all come in varying shapes and sizes, and that goes for our vulvas and sit bones as well.

Women’s specific saddles tend to be shorter in length and wider in the back due to the pelvic support women require. Many women’s saddles will also feature a channel down the middle or a cut-out. These channels are to relieve the pressure and heat around your soft tissue areas such as the labia and clitoris.

Once you find a saddle that’s the right shape and size for you, the next step is to ensure it’s fitted correctly to your bike. For anyone new to, or returning to cycling, it’s a great idea to get yourself a bike fit at a qualified bike shop. A bike fit will help ensure that your bike is set up correctly for your riding position and style, which includes saddle adjustment. Adjusting the angle of your saddle will affect certain areas of pressure on your undercarriage so it may take some tinkering to find the sweet spot, but it will be well worth it when you do. 

Saddle libraries

Like many sports, cycling can be expensive when you start to buy all the gear. Saddles range in price from £10 to hundreds of pounds and a lot of that comes down to its construction.

However, shelling out money on saddles to find the right one, can be quite expensive, which is why saddle libraries have been popping up more recently.

A saddle library, like the one at London Bike Kitchen, allows you to get measured up and choose a saddle you’d like to take home for two weeks to test. If you like the saddle, you can ask the store to order you a new one, or if you prefer, you can return your test saddle and choose another, and another, and another, until you find the right ‘one’.

Search online or pop into your local bike shop to ask about renting test saddles. If London is a little far to travel, then check out The Seat Post. This new online rental service allows you to lease a saddle for up to 30-days with the option to purchase the saddle or return and swap it for another. 

Are saddle problems common?

They’re a lot more common than you think! If you’re new to cycling or returning after some time off the bike, then you’ll inevitably go through a breaking-in phase where your bum and bits adjust to being on a saddle. You may be one of the lucky few with a robust vulva that can withstand anything, or you may be one of the very many thousands who experience some discomfort from cycling. 

One thing is for sure, don’t suffer in silence and don’t put up with discomfort.

Persist with finding the right saddle for you by trial and error, or by speaking with a bike fit professional. While it may not always feel like it, your vulva is wonderful and strong. It’s designed to expel waste, facilitate intercourse, achieve orgasms and, in some cases, give birth, which means your vulva can withstand many miles of cycling happiness.

Join in the conversation 

Share your tips for saddle comfort for women on Cycling UK's Women in Cycling Facebook group.

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