Health: Six steps for bottom bliss

How to stop saddle soreness giving you a bum deal

Almost anyone who’s ever thrown their leg over a top-tube will have experienced discomfort in their rear. Saddle soreness is pain or discomfort felt in the areas of the body in contact with the saddle. Happily it can be avoided by following these simple yet effective steps.

  1. Build up slowly: While there’s little doubt that over time your backside does appear to ‘toughen up’, ignoring saddle soreness is a bad idea. Pushing through it as a macho rite of passage will lead to endomorphins masking the warning pain, possibly resulting in the more serious issues (described below).
  2.  Get out of the saddle: Even when not climbing, get out of the saddle every 10 to 15 minutes or so to restore blood flow.
  3.  Check positioning: A proper bike fit, especially seat height, can make a real difference and minimise side-to-side movement on the saddle.
  4.  Proper attire: Based on my highly scientific test (see right), a good pair of shorts with a well-designed pad is the most effective prevention strategy. Combine with chamois cream to reduce friction.
  5.  Hygiene: Keep things clean down below to minimise the risk of infection. Never re-use a pair of shorts without washing them and don’t sit around in damp and sweaty shorts after a ride. Some chamois creams contain a mild/natural antiseptic such as witch hazel.
  6. Saddle choice: Every backside is, of course, different, but there’s a saddle out there to suit everyone. Don’t be fooled into thinking that big and padded is best, sometimes ultralight razor blades can be the most comfortable perch. Also, with time, your saddle will break-in and mould to you. This last factor does, I believe, contribute to the ‘backside toughening up’ phenomenon. ...

What equipment can help prevention of saddle sores?

I decided to put my butt literally on the line and investigate how much difference shorts, chamois cream and even a sticky patch for my perineum made to the onset of saddle soreness.

I performed six rides on my turbo, keeping seated throughout, cadence constant at 90-95rpm and power at 250W.  For each ride I simply kept going until noticing significant rear end discomfort. I allowed 48 hours between rides for any soreness to recover.

  Ride 1, Non-padded Lycra shorts:19 minutes, 21 seconds

My 'control ride' and a deeply unpleasant experience. From the very first minute things felt wrong without padding and, in all honesty, I was pretty uncomfortable from about 10 minutes in.

  Ride 2,  Budget padded shorts: 40 minutes, 22 seconds

Unable to find a Lidl that stocked its advertised £4.99 cycling shorts, I settled on a £10.99 own-brand pair from Decathlon. The pad seemed pretty flimsy but was a definite improvement on nothing.

 Ride 3, Top-end padded shorts: 90 minutes +

Assos shorts have set the comfort benchmark since the mid 1970s. The F1 Mille GP bib-shorts are the latest incarnation of its high mileage super short; £100+ is a lot of money but it does buy you an awful lot of comfort.

Just getting on the bike the pad feels a world apart, providing really luxurious cushioning but without feeling bulky. Even after 90 minutes of constant in-the-saddle spinning, I was feeling minimal discomfort and I reckon what I did feel was a hangover from the previous two rides.

  Ride 4, Assos Shorts and chamois cream: 120 minutes +

Take a good couple of fingers' worth and smear it all over the pad, settle into the slightly odd (but pleasantly tingly) sensation and discover one of the best ways of preventing saddle soreness. Reduces friction, keeps things cool and prevents bacteria. If you don't use it yet, go get a pot quick.

  Ride 5, Assos shorts and Reskin patch: 120 minutes +

Bio-Racers' ReSkin patch is the latest weapon against saddle soreness. Resembling a large sticky plaster, you apply it to your perineum before riding, where it reduces friction. I was a bit sceptical at first but am now a total convert.

On the turbo test it performed as well as the cream and on several 'real rides' I've been really impressed. Even my initial fears about removal pain/hair issues proved unfounded. You can wash the pads and get several uses out of them – and they can be used either for prevention or to protect tender nether regions.

  Ride 6, Assos shorts, Reskin patch and chamois cream: 180 minutes +

The ultimate combination and definitely what I'll be using for epic rides from now on. After three hours (my longest ever turbo), it was only sheer boredom rather than soreness that made me call it a day.

So what are saddle sores?

Any discomfort is your body letting you know that something is not right and can quickly develop into visible and painful conditions known collectively as saddle sores.

Ischial tuberosities are your ‘sit bones’ and these bony prominences, which bear most of your weight when riding, along with your perineum (the area between your anus and genitals), are the primary pain hot spots.

Chafing: Usually affecting the inner thighs, the constant rubbing back and forth against the saddle leads to extremely painful abrasions. Anecdotally, women cyclists seem more prone to this than men.

Folliculitis and furuncles: Folliculitis is an inflammation/infection of the base of a hair follicle, whereas a furuncle is a good old-fashioned boil. Folliculitis is usually pretty painless and tends to clear up on its own, but a boil – if left untreated – can grow, become horrendously painful and keep you off your bike for a long time while it heals.

Skin ulceration: Even the smallest lesion can become ulcerated. With the outer layer of skin gone, bacteria can penetrate into the deeper layers where they thrive in the warm and damp environment. If untreated, the ulcer will grow and can lead to a serious skin infection.

What causes saddle sores?

Pressure: When sat on a saddle, or if your bodyweight is focused on a tiny area, it can result in immense pressure. This compresses underlying structures such as capillaries, which in turn reduces blood flow.

Shear/friction: Every pedal stroke you make results in a slight shift of weight causing you to move from side to side on your saddle. This builds heat and soon results in soreness and abrasions. Shear (pulling/tearing within your body) also compounds the effect of pressure, further reducing blood flow.

Moisture: Sweat moisture results in an increase in shear.

Temperature: As you ride, skin temperature – particularly of your perineum – rises. This raises skin metabolism but, as a result of pressure and shear, blood flow is severely reduced, meaning the skin doesn’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs to function effectively and it begins to break down.

The scary truth is that your skin, in contact with your saddle, is starved of vital oxygen by a combination of all four factors above. Known as ischemia, this can result in pain, tissue breakdown and ulceration. Also, ischemic tissues are more susceptible to infection and less able to repair themselves.

Mild inflammation and a reddening of the skin can just be a consequence of a long day in the saddle and can calm down overnight. It should occur less often as your body gets used to riding, but take care before simply riding on because things can get nasty.

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