Whether you’re training for a multi-day ride, a triathlon, or just riding for fun, it’s important to make sure the bike and the bike seat fit properly to avoid developing painful saddle sores. Saddle sores are one downside to cycling that almost every rider will encounter at some time.
However, this uncomfortable soreness doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying a bike ride. And, it doesn’t have to land you in the doctor’s office either.
First, take steps to prevent saddle sores from happening. But, if they do, be prepared to easily treat them. Know what saddle sores are, how to treat them, and ultimately how to prevent them by following this helpful information and tips.
What is a Saddle Sore
Basically, a saddle sore is a lesion that causes pain or discomfort in the undercarriage area, where the cycling shorts’ chamois makes contact with the rider’s body. These uncomfortable sores occur on the buttocks, upper thighs, groin, or perineum. The pain is usually the result of ongoing pressure or chafing caused by the saddle, also known as the bike seat.
Combine a warm environment that is moist from sweat with bacteria, and now you’ve got a full-out breeding ground for bacteria or fungi. If there is any break in the skin, abrasion, or inflamed hair follicle, saddle sores are likely to develop more rapidly.
Saddle sores range from skin irritation to an inflamed hair follicle or infection caused by bacteria. These sores can cause simple discomfort or become more severe open wounds that can cause abscesses. Sometimes, they will require antibiotics, or in the worst-case scenario, surgery. Although, thankfully they are usually benign and go away fairly quickly with proper treatment.
Cyclists are likely to develop saddle sores because of the friction between the saddle and the body’s undercarriage. Any break in the skin will allow bacteria to get in and multiply.
Saddle sores show up in many different forms. A saddle sore may be skin irritation, abrasion similar to a rug burn, and small rash-like bumps that resemble pimples. In extreme cases, saddle sores can turn into an abscess or infection.
Saddle sores are usually categorized into four different main types:
Chafing is a common skin issue that happens when repetitive friction meats moisture. It happens when a part of the body is repeatedly rubbed against the saddle or bike seat. Because of the motion of the legs when pedaling, chafing usually occurs on the inner thighs.
This type of saddle sore may be the result of poorly-fitted bicycle shorts, shorts that are made of a material that isn’t allowed to breathe sufficiently, or an ill-fitted bike.
Chafing can cause the skin to sting or burn, or even cause a mild, red rash. In severe cases, chafing can cause swelling, crusting, or bleeding.
When chafing becomes so severe that a layer of skin is removed, the layers underneath become extremely vulnerable to bacteria growth. This type of saddle sore is known as skin ulceration.
With skin ulceration, you may lose the outer layer of skin, and have redness, or have pain. Since ulcers can develop into serious skin infections, it’s important to keep the area dry and clean.
Skin ulceration can be caused by prolonged periods of poor blood flow to a specific area of the body which can happen because of infection, immobility, or conditions affecting blood vessels such as diabetes. Cyclists sometimes experience this when on a long ride or if the bike seat is not fitted properly.
Folliculitis is inflammation at the base of a hair follicle and is very common, especially when a hair follicle becomes irritated from friction. It looks like white or red pimples and raised skin dots.
This type of saddle sore is often caused when bacteria or fungi are left to build and spread. Sometimes folliculitis is not painful. Other times, it may itch or even swell.
Folliculitis is more prone to happen after the hairs have been shaved right before a ride. But, it can happen regardless of whether the hair has been newly removed or not.
Often folliculitis goes away on its own after a couple of weeks. However, if the hair follicles instead become infected, folliculitis may turn into boils, also called furuncles.
Boils or Furuncles
If an inflamed hair follicle becomes infected with a specific type of bacteria known as staphylococcus, it can become a painful pus-filled infection called a furuncle.
Furuncles, or boils, are skin irritations that are filled with pus, feel firm to the touch, and are painful. They begin to form around the base of a hair follicle. If there is a collection of boils connected underneath the skin it is called a carbuncle.
Boils form under the skin when bacteria infect and inflame one or more hair follicles. A boil will start out as a red and tender lump that fills with pus, grows, and eventually ruptures or is drained by a doctor. Never try to pop a boil yourself. Instead, use a hot compress to allow the sore to drain on its own.
What Causes Saddle Sores
Simply put, saddle sores are caused by excessive skin friction with the saddle. Often, this friction could be avoided by making sure the bicycle is properly fitted to the rider.
Even with a proper bike fit, a small number of people can still get saddle sores. This usually happens to new cyclists who ride longer than their body is adapted to. The longer the bike ride, the more likely you will develop saddle sores.
Why Chamois Cream and New Saddle Won’t Help
An ill-fitted bike is the most common cause of saddle sores.
Many people recommend using chamois cream, buying shorts with better padding, or buying a new bike seat to solve saddle sores, but these steps won’t solve the problem if the bike doesn’t fit properly. Sure, they can make the bike ride more comfortable, but the best way to prevent saddle sores is to make sure the bicycle is fitted properly in the first place.
If the bike is properly fitted, you shouldn’t need these extra measures to prevent developing saddle sores.
If you’re having a recurring saddle sore, it’s worth it to make an appointment with a professional bike fitter.
How to Prevent Saddle Sores Caused by an Ill-Fitted Bike
Making sure your bike is fitted properly is the best way to drastically reduce the risk of developing saddle sores. Here are a few tips to make sure your bike fits you:
Adjust Bike Seat Height
If you’re having one-sided saddle sores, this is the most likely reason why.
If the saddle is set too high that it’s hard for both legs to reach the bottom pedal stroke, most cyclists will sit asymmetrically on the saddle instead of in the center of the seat. Doing so will reduce the reach of the dominant leg to the pedal.
On the other side, sitting asymmetrically causes the non-dominant leg not to be able to reach the bottom pedal stroke very easily, and the cyclist needs to drop the hip in order to reach it. The act of dropping the hip creates excessive friction around the sit bone on the non-dominant side.
Here’s the easy way to find the right saddle height:
As a side note, saddle height being too low won’t likely cause saddle sores or other major problems. So, when in doubt, just set your saddle height lower than you might expect.
Reduce the Handlebar Reach
The reach of a bike has to do with how far away the position of your shifters is on the handlebar and how stretched you are on the bicycle.
If the reach of the bike is too long, cyclists will tend to sit forward on the narrow part of the saddle. The result is that the bones used to sit are not properly supported by the saddle.
Another sign that the handlebar reach is too long is a pain in the neck, shoulders, or arms during a long ride.
Proper Saddle Tilt
As the name implies, the saddle tilt is the degree to which the seat is tilted up or down. Ensure the saddle tilt is set up properly according to your specific saddle’s instructions.
The proper tilt will usually be flat on the sitting area or just slightly tilted down if your frontal area is low. Never tilt the seat more than 2 degrees. To avoid saddle sores, never tilt it up.
Some apps on your smartphone can help you measure the angle of your saddle.
Proper Shoe Cleats Placement
If you’re using cycling shoes with cleats, make sure the cleats aren’t fitted too far forward.
Shoe cleats too far forward could cause instability on the ankle, knees, and hips. If the cyclist’s body is not stable or rocking too much, more skin will rub against the saddle and creating friction.
Generally, the center of the pedal spindle should be a couple of centimeters behind your feet’s balls. On SPD-SL and Look cleats, there is a line on the side to mark where the center of the pedal spindle is located:
When in doubt, place your cleats as far back as your shoes allow them. Placing cleats further back will allow your feet to be more stable. The drawback is that it will hinder your ability to make a quick acceleration, which should be fine if you’re not a racer.
Proper Saddle Width and Thickness of the Padding
Don’t be fooled into thinking the wider and thicker the seat, the more cushioned and comfortable the ride will be. While extra cushion or width may feel good for a very short ride, ultimately it could be the cause of a saddle sore.
If the seat is too wide, it will get in the way of your thighs when you start to pedal.
If the seat is too thick and soft, the sit bones won’t be able to properly support your body and it will cause pressure around the sit bones which will, in turn, create more friction and cause chafing.
Finding the right seat width or thickness and position is more of a problem on road bikes and not a problem on cruiser bikes or those where you sit upright.
Additional Tips to Avoid Saddle Sores
Making sure the bike is fitted well is the most important step to take to avoid saddle sores. However, there are some additional tips to follow to avoid friction and keep saddle sores from happening.
Increase Your Core Strength and Flexibility
Having a weak core can also cause saddle sores in new cyclists. If the core is weak, it won’t be able to hold your body steady during a long ride and you will experience some discomfort in the lower back, shoulders, neck, and pelvic area. The longer you ride, the more unstable you will become, and this will likely cause saddle sores.
As you cycle more and more, your core strength and flexibility should also be improved naturally. However, if you have a long bike ride planned, it’s a good idea to do some core training.
Use Chamois Cream
Some people – even pros – can still have rocky hips with a proper bike fit. Reduce the potential for chafing by using a good chamois cream on your inner thighs and undercarriage areas.
It’s important to understand, however, that chamois cream is intended to reduce friction and is not meant to be used as an after-care for saddle sores. The cream can even make saddle sores worse if you are allergic or sensitive to any of the ingredients or if it gets inside open wounds.
Take Breaks During a Long Ride and Change Your Position
Taking breaks while on a long ride will allow your core and other parts of your body to rest and regain strength, greatly reducing the likelihood of developing saddle sores.
Decrease the body pressure by changing your cycling position often. Ride out of the saddle sometimes to release the pressure down there, especially when pedaling uphill. Scoot your sitting position to the back of the saddle, this will take some weight off of the upper body and keep your body stable.
Cleanliness is important. As soon as your ride has ended, change out of our cycling shorts and thoroughly wash them. Also, take a shower as soon as possible after each ride to keep bacteria at bay.
How to Treat Saddle Sores
Treatment for saddle sores includes the following advice:
- Keep the area clean
- Use topical ointments like antibiotic cream
- Apply an over-the-counter acne cream with benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid in it
- Stay off the bike for a few days or until the sores heal, so they don’t get worse
- Use Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen to ease the pain
- Use a warm compress
- Seek medical attention when necessary
Skin can heal fairly quickly if it is not irritated continuously. Giving yourself a break from cycling will help treat saddle sores and allow them time to heal completely before getting back on the bike.
Always keep the affected parts of the skin clean and dry to keep an infection from setting in. Use topical ointments that will help to soothe the irritated, inflamed skin, such as a diaper rash cream, antibiotic cream, or hemorrhoid cream. Use chamois cream to prevent friction but not as a treatment method.
Minor irritation or chafing will not usually require medical attention. If the sores don’t heal within a few days, or they are open and painful sores, visit a doctor.
Know when to visit a doctor for saddle sores:
- If the saddle sore lasts more than two weeks
- If the saddle sore becomes excruciatingly painful
- If you have a fever or pus is coming out of the sore, these are signs of infection