Great Britain Cycling Team lead physiotherapist Phil Burt has been at the forefront of groundbreaking work regarding female rider’s saddle health. Along with identifying and tackling this problem within the Great Britain Cycling Team, he was also a driving force behind a UCI ruling regarding saddle tilt. In this article, Phil reveals these saddle secrets and how you can solve your own backside blues.
The story started before the London Olympics.
In the lead up to London 2012, with the UK Institute of Sport, we developed a special saddle for Victoria Pendleton, who had been suffering from saddle issues that were having a negative impact on her performance. After the Games, we wondered how big a problem it was and whether we had only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. We put together a team and decided to interview riders as part of a qualitative study. The findings were staggering, 100% of the riders we interviewed were having problems but, with a male doctor, physio and predominately male coaching staff, didn’t feel comfortable in mentioning it.
It is no wonder that cycling causes problems. It is an unnatural and prolonged contact between the body and the saddle. This contact leads to friction, pressure and occlusion (restricted blood flow).
When healthy, the outer layer of our skin, the epidermis, is flexible, protective and constantly renews itself. However, rubbing and pressure can cause sensitivity, soreness, chafing, blisters and ulcers. If damage causes the epidermis to be completely lost, complete recovery can take up to a month. Below the epidermis is the dermis. This layer contains both blood and lymphatic vessels and damage to it results in bruising, puffiness and swelling.
Something had to be done, so we put together a conference of world class experts. We had tribologists (friction experts), reconstructive surgeons, who were experts in dealing with pressure sores, and Dr Jane Sterling, a top consultant in vulval health.
We produced full care instructions for all our riders and are now continually working on saddle technology and kit.
One of the major contributing factors to saddle discomfort and health issues we did discover was the UCI ruling that saddles were only allowed a tilt of less than 2.5 degrees with a 0.5 degree margin of error. We presented our findings to the UCI and they have since increased the angle of tilt to nine degrees with a tolerance of one degree. This has had a major impact on rider health, for both men and women, across the sport.
If you are suffering from soreness or discomfort, don’t just accept and ignore it. Along with the direct discomfort and harm you may be inflicting on yourself, your body will try to accommodate for the soreness and can lead to secondary issues manifesting in the knees, hips or lower back.
If you are suffering in the saddle, work through the following checklist of personal care:
It’s vital that you prioritise care, hygiene and regular self inspection.
1) Check what is normal and monitor - Perform regular self examinations and be aware of any changes in comfort level on the bike, areas of redness or soreness, swelling or any other unusual symptoms or sensations.
2) Take action - If you do notice any changes, don’t ignore them and hope they will go away. Check for possible contributing factors and, if in doubt, consult with a health professional.
3) Get those shorts off - Avoid sitting around after your ride in your shorts. Even on a dry day, they will be sweaty, creating a breeding ground for bacteria and increasing friction at the skin surface.
4) Shower - When showering, the aim is to get clean but not sterile. Don’t scrub and avoid using flannels, sponges and exfoliators. Avoid removing all the natural oils and bacteria, which both enhance the barrier function of the epidermis. Use a gentle washing cream, such as Dermol 500, and always rinse well with plenty of plain water.
5) Dry well - Pat dry and avoid rubbing. Wear loose clothing to aid drying and airflow.
6) Moisturise - Use an unperfumed moisturiser to improve barrier function.
7) Hair - Pubic hair helps with the transport and evaporation of sweat away from the skin. It also provides some friction protection. Hair removal methods, such as shaving, depilatory creams and epilation, are damaging to the epidermis and increase the risk of ingrowing hairs and hair follicle infections. Trim hair using a bikini trimmer.
Finding a saddle that works for you is largely down to trial and error. I would love to be able to give you some hard and fast rules to follow but I can’t. Even within the squad, about half the riders will use the UKIS saddle we designed but the rest will have their own personal preferences. Try a range of saddles and don’t fall into the trap of thinking that wide and padded means more comfortable.
Shorts and chamois
Your kit can have a major impact on comfort. The fit, design and positioning of the chamois in your shorts will vary significantly between brands and can easily explain why one ride can be bliss and the next agony. Again, it is a case of trial and error but, once you find a brand that works for you, stick with it. Also check seam positioning and go for a close fit without loose material that can ruck up and rub.
A common mistake that many novice cyclists make is to wear underwear under their cycling shorts. This, especially if they are cotton, prevents the technical fabrics in the chamois and shorts functioning properly and will trap a layer of moisture next to the skin. This will increase friction and the risk of bacterial infection.
Finally, don’t forget chamois cream. It can feel a bit strange when you first set off if you are not used to it but it does make a big difference.
Where is your soreness?
Where you feel sore can give vital clues to the cause of your discomfort.
- If you are suffering from sore sit-bones, this can indicate that you are riding position is too upright and you are putting too much weight through your backside. Check your saddle and handlebar height and also the width of your saddle.
- If inner thigh chaffing is an issue, again this can be due to an excessively wide or narrow saddle. Also, if your shorts are poorly fitted and rucking up this can lead to rubbing.
- Labial soreness is potentially very serious and should never be ignored. Look at bike fit, saddle choice and your shorts/chamois. Many riders think that a cut-out saddle can provide a solution and, although they can work for some, often the pressure is simply referred elsewhere.
- Unilateral (one sided) soreness indicates a possible asymmetry, such as a leg length discrepancy. This needs to be professionally assessed and diagnosed with a physiotherapist led bike fit.