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Cycling saddle sores: how to prevent them

Always getting saddle sores when cycling and fed up of them impacting your bike training? Former head physiotherapist for British Cycling Phil Burt explains how to prevent them

Saddle sores are a painful lesson that have plagued many a triathlete. Most of your time spent training and racing is on your bike, which means saddle sores can seriously affect your cycling performance and enjoyment.

In my 12 years as head physiotherapist for British Cycling and consultant physiotherapist for Team Sky, I know that picking apart the reasons for saddle sores is a right pain in the backside! There are multiple and interacting reasons that lead to saddle pain, pressure and sores.

Throughout my experiences and research into this sore point I’ve developed a layer system that helps identify problems, which every rider of any ability can use. Some factors are intrinsic - to do with us; our body shape, our injury history, skin type and even attitude to rest days. Extrinsic factors include our choice of saddle, shorts and riding position.

The prevention of saddle sores starts with you

Before we start anywhere else, let’s look at you. Some people have skin that is more sensitive than others, you need to work out what is normal for you. If you are relatively new to riding you may find your tissues toughen up over time. If you have been riding for years you will need to monitor the pattern of when you get saddle sore; is it distance, type of training or race?

Body hair is useful as a functional barrier, it’s there to provide a barrier between skin and the outside world. Whilst i’m hesitant to tell you how to style your undercarriage it is worth remembering that a little bit of hair is a good thing. A professor of Vulval dermatology at Cambridge University informed me that frequent shaving or waxing can also lead to folliculitis - inflammation of the hair follicles.

The more stable you are on your bike will have a large impact on your saddle comfort. If you’re moving and rocking and your weight is just dumped on the saddle it can lead to soreness. We are all asymmetrical to greater and lesser extents but the more asymmetry your body has, the more likely you are to weight the saddle more on one side or rock/chaff as you ride.

Above: asymmetry is normal for human beings, but it can cause issues. A person may have to sit off to the left due a shorter left leg, causing increased pressure and in some cases injury.

Another ‘you’ factor that is under your control is your attitude to training, recovery and body care. If you have sore or broken skin it needs time to heal. Personal hygiene is critical in preventing saddle sores, so make sure you aren’t washing too aggressively or with too harsh a soap. Finally make sure that you wear good quality, close fitting, clean Lycra every time you get on your bike.

Choosing the right chamois cream is crucial

Picking and applying the right chamois cream is another important factor. I’ve found with experience that using creams with a good emollient factor-or lubrication-more simply put works best. The cream doesn’t have to be cycling specific, it is more important that it works with your skin, provides the necessary lubrication and that you use it every single time you get on your bike. Experiment with different brands including those available from your pharmacy, not just a bike shop.

Above: chamois creams come in many different guises, though it is the emollient quality that makes the difference.

Think about your cycling clothing

How your shorts or suit fit your body is critical. Make sure you try them on in your riding position so you can feel how the bib and leg gripper will sit - you can’t tell if shorts or a suit fit properly by wearing them in a normal standing position. Many triathletes ride in a time-trial position and need the chamois or pad in their shorts/tri-suits to reflect this. When in an aero position, your pelvis rolls forward putting more pressure on your pubic bone so you need more pad at the front.

Create a ‘wardrobe’ of shorts for different conditions; long steady rides, interval sessions, indoor training. Don’t just keep your oldest pair of shorts for indoor training, if you spend a long time on the turbo then the combination of sweat, training intensity and position deserves a decent pair of shorts to protect your tissues from soreness.

One thing I have learnt about saddle choice is that everyone is different, as the presentation of our genitalia is all unique. These differences can be structural, as in the shape of your pelvis, or it can be down to your tissues.

Above: choose the right chamois for the job - i.e., the type of riding your doing. A road cycling chamois will not help with the kind of pressures experienced in riding a in a TT position.

Are you using the right saddle for you?

A pivotal issue for men is pressure on the pudendal nerve, which runs through the middle of the base of the penis and perineum, this can lead to numbness and erectile dysfunction. From this problem, the ‘gap’ saddle was first invented. Gap saddles can work for some women, but not all, it really depends on your own shape and soft tissues (skin/muscle). For some, the sensitive areas fit within the gap where as with others the soft tissue folds overlap the gaps actually increasing pressure. For some women a well-padded saddle with a narrow nose is the best solution, as it removes pressure form the inner labia.

Above: saddles come in many different shapes and sizes, finding the right one for you and your riding can be problematic

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... And does your bike fit, or still fit, you?

Having said all of the above, there is one overriding factor which is, your position. You can buy the best saddle, wear the best shorts and slap on all the chamois cream in the world, but if your position is wrong it is compromising every part of you. Essentially, position is both the start and the end point, of picking apart your saddle sore conundrum.

Bike fits are expensive, but they are not a luxury. Think how much money you can throw away on fancy creams, shorts and different types of saddles without finding a solution. Many people will have a bike fit, get put int one position, and leave it. However your body doesn’t remain the same year after year, so neither should your bike. When it comes to throwing darts we want to be Eric Bristow not a chimp as my good friend Scott Drawer once said- let’s go straight for the bullseye on solving this problem.

Phil Burt now offers his elite-level expertise to triathletes and cyclists of all ability through Phil Burt Innovation. For more information visit, www.philburtinnovation.co.uk

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