Nothing rains on your parade like a painful saddle. We’ve all experienced it at times.
But for some of us, it’s so persistent that we start to take it for granted or simply stop riding.
But is it really normal? And if not, then what can you do to get comfy?
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Here’s whether all bike saddles hurt
Bike seats do not hurt with proper fit and adjustment. They might be mildly uncomfortable at times, but should never cause pain. However, your skin may develop painful “saddle sores” from prolonged contact and/or inadequate hygiene.
Your can adjust your existing saddle with just a couple common tools, so start there before replacing it. However, if that doesn’t alleviate your pain, then you’ll most likely need a new saddle.
What might make it hurt?
The one pain not to worry about
If you’re new to cycling, or you’re ramping up your time in the saddle, it’s normal to feel some sensitivity under your sit bones.
They bear all your weight assuming the saddle fits properly. Moderate soreness or tenderness is no concern, and in fact it’s to be expected at first.
It’s too wide
Excessively wide bike saddles may cause pain in at least two ways.
One is chafing.
If the saddle is significantly wider than the space between your thighs when in riding position, it’ll perpetually rub against them.
If you experience chafing, double-check that you aren’t sitting too far back. If your backside is hanging over the back edge of the saddle, it’s usually a sign you need to slide forward an inch or two.
However, the saddle may not be the entire issue. If your thighs brush against each other while walking, then you’ll be prone to chafing on any saddle, regardless of its fit.
Stretchy clothing (like tights) can mitigate this, since there’s no excess fabric to bunch up. Anti-chafing creams are also effective, but they’re a bit messier to clean up, and probably overkill for short rides.
Another issue is hip strain.
If the saddle is far too wide, it may obstruct your legs near the bottom of the pedal stroke. It’s instinctive to wing your knees outward just a bit, in hopes of clearing the saddle. This can force your hips a little beyond their comfort zone, which adds up to pain over time.
That phenomenon can be hard to notice. Go to a safe, wide-open space and see what happens when you consciously force your legs to move perfectly vertically. If the saddle feels like an obstacle, then you might’ve found the problem!
It’s too narrow
There’s a lot of soft tissue in the general realm of your sitting area. Muscles, tends, ligaments, and even nerves are all next door to each other.
When a saddle isn’t wide enough to support your sit bones, it presses on all that tissue, instead.
As you’d imagine, that can be severely painful, and also cause damage by compressing blood vessels and nerves.
It’s too soft
Squishy saddles are pleasant for a few minutes…and that’s about it. Over time, the soft foam fills in the gaps between your sit bones.
And, as you’ll recall from above, that’s exactly where lots of soft tissue resides.
There’s a reason that touring cyclists choose firm saddles—often made of leather. There’s just no other way to keep pressure on weight-bearing bones and off everything else.
It’s got the wrong contour
Some saddles rise up prominently in the middle and drop off toward the left and right sides. Others are essentially flat. Most are somewhere in the middle.
But when the center line is too prominent, it’s yet another cause of pressure on soft tissue.
Many saddles have a channel cut down the middle—a negative contour, if you will—to be a little more universally comfortable.
Ultimately, even two cyclists with the same sit-bone width (and therefore saddle width) will have anatomical differences than require a flatter or more prominent saddle for just enough support.
(This is often one of the biggest differences between men’s and women’s saddles, since the location of more sensitive anatomy is drastically different. This is yet another reason that online advice can only point you in the right direction; it’s no substitute for real-world testing.)
It’s tilted wrong
A perfect-fitting seat will still hurt if you tilt the nose too far up/down.
When the nose is too high (so it slopes backward), you put more pressure on sensitive areas. It’s the same effect as having the wrong contour, as mentioned above.
You’ve got saddle sores
At some point, you’re practically guaranteed to deal with those little, pimple-like nuisances known as saddle sores.
You’ll experience the pain while seated on your bike, but the saddle itself is not the cause.
They tend to form on the skin over your sit bones. There’s continual contact and a warm, moist setting, so bacteria make their way into pores, which end up infected and terrible tender.
(Not a great image here, but bear with me.)
I’m not sure they’re possible to prevent altogether, but here’s what helps:
- Stay clean and dry. For commuters who can’t or prefer not to shower on arrival, this means taking it easy. For sport riders, this means showering and changing as soon as you get the chance.
- Wait for them to go away before riding more.
How to find a more comfortable saddle
Other than mentioning my general preference for Brooks, and strongly advising against “cushy” saddles, I won’t even begin to recommend specific models.
It would take dozens to cover every combination of sit bones, bike posture, and riding style!
However, there are some simple principles to help you narrow your search.
By the way, it’s worth spending whatever it takes for the right saddle. Good ones last years and are easy to move to a new bike.
Anyway, here’s how to begin your search.
The outer width of your saddle should be the width of your sit bones plus a couple centimeters.
It’s not that closely correlated with your height or build, so it’s worth the (minimal) effort to measure.
Here’s how to do it at home:
Compare this number to the saddle manufacturer’s sizing guiding, and you’ll be in the ballpark. You may well size up or down, but this yields a good starting point.
(Note that leather saddles, like Brooks, are wider for the same sit-bone measurement. They seat you on leather suspended in an outer frame, not on a solid base, so the extra width accommodates the frame.)
How riding position affects width
Your sit bones angle slight up and out. They get effectively wider as you sit more upright.
That’s why racing bikes have extremely narrow saddles and city bikes have much wider ones.
Anyhow, the point is to stick with saddles designed for roughly how you ride.
When riding posture and saddle width don’t match, you’ll need to tilt the saddle dramatically, which causes other issues mentioned earlier.
There’s also a difference in the length of the saddle’s nose (the narrow, front section).
Wider saddles for upright riding have a short nose to reduce chafing and minimize catching on clothes. Racing-style saddles have a long, narrow nose to enhance support and control in a deep forward lean.
Avoid excess cushioning
No matter how perfectly a saddle fits, you’ll never have lasting comfort if it’s soft and squishy.
I like to compare those saddles to beanbag chairs: delightful for about 10 minutes…and then the backache sets in.
Likewise, cushioning can be a problem if you’re riding more than a couple miles.
A little padding is fine, and goes a long way to dampen vibrations from the road. But if you can compress the padding more than a few millimeters, it becomes self-defeating.
Saddles like this are a crowd-pleaser, but ill-suited to extended rides.
(They’re also too wide for anything but a comfort bike or beach cruiser.)
In fact, as mentioned earlier, I’m partial to Brooks leather saddles and have ridden them almost exclusively for the last few years.
Leather is the exact opposite of cushioning…but it does two important things:
- Mold to your body with use, but without compressing soft tissue
- Absorb vibrations due to its hammock-and-frame design (as opposed to a rigid, solid base)
Does that mean you need one? Not necessarily, but they’re worth considering.
The point is that most high-mileage cyclists often prefer saddles with no padding whatsoever.
A little built-in, natural forgiveness is more comfortable in the long run, even if not when you first hop on.
Upright bikes & your lower back
If you ride an upright city bike, your spine is fairly vertical. Bumps under the rear wheel can really jolt your lower back, since the impact travels straight up your spine.
The traditional solution is a saddle with springs, like the classic Brooks B67.
Instead of squishy padding, it uses springs to take the edge off. The result is a firm, supportive seat that spares your spine from the brunt of bumps.
You may prefer otherwise, and that’s fine. Just remember the trade-off between initial and long-term comfort, and choose accordingly.
(Suspension seatposts are another popular solution. I’m not a fan, since their compression feels like a pogo stick and makes it hard to get seat height right, but they’re viable.)
Do I need padded bike shorts, too?
Padded bike shorts are a great way to reduce pressure points, but don’t use them to mask the pain of an ill-fitting saddle. In other words, they’re helpful, but cycling shorts are not necessary.
Good padded shorts also minimize road vibrations. But proper tire pressure matters at least as much, so start there before adding single-purpose apparel to your wardrobe.
Additionally, padded shorts don’t make sense on top of a heavily cushioned saddle. The excess padding may actually contribute to your discomfort, so doubling down on padding is unlikely to solve it.
If you do opt for padded shorts, then go high-end or don’t bother. A cheap chamois (that’s the name for the pad) will compress down to almost nothing, so you’re left with a soggy layer of bacteria-gathering fabric that doesn’t yield any comfort after the first few minutes.