Sensitive subject I know and a real pain in the arse (excuse the bad uncle jokes) but yes I am really going there. It is a cycling truth for many so lets talk about saddle sore!
I can’t talk on behalf of the men out there (though my husband assures me this is an issue for men also – sorry husband) but will be coming at this from a woman’s perspective (and I should note that this is based on my cycling experience and as with most things others may identify and some may not) and I think those reading this will probably fall into the following three camps:
- don’t cycle and are thinking seriously she is actually talking about this, what is wrong with her?
- totally get it and are thinking please let me in on the secret of never getting saddle sore again (spoiler alert is that I don’t have this and am looking for it myself)!
- cycle and have no issue (b*stards the lot of you – spoken with pure jealousy as I do not fall into this camp but wish I did)
So what is saddle sore? Well basically it is what it says on the tin, a sore undercarriage which is an uncomfortable by-product of cycling in different areas for most but from where your body comes into contact, or consistent pressure, with the saddle when riding.
There was an article in much of the news last week about para-cyclist, Hannah Dines, who revealed that she had undergone surgery after years of cycling caused swelling to her vulva.
I realise this is an extreme and the example is not in any way intended to scare monger but shows that this issue can range from slight soreness to much more serious consequences.
So what can be done to help? There are several things actually:
- saddles – a good saddle can make all the difference and a good supplier will also offer a saddle fit as part of the service to ensure you are getting a saddle that will suit you. I recently purchased the Specialized Mimic saddle following a recommendation from a friend and the concept store in Chelmsford offer a fit as part of the service and you can use the saddle for 30 days to make sure it suits you.
- go commando – this was one when I was first told that I wondered if I was being wound up but it is true with padded shorts there is no need for underwear so take those knickers off as it can cause friction and chaffing.
- padded shorts – I don’t cycle without these, for comfort more than any other reason, and again personal preference comes into play here – some people don’t like the chamois pad, some prefer a thicker or thinner pad and so you need to find those that suit your needs. Also wash them after every use – again yes I am going there, you are not wearing underwear, you are working up a sweat so lets keep it clean people and avoid any further causes for soreness.
- chamois cream – again personal preference and some people don’t like using it but I personally find it helps to stop chaffing. I found once I started I couldn’t stop. Many friends from my tri club use sudo cream as it doesn’t wear off in the water, however, I have heard other opinions that thick creams like this can clog pores. I was recommended using doublebase cream/gel by the lovely Lucy from Paddle Pedal Pace and it is fab – not a cycling specific product but the best I have used so far!
- bike fit – I am an advocate of a good bike fit and some minor adjustments to your saddle position and height can make all the difference! If you suffer with loss of sensation or numbness it may be that your position is not right.
- core strength – this one is so important for cycling and think about it in relation to soreness, the more stable you are on the bike will have a huge impact on your cycling experience.
- rest – if you have sores or swelling then rest and let it improve before you continue on the bike and potentially make it worse.
At the weekend I attended the London Bike Show with the amazing Lucy from Paddle Pedal Pace and our other halves, and Casquette had a stage with a number of talks over the three days including one that covered this very issue. When I saw the description how could I not attend?
Want to know what’s really behind saddle sore? Well, it’s probably a clit or labia thing, but no one seems comfortable saying it out loud. Until now. We bring Maria Olsson (Rapha chamois designer); Doctor Jane Sterling (consultant dermatologist at a vulval clinic practice); Jasmijn Muller (endurance cyclist and saddle sore sufferer) and Jenni Gwiadowski (Saddle Library curator and founder of the London Bike Kitchen) together to talk candidly about saddle sore – what it is and how you can deal with it.
Dr Jane Sterling is a vulva specialist and for the Rio Olympics worked with the ladies GB cycling team and spoke about changes they made to see improvements for the ladies on the team. Aside from right size kit, what padding can be improved ie the chamois, avoiding excess friction, she also worked with them on how to look after skin during and after cycling. These are simple things everyone can look into. She also touched on how pubic hair is important as it creates a layer of air and reduces the friction on the skin. She noted how all hair removal causes some damage to the skin and that combined with hours of cycling is not the best combination with ingrown hairs being an issue for many. Damp friction makes the downstairs environment post ride necessary for cleaning but the advice was to use a mild moisturiser perhaps with an antiseptic to maintain a barrier function and if issues arise then allow time to recover. Interestingly Dr Jane also spoke of how the menopause can affect all of this and how estrogen treatments can help.
Jasmijn Muller is an all round awesome lady who currently holds the record for 1,828km on her turbo trainer on Zwift in 62 hours, 4 minutes and 30 seconds. I cannot even comprehend being on a static bike for that long! She also recently took part in BikingMan Oman, an unassisted ultra cycling race, and finished the 1,050km in 45 hours 37 minutes as 1st woman and 9th overall. Jasmijn is also very open about the troubles she has had with getting sore and the operations she has had on both her right, and then later, left labia. She noted that most of her riding is done in the time trial position and this did not help. She also touched on the cleaning aspect, like Dr Jane, and explained that a lot of soaps remove the natural anti bacteria that are there to protect us. So what has she found that made such a huge difference? Saddle mapping testing, which she got done at Sigma Sports and highly recommends. She has also worked with an osteopath who is also a pilates instructor for exercises to help with movements to isolate glute functionality, such as shoulder bridges, which she demonstrated.
Maria Olsson is the design manager for Rapha and explained how they spent 3 years researching, alongside Nicola Roberts, a physiologist who works with pro athletes, to perfect the chamois used in the Rapha kit and set themselves a huge challenge to make the best chamois for women. Maria spoke about how a bike fit and saddle is key but just as important is the position of the chamois being in the right place in the bibs, and they prototyped and wear tested over 15,000 miles in the saddle.
I was also listening to the talk with the lovely Tarsh, also known as Iron Tarsh, and the lady behind the brand Stomp The Pedal. Tarsh also spends hours on the turbo trainer and I asked her what her secret was and she said it is her bib shorts. Tarsh meticulously researches and spends a lot of time ensuring the products she adds to her brand are products she would purchase herself and is proud to bring to market. If she is not happy with it, you won’t be seeing it being sold by Stomp The Pedal! I will be trying these and let you know if these are the key to my comfort.
And just to lighten the mood and not quite saddle sore but related and applicable to my fellow female cyclists – after a long ride when you reach for that mint tea tree shower gel – don’t! (those that know will know why).