Choosing the Right Saddle - How Hard Can It Be?

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One thing I’ve noticed is that when most cyclists buy a new bike they just use whatever saddle that came with the bike.  After paying a lot of attention to things like price, group set, wheels, paint colours and so forth they give no thought to what is probably the most critical component for their comfort – their saddle!

 

To get you thinking about your own saddle, try this quick quiz.  True or false?

  1. Saddles require a break in period.
  2. It’s normal to have a bit of saddle soreness when riding.
  3. The saddle that came with my bike was made specifically for me and my riding posture.

 

If you said “false” to all of the above you would be correct. 

Saddles generally don’t require a break-in period if you have been riding regularly, but if you are a brand new rider then it will often take a few hours for your backside to get used to riding any saddle.  After this, if the bike set-up is good and the saddle is appropriate for you there is no pain.  Not even a little bit – if it hurts or you become numb then something’s wrong.  Time to check your bike fit or change saddles to find the one that matches your backside and riding posture perfectly. 

There’s almost no chance that the saddle that “came with the bike” is the right one for you.  So how do you find the right saddle?  Should it have more or less padding?  What about a cut-out?  There is a massive range of saddle shapes and sizes, clearly because there’s a lot of different shapes and sizes of bottoms… I can’t imagine Serena Williams being happy with the saddle I prefer, even though neither of us have ever been accused of having a tiny butt!  As a result it often takes a bit of effort and some trial and error to select your personal saddle and achieve absolute comfort. 

What parts of your anatomy should make contact on the saddle and what shouldn’t?  This is important as sitting on the wrong spot hurts!

  • The sit bones (ischial tuberosities), which is what you are likely weight bearing on as you sit down reading this article, should bear most of the weight… if you are sitting in an upright position.
  • The ischiopubic rami, which are more narrow than the tuberosities (labelled in blue on the photo of the pelvis below), take more of your weight the lower the handlebars are placed and more you rotate your pelvis forwards to achieve a flat back / aerodynamic riding posture. The difference in width is shown by the red arrows in the photo.  If you adopt a posture on the bike with the pelvis rotated forwards, then it is likely you will need a more narrow saddle than if you ride in a relatively upright posture.
  • The soft tissues of the perineum (the pelvic floor or the area between the two ischiopubic rami) are very sensitive (this is the genital region after all). You definitely don’t want your weight here.  This can happen if your position is too aggressive or the saddle is poorly designed, or both (ouch!).

Excess pressure on the perineum can cause erectile dysfunction, labial pain and saddle sores to name a few conditions.  A well designed saddle, with a professional bike fit, can alleviate pressure in the right places, letting you weight bear where you should, and put a smile back on your dial.

What should your saddle do for you?  Here’s a brief and not necessarily comprehensive list:

  1. Posture: an appropriate saddle will permit you to rotate your hips forwards to create a good spinal posture. This is known as anterior pelvic tilt and a poorly shaped saddle won’t let you do this due to excessive pressure on your perineum.  Riders whose saddle won’t permit them to rotate the pelvis forwards ride with it rotated backwards which causes a very rounded spine.  The consequence of a rounded lower back is that all of your “core” muscles like abdominal and back muscles can switch off, leaving you unstable (rocking on the saddle) or with your spine lacking the protection of the muscular system on the bike.  A poor posture with poor muscular control of the torso muscle leads to greater difficulty in producing good power output in the seated position and can tend to promote muscle changes such as hamstring shortening.  The switching off the torso musculature is a phenomenon known in the scientific literature as “flexion relaxation” and has been measured by EMG decades ago.
  2. Comfort: it shouldn’t hurt when you are in an excellent riding posture. The more competitive you want to be with your riding the more forward your pelvis needs to rotate to achieve an aerodynamic position (especially in time trials or for track cycling) and as a result the more important saddle selection becomes to accommodate this without causing pain.  Many cyclists I have seen who ride in with a terribly rounded back say they are completely comfortable without realising that they are only comfortable in this poor position.  Once I correct their riding posture and show them where their pelvis and spine should be on the bike so that their muscles can be recruited effectively, the “perfect saddle” is no longer comfortable at all.  Sometimes a saddle whose design is poorly matched to the riders’ anatomy causes the rider to subconsciously rotate their pelvis backwards to unload the perineum.  The backward pelvic rotation causes the rounded back – these are the “Sydney Harbour Bridge Back” riders, whose posture is nothing like our more flat backed professional racers.
  3. Stability: the saddle should be of an appropriate width and shape to properly support your pelvic bones so that your pelvis and spine don’t rock from side to side on the saddle. This rocking movement typically leads to low back pain or saddle sores, not to mention a waste of precious energy spent deforming your own body instead of propelling your bike.  This is one of many examples of how injury prevention and optimising performance go hand in hand for cyclists.
  4. Cornering: the saddle should allow the rider some lateral movement which can be important for aggressive cornering when descending or racing. Typically the rider needs to straighten the outside leg when cornering at speed, and the shape of the saddle should permit some lateral movement which helps them to adjust their body’s centre of gravity.  Some saddles can be quite difficult to do this on.


  
To see why riding posture affects saddle selection, look at the 3 photos of a model pelvis on the same bicycle saddle.  Notice the different areas of bony weight bearing between the forward rotated position on the left (adopted by racers), the “neutral” position in the middle and the upright posture on the right.  The upright pelvic posture on the right would normally require a wider effective saddle width than the forward rotated posture on the left as the primary weight bearing area (the ischial tuberosities) are wider.  Note that this saddle has a groove when viewed from the side to help prevent the pubic symphasis region from actually hitting the saddle, which is painful as it compresses the soft tissues of the perineum.

 

So on your next group ride, check out the range of postures and saddles your mates have, and maybe get a bit of video of yourself on the trainer and see if your posture is reasonable or maybe looking a bit like the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The photos above demonstrate the two extremes.