Training & Nutrition

Sitting Wonky? The Relationship Between Saddle Discomfort and Lower Back Pain

We spoke to an Osteopath about some of the problems discomfort can cause

Alice Monger-Godfrey is a registered Osteopath, who has treated athletes as renowned as Lizzie Armitstead. She’s also an ex-professional and Great British cyclist herself and works with people from all walks of life – athletes and office workers alike.

Monger-Godfrey, who now runs a clinic called AMG Osteo, says that one of the major issues creating problems for female cyclists of all levels is saddle discomfort.

She tells me: “I reckon about 75 per cent of women is having problems with saddle discomfort – anything from pain on the bike, to saddle sores, to actually noticing a difference in labia size caused by pressure. Men do get discomfort –but because they can sit more flat on the saddle they tend to be the more superficial things [like saddle sores or ingrown hairs].”

In the women’s peloton we’ve had women who have had to have operations. However, I think there’s more talk about it now because more people are cycling for enjoyment.

Monger-Godfrey says the problems have always been there – but an increase in cycling participation means it’s becoming more widely discussed and addressed – telling me: “It’s a massive issue – in the women’s peloton we’ve had women who have had to have operations. However, I think there’s more talk about it now because more people are cycling for enjoyment or to get around. In the past, the mentality of cycling has always been ‘get on and do it’ – now with more people cycling just for fun there’s a focus on comfort. That can only be a good thing, I speak to so many people who say they don’t want to cycle because it’s painful, and it shouldn’t be. We all get muscle aches but you shouldn’t have to endure discomfort from sitting on the saddle.”

We’re all sitting wonky

The ex-pro has noticed some clear patterns in the problems suffered by women, and though she’s in the early stages of research she believes our tendency to favour one side can cause problems in the saddle and elsewhere across the body.

She says: “Women always tend to sit more to one side – either through crossing their legs or just because of our anatomy. I’ve noticed a lot sit more to the right-hand side. [As a result] you notice that the right sacroiliac joint [at the base of the spine] is often more mobile, and women can struggle with tightness on the left [leg] – a lot of it is in relation to how they’re sitting.”

Your left knee pain, for example, might be caused by the way you’re sitting and adapting.

This favouring of one side applies on and off the bike – but when it’s translated to the bike where we are “locked into three contact points” and turning the pedals thousands of times over the course of a three hour ride, issues arise – Monger-Godfrey says: “Our natural lean leads us to sit on one side on the bike too, which creates an uncomfortable position and discomfort on that side. Your left knee pain, for example, might be caused by the way you’re sitting and adapting.”

So what can we do about this? “Our bodies get used to things and are very habitual. Usually, we just stick with it until something – such as pain – makes us change. It’s quite a vicious circle to break, but once people realise ‘I really am sitting more on that side’, you can focus on fixing it. We need to teach our bodies to be as symmetrical as possible.

Getting a bike fit will help, but it’s also working in flexibility by stretching regularly, and getting up and moving about every 20 minutes if you work at a desk – the body hates stasis so getting it moving is important. Little things over time add up.”

She also says strengthening the body off the bike is important to avoid imbalances – saying: “We’re very poor with core training as cyclists. We love riding and we do very little core. As a cyclist, I should have done a lot more core work when I was an athlete, it’s so important on the bike to work on the lower back and pelvis area.”

Take home tips:

  1. Get a  bike fit to see if you favour one side
  2. Try to stay symmetrical when sitting, and get up and move around every 20 minutes during the day
  3. Stretch, and work on your core to address imbalances in flexibility and strength

Changing position for saddle sores

Another common issue is caused by changing your position in the saddle as a response to pain. Monger-Godfrey says: “If you’re experiencing pain, your body will try anything to get out of that pain. So if you have a boil or a blister, your body will shift so you’re not sitting on that part, and that changes the mechanics of your pedal stroke. A lot of people don’t see it that way, they just think it’s a saddle sore but it can have more repercussions.”

To avoid altering our position to cater for saddle sores, we need to avoid saddle sores. Monger-Godfrey has more tips there – and says: “Finding the right saddle is important. The ISM saddle is really popular – a lot of women I treat are trying them out and they seem to help out a lot, many of them swear by the ISM. But I’d never say ‘this is the best saddle’ – it’s completely individual, that’s just the style I’ve heard the most positive reviews around. The people having the most problems are usually those riding the saddle that came on the bike because they’ve often not looked into the options.”

How to treat saddle sores

There’s more to it than saddles though, she says: “Shorts need to be good. Get lovely padded shorts, I always use women’s specific shorts, with no underwear underneath. When padding runs down in shorts, replace them – get rid of them and use new ones.”

She adds: “Chamois cream always really helped with me [when I was racing], and I used Sudocrem after a ride [to avoid infection and calm the area]. And try and move on the bike. We often stay sat in the same position, especially when it’s cold – get out the saddle, wriggle around about, it helps to reset everything.”

Another option, though it can be expensive, is saddle mapping as part of a professional bike fit. Monger-Godfrey says: “Saddle mapping is really interesting, as you can see where you’re putting pressure and tweak your position or the saddle to fix it. You can sometimes examine your saddle to see if one side has worn out over time – this could give you some insight if you’re not ready to spend on a full bike fit.”

Take home tips:

  1. Work on looking for the perfect saddle, saddle mapping can be pricey but worth it.
  2. Wear good female specific padded shorts, and no knickers underneath so the padding does its job. Replace them when they get old.
  3. Use chamois cream during a ride and Sudocrem after.

Saddle comfort is a major issue for a lot of female cyclists, and we’ve written a lot about it in the past. You might also like: 

The Saddle Comfort Question: Are you an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’

How To Find the Perfect Road Cycling Saddle

ISM Saddles: The Weird Looking Perch that Could Save You From Pain

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