Bike Seat Pain for Women: An Awkwardly Comprehensive Guide to Finding Solutions
Last updated: April 14, 2020
Ladies, we need to talk about your crotch. And my crotch. Because I feel your pain.
Truly I do. Having put over 8000 miles on my touring bike in the last ten months, 3500 of those miles packed into 30 loooong days of racing across America, my nether regions are well acquainted with the intricate issues of female bicycle seat pain.
Women hardly have a monopoly on saddle soreness, if the complaints of male cyclists I know are any indication. But, we women have a few extra issues to deal with. Our saddle pain is often a bit more complex and hard to talk about in mixed company.
So whether you’d like a little extra comfort on your neighborhood ride, or are wondering if saddle sores might be a deal breaker on your long-distance bicycle tour, read on for a comprehensive resource on overcoming bicycle saddle soreness specifically for women.
If it ever seems overwhelming, always remember this: It IS possible to get comfortable on a bike. And it’s worth the effort.
Types of Bicycle Seat Pain
If we’re going to fix our bicycle seat pain, first we need to get clear about what kind of pain we’re dealing with and what causes it.
Bruised feeling around your sit bones
Believe it or not, this is actually a “good” type of pain. As you’ll see below when we talk about proper riding position, your bones should be taking most of your weight, so you are doing something right.
This bruised feeling can be quite uncomfortable but will likely go away with time as your body adapts. If it doesn’t, you may just need to find some bike shorts with light padding in the sit bone area and you’ll be good to ride forever. Lucky you!
Chafing and saddle sores
Saddle sores and chafing are two of the ways that skin gets damaged from contact with your saddle. Often they happen when skin rubs on clothing where there is greatest pressure from the saddle, or between skin and skin where pressure causes it to rub together.
If it gets bad enough, there can be blood and/or infection. Not a good thing.
Fortunately there are many ways to help prevent this type of pain, from easy solutions like chamois cream to more technical ones like bike positioning, both covered in detail down below.
Soft tissue pain
Here’s where things get even more “interesting” for us ladies. In discussion on bicycle saddles for women, “soft tissue” is often a euphemism for “lady parts” which is yet another euphemism for vulva, labia, clitoris, and all the soft and tender bits that get squished between a bicycle seat and our pelvis when we ride. The issues can manifest as chafing, numbness, or “just” extreme discomfort from pressure on tissues that aren’t meant for it.
Men can also have soft tissue discomfort, but because of the way they’re built, it’s not usually in such exquisitely tender areas. I’ve been told, not that I can personally verify, that men are able to “adjust” themselves so that the critical bits don’t get squished. Still, everyone can struggle with problems caused by pressure on important nerves and arteries in various soft tissue in the groin area.
There has been some very minimal research showing that women with specific types of bone structure and genital shapes are more susceptible to this type of pain, but all you really care about, if you have it, is how to fix it.
Soft tissue pain can be eased by fine-tuning bike position and saddle choice, using chamois cream (if the issue is chafing), finding the right bike shorts, and often a combination of all of the above. Keep reading for all the nitty gritty details.
Time to Adapt
Before we dive into more costly options, it’s worth noting that some types of bicycle saddle pain get better over time on their own.
Just like our muscles get used to the work of pedaling more, the tissue in our saddle area can get used to sitting on a bicycle seat for longer periods of time. If you’re new to cycling, give this a try before you run out and buy a bunch of new equipment.
Ideally, after waiting for the pain from a ride to subside, you’ll go for another ride and experience slightly less pain. Keep repeating this and you’ll soon notice you can ride farther and farther with less and less pain. Even on a multi-day tour without full recovery time, your body can adapt as long as nothing gets too out of hand.
It’s normal to both gain and lose this adaptation with time if your riding patterns change. Expect to work back up to it if you take some time off from cycling.
This is all fine and dandy, you say, but what if my pain doesn’t decrease when I ride more? Well, then it’s time to make some changes. Read on!
Bike Fit and Positioning
An expensive saddle and a vat full of chamois cream won’t fix your bike seat pain if you don’t sit properly on your bike. You’d be surprised at how adjustments far from your saddle can make all the difference in its comfort.
Here are the three big ones every rider should get familiar with, BEFORE deciding they need a new saddle.
It’s important to get your seat the correct distance from your pedals, otherwise you’ll risk saddle pain as well as various other injuries, not to mention lack of pedaling power.
To find correct seat height, sit on your bike (rest one side against a wall or have a friend hold it upright) and put one pedal in its lowest position, closest to the floor. With your heel on that pedal, your leg should be straight. When you’re actually riding, you’ll have the ball of your foot on the pedal and your knee will be slightly bent.
It’s worth repeating the process (heel on pedal, leg straight) on the other side to double check, once you’ve adjusted your seat, to make sure you’ve kept your pelvis level in the process. If your seat is too high, you’ll find yourself swaying your pelvis from side to side as you pedal, which can most definitely cause saddle soreness.
This is how much the nose (skinny part at the front) of your saddle tilts up or down. The right adjustment here is a matter of trial and error and can be quite subtle. Almost no one likes the nose of their saddle tilted upward, and usually the best position is level or tilted ever-so-slightly down.
A bit of personal experience here: it can be tempting for us ladies, if dealing with soft tissue pain, to tilt the nose dramatically downward in an attempt to get it further from that soft tissue. Don’t overdo it here.
I was surprised to find that a level saddle, which encouraged proper riding posture instead of forcing me to constantly fight a forward sliding sensation, did a lot to actually reduce my soft tissue pain. If you’ve been riding a forward-tilted saddle and aren’t comfortable, be sure to try level even if it feels counter-intuitive.
Seat tilt can be a little fiddly to adjust the first few times, but here’s a good short video showing how to do it. It can definitely be done mid-ride if you’re searching for on-the-spot relief.
The correct handlebar height depends on your seat height, riding style, and of course your individual body.
For most recreational riders who aren’t competing for speed, there’s little to lose by going with a slightly higher handlebar height. This is usually a more comfortable position that allows more weight on the sit bones and causes less soft tissue pain for women. If you’re struggling with saddle discomfort, raising your handlebars even just a half inch may help.
Here’s a good video explaining how to adjust handlebar height.
Finding the Right Bike Fit
Standard wisdom is to visit your local bike shop for a fitting, where they’ll check your position on the bike and make adjustments. For serious riders this is certainly good advice, but casual riders may not want to fork over the cash. Here’s a pretty good article to get you started on the DIY approach, with some details about what to expect from a professional fitting as well.
I recommend this DIY approach for casual riders who aren’t ready for a professional fitting: take a multitool with you on a long leisurely ride (I like this one from Park Tool) and make adjustments on the fly beside the road/trail. It’s much easier to feel the difference in a small adjustment when you’re already a bit tired or sore. Plus you’ll get better and more confident at making adjustments to your bike, an important skill for any rider.
Do practice at home first though! Otherwise, don’t blame me when you’re hitchhiking home because you took something apart that you can’t put back together.
Padded Bike Shorts
Those tight, padded, diaper-like things you see cyclists wearing? They’re not just for fashion, as stylish as they may be.
If you’re serious about overcoming persistent saddle soreness on your bicycle, at some point you’re going to need to try a real pair of bicycle shorts.
The main feature of bicycle shorts is padding in the crotch area, called a chamois (pronounced “shammy” for those of us who don’t speak French). The chamois is designed to provide some padding and eliminate any seams or rough spots that might rub in bad places.
I literally can’t think of an item of clothing that requires a more personalized fit, so expect a bit of trial and error. Some generally respected brands to start with are Pearl Izumi, Louis Garneau, Gore, and Sugoi. My current favorite, for whatever it’s worth, is the Louis Garneau Women’s CB Carbon 2 short. The padding doesn’t bunch up like my older Pearl Izumis, and seems to be lasting a long time.
Good bike shorts aren’t cheap, so let me tell you what I’ve learned in hopes of shortening your trial and error process.
Don’t wear underwear with bike shorts.
Trust me. They’re meant to be worn solo. Chafing is a common problem otherwise.
More padding is NOT always better.
If soft tissue pain (pain in your lady parts) is your main issue, heavily padded shorts can actually make this worse by putting more pressure on that tissue. Ideally, you want shorts that lightly pad your sit bones without getting in the way of anything else.
For example, for me personally the Pearl Izumi “PRO” women’s shorts were a worthwhile upgrade over the less expensive “Elite” and “Select” versions, which both had a thicker chamois but actually caused me more soft tissue pain.
Watch out for seams in bad places.
This is another way more expensive bike shorts generally differentiate themselves. I had chafing from the seams around the leg openings while touring until I upgraded to a smoother option.
Tight is good.
You want your shorts to fit like a second skin, so they don’t move around when you pedal. If they move against your skin, they’ll eventually cause chafing.
When putting your shorts on, always pull them ALL the way up.
Sometimes this takes some squirming, but you want the material to go all the way into the creases where your legs meet your torso, and you don’t want any feeling of fabric binding around your legs as you move. Grab some fabric around each thigh and pull it upward, or drop into a few deep squats to get things in the right place before hopping on your bike.
The padding wears out over time, unfortunately.
If you’ve been using the same pair for hundreds or thousands of miles and it’s starting to feel a little flat, it’s time for a new pair.
You can wear other pants or shorts over them.
Cycling shorts are tight and padded for a reason, but if you’re not into that look, you can always rock a pair of baggy mountain bike style shorts over them. Personally I’m all about it. These Zoic Navaeh MTB shorts are my bicycle uniform (or these longer ones for bike touring in conservative countries).
What causes painful chafing? Friction. What causes friction? Things rubbing together, like your clothing against your skin, or your skin against your other skin.
If you’re already riding in bike shorts with a smooth chamois and things still don’t feel good down there, it’s time to get serious about reducing friction.
What reduces friction? Chamois cream. It’s basically a lubricant designed to help things stay all slippy-slidey down there. Not everyone finds it helpful, but for those who do, it can be a game-changer.
How to use chamois cream? Just slather it on anywhere you feel irritation or chafing. This might be where your sit bones or the creases of your groin touch your bike seat, in between your butt cheeks, all up in your lady bits, or literally ANYwhere else you have issues.
I’ve even used it around the leg openings of my shorts, where a seam was rubbing my leg enough to cause scabbing. Apply liberally, and reapply as often as needed (after going to the bathroom is always a good time).
Which chamois cream is best? There are a LOT of options on the market, many with amusing names, and I suspect most of them work for most people.
I started with the popular Chamois Butt’r brand and it’s worked fine for me. Eventually I moved to their women-specific version, Chamois Butt’r Her, thinking the female-specific pH-balance might be helpful on multi-day tours. So far I haven’t noticed any difference between them.
I find the little packets really convenient; I keep an open one in a plastic bag and it usually lasts me 2-3 days while touring.
Choice of Bicycle Saddle
Your saddle, or seat, is often the first place people look when trying to solve bicycle seat pain. While that’s not a bad instinct, things are not always as they seem when it comes to bike saddles.
It’s also one of the most expensive changes you can make, which is why I discussed the cheaper options like chamois cream first. If you’ve tried the tips above, given yourself some time to adapt, and still aren’t comfy on your bike, it might be time to look at your saddle.
Correct Saddle Fit
When correctly positioned on a saddle that’s right for you, the bones of your pelvis – specifically the sit bones – should be taking most of your weight. This keeps the pressure on your skeleton, which can handle it, and off the surrounding soft tissue, which can’t.
When riding in an upright posture, your sit bones (ischial tuberosities for those who are anatomically inclined) should be taking most of your weight. These are those bony protrusions that are the closest your skeleton comes to making contact with a chair when you sit.
As you start to lean further forward for more aggressive riding, your pelvis rotates forward, and the bony surfaces called the inferior pelvic rami (plural of ramus) start to take on the weight. The space between them becomes narrower the further forward you lean.
Forward lean can also lead to your pubic bone resting on the nose of your saddle, which obviously puts a lot of pressure on the soft tissue caught in the middle.
Having a good mental picture of this in your head can help you troubleshoot your bike saddle pain issues more effectively.
For a much better explanation of all this, I highly recommend you watch this short video, complete with a model skeleton, before reading on. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Soft or Hard
Before you reach for that ultra-plush cruiser saddle or gel seat cover, know that softer is not always better for long rides. Soft seats allow more movement, which can cause more chafing, and can also put more pressure on soft tissue as the bones sink into the padding.
There’s a reason many long-haul bicycle travelers (myself included) swear by classic Brooks leather saddles. They’re hard, but they mold to your bones over time, making them hard in just the right places.
There’s also the issue of cutouts, those saddles with an indentation in the middle to relieve pressure on delicate bits. Cut out, or no cut out? No one really knows until they try. You might think having more space down there will fix everything, but for some people it just concentrates pressure on a smaller area, or creates more surfaces that cause chafing.
It also depends on your style of riding, because women who ride in a more aggressive forward-leaning posture are more likely to feel their soft tissue is getting squished. So for a long-distance bike traveler who rides fairly upright, a saddle cutout may not be helpful, but for a competitive road cyclist it might be the perfect thing.
Since different people have different amounts of space between their pelvic bones, saddle width is an individual preference. It also depends on how you ride, since as mentioned above, a forward-rotated pelvis supports weight on more narrowly spaced bones.
In practical terms: a wider saddle is often more comfy for a more upright riding posture (think beach cruiser), while a narrower saddle is better for a more forward posture (think aero position). Furthermore, different people will need different amounts of width to be comfy in all of these positions, depending on the size and shape of their pelvis. Speaking of which…
Many manufacturers produce women-specific bike saddles, which is a great thing. However, know that simply being women-specific is NOT enough to ensure a great fit for you personally. There’s still a wide range in personal variation, and a saddle that’s perfect for one woman might be a torture device for another.
It’s often assumed that women need a wider saddle, due to the wider width of our sit bones, related to the whole childbearing thing. But actually, there are plenty of women who have narrower sit bones than plenty of men. The difference is only meaningful if you measure lots of people and then average them.
So if your sit bones are not particularly wide, and especially if you ride in an upright posture so that your sit bones are supporting most of your weight, you may be just fine with a “men’s” bike saddle. Personally, I ride a unisex Brooks B17 on my touring bike because the nose is longer, giving me better control, and my sit bones aren’t wide enough to need the women’s version.
Try Before You Buy
How do you know if a saddle is right for you? This part is challenging. For many riders, especially well-trained endurance cyclists, the issues won’t show up until deep into a long ride.
Some bike shops will let you try a saddle for a few weeks before committing, though this doesn’t apply to leather saddles because of how they’re designed to conform to the rider’s body.
You can try buying used on eBay to save a few bucks if you’re unsure, and/or sell your lightly used saddle there if it doesn’t work out. Maybe you can borrow from a friend or a helpful rider in your local cycling group.
Try asking your local bike shop for their ideas too. Even if they don’t allow you to try before you buy, they may have other thoughts on how to increase your odds of a good fit.
Since proper bike fit is a dance between bike and rider, we can’t expect the bike to do all the adjusting. As riders we have a lot of control over how we sit on the bike, even without loosening any bolts.
Core strength is huge in terms of bike positioning. I don’t mean how many situps you can do or whether you have a six pack. I mean functional strength in your transverse abdominus and lower abdominal muscles, allowing you to control the tilt of your pelvis while your legs are spinning in circles and you’re eating a granola bar with one hand while avoiding potholes and keeping one eye on traffic.
If you’re lacking this type of core strength, your pelvis will tilt forward more than it should while riding. This can cause that dreaded soft tissue pain and rob you of power in your pedal stroke.
To understand the proper use of your core muscles while riding, think about pulling your bellybutton in toward your spine and curling your tailbone under, rounding your lower back slightly, as you ride. You should notice a difference in how your body feels on the saddle as you do this. Maybe you’ll also notice an increased feeling of stability and strength in your legs.
To make this position strong and automatic, work on strengthening your transverse abdominus muscles, lower abs, and also glutes. These muscles work as a team to stabilize your pelvis while biking and doing pretty much anything else. Your entire body, not just your crotch, will thank you for keeping them strong.
These resistance bands are possibly the best investment I ever made in my functional strength. Sometimes I throw one in my pannier or seat bag on multi-day rides just to make sure my glutes are still paying attention. This post on simple home workout gear might help too.
Let’s not forget good old fashioned hygiene. Not only will these tips help reduce saddle sores on multi-day rides; they’ll help prevent yeast infections and urinary tract infections which can sometimes be triggered by long days in the saddle.
The general goal, you’ll probably notice, is to keep things clean and dry to prevent growth of things we don’t want growing. This gets more difficult on multi-day trips like bikepacking or touring, but it’s still worth striving for as much as conditions allow.
Change out of your bike shorts as soon as you’re done riding. Change into some breathable underwear to let things air out (I love merino wool panties for this purpose while traveling by bike).
Shower or wash as soon as you’re done riding. If you’re camping on a bike tour or bikepacking trip, wash your crotch area and anywhere that’s chafed even if you’re not able to take a full shower. In a pinch, a few squirts from your water bottle will do. Do this away from water sources like streams and lakes as part of leave no trace ethics. If water is really scarce, baby wipes can work. Wipe front to back to avoid moving bacteria from the back to the front, where they can cause infections.
Wash your bike shorts before wearing them again. I know, on bike tours or bikepacking trips this can be hard. Rinsing them out in a motel sink is just fine (use a non-irritating soap if possible). If camping and water is scarce, try to at least rinse off the chamois part. Better yet, heat some water and wash the shorts fully.
Let your bike shorts dry before wearing them again. I know, this can be hard when camping in cold or humid climates. If staying in a motel, a fan or heating/cooling system (anything that circulates air) can help. If you bring two pairs, you can strap one to your bike and let it dry in the sun the next day while wearing your fresh one.
Yes, I’ve broken some of these rules on tough multi-day rides when I didn’t have enough time, energy, or water to follow them. It worked out fine. But better to not take the chance when possible.
Hair Down There
Like most things bicycle saddle related, the optimal state of your hair down there is a personal decision. Some women find biking comfier after removing or trimming their pubic hair, and others don’t notice a difference.
The closest you can get to a universal truth here is probably this: short scratchy “stubble” never did anything to increase anyone’s comfort. So be careful about your timing if you choose to remove hair.
Even with all the above variables tuned just right, it’s normal to have some discomfort if you’re really pushing the time you spend in the saddle. When I raced my bike across the United States, there was just no way to feel totally comfy after sitting on the thing for 12+ hours a day.
Ideally, this type of discomfort is manageable and doesn’t derail your ride. Here are a few tips and observations to help you deal with it.
Short breaks help a lot.
If you can take the weight off and let some blood flow back into squished tissue for even just a few seconds, riding will be more comfortable (for a little while at least). On rolling hills this is easy; simply let your legs take more weight while you’re not pedaling. On uphills you can stand out of the saddle for a few pedal strokes to get some relief.
Consistent flat riding is the worst for me in terms of saddle soreness, so I make sure I stand up for a few seconds periodically, coasting as long as I can before slowing to the point where I need to pedal again, and repeating a few times.
If these mini-breaks aren’t providing relief anymore, it may be time to get off the bike for 15 minutes and take a snack break. This obviously won’t work for competitive racers, but for the rest of us, it can be totally worth it for the improved comfort on the remainder of the ride.
Stronger legs can reduce saddle pain.
When I’m feeling really strong and coordinated on my bike, my saddle area hurts less because my legs are taking more of the weight and my core is more engaged. Getting stronger is a slow process, but this is something extra to look forward to (in addition to being able to ride farther and faster!).
Rougher and less consistent terrain can be better.
Off-pavement bikepacking tends to help my saddle issues. It seems counter-intuitive because it’s bumpier, but the variety in body position keeps any one spot from getting too sore.
I know that was a lot of information. If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, my cycling sisters, it’s that you have options. You don’t have to simply endure the pain.
While riding a bicycle will never be as comfy as sitting on a plush couch (if it is for you, please share your secrets!), it should be possible to manage your issues well enough to meet whatever your personal cycling goals are.
Also, if you have a cycling man in your life who doesn’t seem to fully understand your distress, have him take a look at this article written by an empathetic male cyclist.
Saddle soreness is different for women, it really is. Let’s get the word out and help more ladies find a solution, so we can all enjoy the marvelous freedom of experiencing the world on two wheels.
More Cycling Resources
If you’re a gal who digs bikes, you might also like these:
- Bike repair kit checklist for any length ride
- Creative ideas for bikepacking on a budget
- Clipless pedals for bike touring: yes or no?
- How to get started with bikepacking
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