When it comes to preventing (and inevitably treating) cycling saddle sores, self-supported bikepack racers have plenty of tricks up our sweaty, unlaundered sleeves. Pedaling for days and sometimes nights at a time, sleeping (briefly) by the side of the road, with no time for showers or laundry and only one pair of bike shorts! Yup, saddle sores can be a problem.
For many of us saddle soreness is inevitable on such intense rides, but learning to manage it — day after day after day — can be the difference between finishing a race and succumbing to the misery.
Bikepackers are a friendly group. We talk about this stuff! In mixed company even. We’re not shy about sharing our saddle sore secrets and struggles over a few beers. I’ve heard it all and experienced a fair amount myself, and in this article I’m going to share it all with you.
If you tend to get saddle sores as your mileage increases, the more advanced tricks in this article — some I bet you haven’t heard before — should be really helpful. If you’re a newer cyclist it’ll get you started with the basics. And if you happen to be a bikepacker or tourer, this comprehensive list of saddle sore treatment and prevention tips is perfect for your long back-to-back days on the bike.
What’s a Saddle Sore?
Well, the one thing I’m not going to do is show you pictures, but let’s discuss. A saddle sore is a skin irritation, abrasion, or wound caused by pressure and friction from your bike seat. In many cases you could also call it chafing.
Common locations for saddle sores: around and under the sit bones, where butt meets upper thigh, where upper inner thigh brushes side of the saddle, and for women the labia and clitoris area (yup, fun — women, there’s more help for you here).
A saddle sore can look like lots of little dots (irritated hair follicles) or a contiguous red and chafed area. In bad cases it can look like a more serious abrasion; there could even be blood. An infected saddle sore — which is just all-around bad news — becomes even more irritated, red, and painful. There might be puss or painful cysts.
So yeah, saddle sores are bad. Let’s move on to the helpful part: how to avoid getting saddle sores in the first place.
Preventing Saddle Sores: The Basics
Because beginners and experienced cyclists often have different needs here, I’ll split the prevention section into two parts. If you’re newer to cycling and getting saddle sores on your normal rides, start here.
If you’re an experienced cyclist who can enjoy your normal rides without issue but get saddle sores when you up the mileage, skim through or skip to the next section.
First thing first: you can do everything else in this article correctly, but if your saddle position is really off you will still get saddle sores from cycling.
If you’re brand new to riding a bike, find yourself a good bike fit video (or bike shop) and start with the basics.
If you’re a bit more experienced, here are some troubleshooting tips to try:
- It feels like you’re reaching down with each pedal stroke and your pelvis is rocking side to side: Your saddle is too high.
- Asymmetric chafing or saddle sores: Is your saddle nose pointing straight ahead? Is your pedaling symmetric (potentially a deep biomechanical rabbit hole)?
- Inner thigh chafing: Your saddle might be too low, or too wide for your body (see next section).
- Too much pressure in your crotch: Your saddle nose could be tilted too far up, or down (feel like you’re sliding forward?). Experiment, but err toward keeping it pretty flat. If you still can’t find relief, you may need a saddle with a larger or different cutout.
It’s reasonable to change your seat height and position a bit depending on what kind of terrain you’re riding and how well-trained you are. If you’ve got saddle sores from repeated rides, a small change in saddle position (as long as it doesn’t cause problems in other areas, like your knees) could offer enough of a change to let irritated skin heal.
Of course, having your saddle perfectly positioned won’t help much if the saddle itself is totally wrong for your body. Which brings me to…
Choosing a saddle is big topic worthy of its own post, but I’ll cover the basics here. A good saddle:
Is designed for your riding posture, which correlates with the type of riding you do. Road racers lean aggressively forward and therefore need a narrower saddle, because the contact area is narrower when the pelvis is rotated forward. Cruisers and long-distance tourers sit more upright and need a wider saddle. Mountain bikers, commuters, and most others are somewhere in the middle.
Puts most of the weight on your sit bones, which should be supported by the rear sides of the saddle. Find a saddle with a shape that matches the width of your sit bones. If it feels like your saddle is giving you a wedgie, it’s too narrow!
Avoids putting too much weight on the soft tissue between your sit bones. If this is a problem for you, find a saddle with a larger cutout or channel in the center. Also check in to make sure your lower abs are engaged and you’re not letting your pelvis rock too far forward.
Tapers correctly for your body and riding posture. The curve of a bike seat as it goes from wide to narrow can make a big difference for saddle chafing. A saddle that doesn’t get narrow enough in the right places can lead to rubbing.
Isn’t too hard or too soft for you. Squishy gel saddles may seem comfy, but they can actually cause chafing and saddle sores. When your body sinks into the soft surface, more of your skin presses against the saddle. Most endurance riders prefer lightly padded or even firm saddles that fit their body well.
Ladies, see my list of list of comfortable women’s bike saddles if you’re still searching. Sorry gents, I don’t have one for you yet.
Finding the perfect pair of padded cycling shorts can be as hard as finding the right saddle (and just as expensive!). Again, it’s a topic for its own post. In the meantime, here are some key tips for finding and wearing chamois bike shorts.
Try them without underwear. A chamois is designed to fit close against your skin. Many cyclists find that the seams, edges, and wrinkles of underwear can cause chafing if worn with a chamois.
Choose the right shape pad for your anatomy, saddle, and riding posture. The padding should be under your sit bones when you sit on your bike, and the crotch should not be so wide that it feels bulky or domes upward in the center.
Thicker is not always better, especially for women. If your shorts are heavily padded in the crotch area they could be doing more harm than good.
Pull them all the way up when putting them on. The fabric should fit closely enough that it doesn’t move against your body when you move your legs. A good technique: drop into a deep squat for a few seconds after pulling up your shorts.
Bibs versus shorts? Some people say bibs create a closer fit and minimize the movement that causes chafing. Others are fine with shorts. The only way to know for sure is to try some of both.
A minority of cyclists find their saddle sores improve when riding without padded shorts. Whatever works!
Preventing Saddle Sores: More Tricks
Even if the basics of bike fit, saddle, and shorts are reasonably well dialed, experienced cyclists can still struggle with saddle sores on long rides. This is where the best ultra-distance bikepacking tricks come in.
For saddle sores caused by chafing and friction, one solution is to reduce friction by keeping everything slippy-slidey.
Chamois cream is the go-to friction reducer for most cyclists. Smear it on anywhere (yes anywhere) you feel a “hot spot” coming on, before it gets bad. Reapply as many times as necessary, and especially after going to the bathroom. Yes, you may have to stick your hand down your pants in public.
There are many brands of chamois cream. Some cyclists swear by one or another, but most of them work pretty well and some have funny names. Popular choices include:
Chamois cream alternatives are less well-known but popular among the bikepacking crowd. They’re easier to find at the general store in the middle of nowhere when we run out of chamois cream, and bonus, they’re often cheaper. But most importantly, sometimes they just work better!
Experiment with a few of these and you may find the perfect combination. Personally I’m a fan of aloe over the larger areas and a dab of chamois cream where it’s needed most. Chamois cream alternatives:
Word of warning: if you need a whole tube of chamois cream just to get through a ride, scroll back up and revisit your saddle and shorts. Sometimes chamois cream can mask an issue we would be better off fixing in other ways.
Some cyclists don’t use chamois cream at all. On long days and multiday rides it can make things too goopy and contribute to clogged pores and general irritation. Thus some folks prefer to avoid the goop and just stay clean and dry…
If chamois butter and other creams aren’t cutting it, you may need a different approach.
Especially if you ride in hot weather, you may need to focus on staying dry rather than lubing up. When you get sweaty, both the dampness and the tiny salt crystals contribute to saddle sores and general irritation.
Baby powder is a surprisingly handy trick for keeping things dry and fresh. Apply a light dusting of baby powder to the inside of your shorts before and throughout a long ride to absorb moisture.
A rag in the waistband is another way to manage moisture. If sweat is trickling down your back and into your shorts, place a small folded towel or other absorbent cloth against your lower back under your shorts waistband.
Take breaks to air out. This may not work for your urban group ride, but bikepackers are known to do it when riding alone through unpopulated backcountry. During a long day in the saddle, take five minutes to stand around with your shorts down and air things out.
Grit and bacteria are two major contributors to saddle sores, and keeping things clean will reduce both. You can think of this on several timescales.
Always wear clean bike shorts. If you’re at home, wash them in the laundry like a normal civilized person before wearing them again. If you’re bikepacking or touring, rinse them out as best you can (see Multiday Riding below).
Change and wash immediately after riding. Don’t sit around in your chamois shorts. Not at the coffee shop, not at the bar, in your car, or at your desk. Change immediately into clean underwear and pants. Shower if you can, or clean with a wipe (see next section) in the meantime.
Clean mid-ride if needed. During a long day or in really hot weather, cleaning up after the ride may not be enough. Take a mid-ride break to wipe down with a cleansing wipe and reapply your chamois cream / baby powder / whatever.
Any number of baby wipes or post-workout wipes will work. For stubborn saddle sore issues or long multi-day rides, some endurance cyclists swear by tea tree oil and witch hazel for their antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Add a few drops to a normal cleansing wipe.
Watch Your Form
All the creams, powders, and wipes in the world may not be enough if you’re moving your body in ways that cause saddle sores.
To prevent chafing from your bike seat, keep your pelvis as still as possible. Easier said than done, but it comes down to these factors:
- Good bike fit and saddle position, not too high or too low.
- Strong and engaged core muscles to stabilize your pelvis while pedaling. Look into pilates, yoga, or weight lifting.
- Mindful pedaling technique and position on the saddle; these come with attention and practice.
Give it Time
If you’re getting saddle sores as you increase mileage, you may just need time for your skin to toughen up. You can still ride your bike with saddle sores; you just need to take extra care to manage them well and let them heal when off the bike.
If you can stay on the good side of the healing / damaging balance point, your skin will eventually get tougher in the problem areas. Yes, you’ll have callouses in some weird places, but your saddle sore problems will decrease. Yay!
Treating Saddle Sores
You’ve done your level best to prevent saddle sores, but all the miles are starting to catch up with you and your undercarriage. Here’s how to treat saddle sores so they’ll heal as quickly as possible, even while you continue riding your bike if that’s what you want to do.
Double down on prevention. If you’re going to keep riding your bike, make extra sure you’re doing all the stuff listed above: bike and saddle fit; shorts choice; staying lubed, dry, and clean.
Wear clean, loose, breathable clothing as often as possible when not riding.
Apply a cleansing and healing substance a couple times per day when not riding. Some cyclists swear by one or more of the following to speed up healing of saddle sores:
- Tea tree oil
- Witch hazel
- Diaper creams like A&D, Sudocrem, Desitin
- Antibiotic ointment
Alternate between chamois, bikes, or types of terrain if you continue to ride with saddle sores. The variety will hopefully give irritated areas a longer rest between rides.
Consider blister or burn pads. Depending on the location and size of the sore, you may find some relief from blister pads (the donut shaped kind that surround the area to reduce pressure on it) or burn pads (adhesive bandages with a gel layer).
Take some time off the bike, if continuing to ride is making things worse faster than treatment can make it better.
The above tips are well and good if you’re out for a day ride, but what about multiday rides? Perhaps you’re out bikepacking or cycle touring and can’t throw your shorts in the laundry every night.
That’s certainly one of the hardest situations to deal with if you’re prone to cycling saddle sores, but don’t despair. Much of the advice in this post comes from experience — mine and others — in exactly that situation. Here are some additional tips just for you.
Be meticulous about staying dry and clean as described in the section above on Preventing Saddle Sores. Pay special attention to washing well at the end of the day (ideally with witch hazel or tea tree oil, but at least water) and applying antibiotic ointment or diaper cream overnight.
If you have two pairs of shorts with you, alternate each day. Any differences in fit will give the previous day’s irritated spots a chance to heal.
Keep your shorts as clean as possible. If you have two pair, wash the one you’re not wearing and dry it in the sunlight. If you only have one pair, try to rinse and dry it overnight (difficult in cold or humid climates). If you don’t have access to laundry, you can use a bathroom sink or even a plastic bag filled with water from a lake or stream. If you’re short on water, at the very least rinse the chamois. I’ve even heard of people wiping down the chamois with alcohol hand sanitizer or a sanitizing wipe, in a pinch.
Don’t forget to take a rest day now and then. Unless they’re racing, most multiday riders take a day off the bike about once a week on average. Spend the day in clean, dry, loose clothing and you’ll probably be pleasantly surprised by the improvement once you’re back in the saddle.
More Cycling Resources
If you still love cycling despite the aggravation of saddle sores, you might also like these:
- Bike Maintenance and Repair Tasks You Can Learn at Home
- Bikepacking: An Introduction
- 6 Tips for Safer Cycling in Traffic
Or, visit the cycling and bikepacking section for lots more!
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2 thoughts on “Saddle Sores: How to Prevent and Treat (from Ultra-Endurance Cyclists)”
“Any number of baby wipes or post-workout wipes will work. ” But pack those out, don’t put them in the porta-potty! I recently read a post from a person who deals with those – the wipes do not break down like toilet paper does, and they frequently cause clogging/problems with the ensuing processing.
Definitely! It never would have occurred to me to put them in a porta-potty – I pack everything out, including TP when there are no toilets – but thank you for making this clear.