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The right bicycle saddle for woman

Published on 01.07.2021

Expert interview with Uli Plaumann and Lea Feder

Uli Plaumann from Radlabor München and Lea Feder from "WAY TO WIN" are professionals when it comes to bike fitting and the right bike adjustment. Every day they help not only men but also women to adjust their bikes correctly and ergonomically and to avoid problems. Especially around the topic "women and bike saddle" they both have a lot of experience and told us about it in the interview and gave us their recommendations for the right bike saddle for a woman on the way:

Personal introduction:

Uli: "I am Uli Plaumann, a sports scientist and laboratory manager at the Radlabor München. There I mainly deal with bike fitting, diagnostics and training." 

Lea: "I'm Lea Feder, founder and managing director of WAY TO WIN - a service company in the field of endurance training with a focus on bike training. It's not just about improving performance, but about the long-term satisfaction of our clients by achieving athletic goals in harmony with the other areas of their lives. For this reason, we combine nutrition and athletics with classic endurance training and also offer services such as ergonomic bike fitting. I have a bachelor's degree in bioinformatics and will soon be finishing my state examination in human medicine. Privately, I originally came to competitive cycling from handball as a career changer. In the meantime, however, WAY TO WIN has taken precedence and I only cycle for balance. My mission with my WAY TO WIN team is to give as many people as possible an animal-like understanding of their bodies, so that they can achieve sporting goals not only quickly, but also sustainably and with." 

What should a woman look for when choosing a bicycle saddle?

Uli: "First, a woman should measure her ischial tuberosity distance. After that, it is important in which position the woman sits on the bike - is it a very sporty position where the hip rotates far forward or rather an upright position like on a MTB or trekking bike. Then you can choose what width the saddle should be for the individual position."

Lea: "The most important thing from my point of view is the right saddle width. This is a bigger issue for women than for men because on average they have wider pelvises and therefore larger sit bone distances (up to 18 cm) and many bike manufacturers fit rather narrow saddles as standard, which are suitable for male pelvises (from 6 cm)."

>Sit bone measurement 

What are typical problems with women & bicycle saddles? How can these be avoided?

Uli: "The most common problem I experience in the lab is that many saddles are too narrow for women and they often have to console themselves by saying that "it has to hurt"! In my opinion, it doesn't have to. These problems can be avoided by adapting the saddle to the woman and the position right at the beginning of the bike purchase, so you can save yourself unpleasant sliding back and forth on the saddle and have a more comfortable feeling from the first turn on the bike."

Lea: "Basically, these are similar problems as with men: if you sit too little on the bony structures like the sit bones and the pubic tuberosities and too much on the soft tissues, numbness and skin irritations can occur. In men this is usually inflammation of the skin and in women sores in the genital area. In addition, skin irritations such as inflammation and pimples around the sit bones occur in both men and women if the sitting position is unstable. The basis for solving the problem is a saddle of the right width. In addition, attention must be paid to the right saddle shape, the right seat height and an adapted seat length and cant. We are even of the opinion that you can almost always find a suitable saddle among the common unisex saddles for both men and women. However, it takes a trained eye, a wide selection of saddles and ideally also a saddle pressure measurement film as part of a bike fitting. In addition, a certain degree of mobility is a prerequisite for athletic seating positions. For this reason, an athletic test is part of the bike fitting at WAY TO WIN."  

Why do women often not talk about problems like chafing, pain and numbness in the genital area?

Uli: "Because it is a taboo subject for many women. Often it is more comfortable for them if they can talk about it with another woman. Unfortunately, I also often hear the assumption that women always have problems on the saddle and can't ride without pain, that it's then up to them and their sensitivity to pain."
Lea: "A large part of bikefitters and bike sellers are male. I think that's why many women don't dare to talk about these issues. Some of our female customers ask to be fitted by Johanna, our lady in the bike fitting team, for this reason." 

Are women more often affected by problems?

Uli: "Good question - I would say yes, but relatively evenly distributed."
Lea: "Women ride more often with saddles that are clearly too narrow, because their sit bone distance is wider on average than that of men. As a result, the problems that occur equally in men and women are often somewhat more severe in women." 

What must a woman consider if you have pain in the pubic bone? What if you have pain in the coccyx?

Uli: "Pain in the pubic bone often comes from saddles that are too narrow. In this case, I recommend measuring the ischial tuberosities and then checking the width of the current saddle. Another cause could be an incorrect seat height and saddle position on the bike, which changes the rotation of the hip, which can promote pain in the pubic bone. The last cause - and rarest cause - could be too weak lumbar muscles, so that the hip folds forward (similar to a hollow back on the bike), so that the muscles are too weak to stabilise the hip. 
Coccyx pain usually comes from saddles that are too soft. The problem occurs most often with more upright riding positions (city bike, trekking bike, MTB). The saddle is often very soft, gel-like - with an absolute "sofa feeling". After about 20-30 minutes, the body's centre of gravity sinks lower, so that the soft gel of the saddle presses into the genitals and thus also makes contact with the coccyx - which reacts very quickly with unpleasant pain. My tip is to simply press your thumb into the saddle. If your thumb manages to press 1-2cm deep into the saddle, then you can imagine how deeply the seat bones sink in. Another cause of pain in the coccyx can come from a saddle that is too narrow - reason: in order to reduce the pressure in the pubic bone, the hips are often tilted backwards so that the back becomes round and the coccyx may make contact with the saddle." 

Lea: "If there is pain in the pubic bone, the obvious assumption is that the saddle is too narrow or that the position is too sporty. Our ischial tuberosities, unlike the pubic tuberosities, are designed to carry our weight. If the saddle is too narrow, the weight shifts forward onto the soft tissues or the pubic tuberosities, depending on the saddle model. If the position is too sporty (too long/too much cantilever), you may slide forward on the saddle. Saddles are much narrower in the front than in the back, which leads to the same problem as a saddle that is too narrow. Of course, this may be desirable for a triathlon saddle, for example. However, triathlon saddles are adapted for this purpose and you don't usually go on long relaxed rides on a triathlon bike, which is why the problems here are usually limited. 
Coccyx pain is often not caused by the saddle, but by tension in the sacroiliac joint. Here it is important to mobilise the back and inner thigh muscles. Furthermore, especially in sporty riders, the saddle may not be narrowed early enough and the attachments of the back thigh muscles may be pinched. These become inflamed and can lead to massive tension in the ISG." 

Hole saddle - what do you say? 

Uli: "It can fit, but it rarely does. The reason is that the hole is often directly in the labia area. Of course, there can be no pressure where there is no tissue - but if you take a closer look at the bars of the saddle, they are usually very narrow and very hard due to the seam, so that unpleasant pressure peaks can quickly occur directly on the sensitive labia. If someone fits anatomically directly on these areas, then the saddle can fit great, but it is more common that no hole is the more comfortable and better choice for women."

Lea: "Here you have to know that this does not solve the cause of the overly strained genital area, but only shifts the problem. It doesn't solve the cause: if you don't sit well on the sit bones, a hole saddle will only cause skin irritation to spread along the pubic bones. It can be a temporary solution if there is so little mobility in the pelvis that you can't sit on the sit bones if you are sporting a certain position, but here the focus should be on mobility in order to correct the cause of the problem. Again, a bikefitter can give specific recommendations for suitable exercises." 

> Study hole saddles 

What are your personal, professional experiences with women & bicycle saddles?

Uli: "Women who come to my lab have already dealt with the problem of the bicycle saddle and usually also have problems. Nevertheless, I would also like to address the women who have exactly the same concerns but don't dare, or don't think it necessary, to tackle the "saddle" problem. For many women, it is a cathartic feeling to feel no or less pain on the saddle, to get off the bike and not think about whether the saddle hurts or not."

Lea: "I didn't understand for a very long time that I had to pay attention to the right saddle width. Instead, I used to try to fix my seat problems with gel saddles or adjust the saddle angle and got these ideas acknowledged with back pain and numbness. With a saddle of the right width and shape, I don't care how hard the saddle is and I can ride it completely level. I even prefer the harder saddles because they give me a better grip and therefore better power transfer." 
If you could improve the relationship between woman & bicycle saddle, what would you do? 

Uli: "I do my best every day! I would wish that right at the beginning of the bike purchase is always pointed out that the saddle can fit, but does not have to. That you can measure your ischial tuberosity distance with very simple means and thus already make an individual saddle selection. It's super important for women not to be intimidated by unqualified comments about pain sensitivity and also to be able to talk about their "taboo" topics and be taken seriously." 

Lea: "The standard saddle width on new bikes should be a little wider, especially for women. Some bike manufacturers already fit wider saddles on small frame sizes, but the vast majority of manufacturers are not yet sufficiently aware of this. Ideally, the bike salesman has the possibility to measure the seat bone distance and directly sell a saddle in the correct width. More and more bike shops already offer this service."

You also cycle a lot privately. What do you look out for yourself and what are your experiences with problems?

Uli: "I don't have any problems any more, no matter whether I'm on the bike for 3000 m or 300 km. But that wasn't always the case. During my studies I was a guide on many different bikes with different saddles. I got so sore after a tour that all my lymph nodes in my body swelled up and I had infection-like symptoms for 3 days. That gave me quite a fright. A few tears and KM later, I deal with these problems every day. I use the SQlab 612 Ergowave® in 15cm on my gravel, cross and MTB bikes. I only wear SQlab shorts (SQ-Short One12 in size S) because they fit me perfectly, I like the straps because they prevent the shorts from slipping and I have no more complaints with them. Of course, my skin hurts sometimes, especially when I sit in the saddle for more than 5 days for at least 5 hours a day or on an alpine cross when I carry a backpack. One of my biggest passions is cycling and I am on a mission every day to convey this message to the female cyclists who come to me."

Lea: "In addition to the points described above regarding the right choice of saddle, I can offer the following tips: 
1. don't ride a pair of cycling shorts too long. The padding sits through and can no longer fulfil its function. After one year at the latest, cycling shorts should no longer be worn. 2. 
Many manufacturers recommend machine washing at 30 degrees. This does not remove bacteria and leads to the pads taking on a life of their own. I always wash my trousers with hygienic detergent and even regularly soak the pads in hygienic detergent before washing. This really disinfects trousers. 
3. use seat cream in the area of the skin above the seat bones. Antibacterial seat cream reduces shear forces on the skin, minimises bacteria build-up in the upholstery and is also suitable for skin disinfection after showering. 
4. I sat too high for a long time. This can also lead to back pain and seat problems, regardless of the saddle, because there is no stability on the saddle and there is always minimal rubbing. You can see this from the wear on the outside of the cycling shorts. 
5. drink enough. I know many women who complain of dry, aching mucous membranes and painful urination, especially after long rides in summer. I'm often told: "I always think I'm going to get a bladder infection after a long ride, but I'm fine the next day. The reason for this is often simply a lack of water."