HELP!! MY “LADY BITS” ARE SCREAMING & I HATE MY TRI-BIKE SADDLE!
After reading a Facebook post on a women’s triathlon group about trying to figure out how to get comfortable on a tri-bike saddle, I couldn’t help myself and had to reply to clarify and correct some of the information that was in the comments. While the post and comments had a significant entertainment value, there were some things that were quite obvious to me that I realized weren’t obvious to most on there. Because of the overwhelming response to that post and my reply, I wanted to put the information here so it could be found easier and shared, compared to buried in a long Facebook thread.
Some of the many comments included inaccurate names of anatomy and I was surprised so many adult women didn’t know their own body parts by the correct name. Yes, I realize many on the post were adding to the fun and using quite a variety of slang terms and descriptions, but many times the correct terms were just being used incorrectly.
The consensus on the post regarding the specific saddle pictured (ISM PS1.1) boiled down to 1 of 2 responses:
- I LOVE this saddle!
- I HATE this saddle!
There were lots of comments about how bike fit and learning where to sit were important, but not all of those comments were accurate. I don’t fault those people. There’s a wealth of inaccurate info on the interwebs these days. A lot of “professionals” promote some of this false information, which doesn’t help those seeking answers and they end up with conflicting information. In fact, you may or may not agree with all of my points, but they are a combination of personal and professional experience. I’m doing my part to try to help women solve the enigma of saddle pain when riding in aero. If you saw my reply on Facebook, it is included here in an edited version with some other points added after some more thought on the subject.
As a female bike fitter, a Tri coach and a physical therapist who has ridden the ISM PN 3.0 saddle on my Tri bike for 2 halfs, I think I can answer with some authority on this topic.
Given the vast array of terms, accurate and inaccurate, slang and actual, on the Facebook post, I’ll first clarify the body parts that are important reference points to answer the question.
Vulva/Labia/Clitoris – exterior soft tissues that surround the openings of the vagina and urethra
Vagina – totally internal so there’s no contact with the saddle or bike
Rectum – the opening where your poop comes out
Perineum – the soft tissue area between your vagina and rectum. Perineal area is the soft tissue area from front of the labia to the back edge of the rectum.
Pubic bones – bony ridges that can be felt on each side with the vulva in the middle
Ischial tuberosities (aka sit bones) – bony prominences in your buttocks where you sit on a chair
(For reference, unless otherwise noted, I am using pictures of my ISM PN 3.0 saddle with pelvic anatomy pictures from the app The Skeleton System Pro III by 3D4Medical, but the principles are the same for other noseless or short-nosed saddles.)
So now that we have the anatomy cleared up, here’s the key points and the lowdown on how females can ride in aero more comfortably (some points even apply to the guys too!):
- It might seem basic, but rule #1 is NEVER wear underwear under your bike shorts or bibs! It’s one more layer to create friction, which causes skin irritation, and it’s a set of seams and fabric ridges that will add to the discomfort that the bike shorts are supposed to help alleviate.
- Chamois cream or chamois butter is a skin lubricant that can help to reduce chafing and other skin irritation by creating a slick, protective barrier for your private areas. Use it and see if it doesn’t help! (The chamois is the padding in bike shorts)
- Saddles are as individual in preference for comfort as bras and blue jeans are (and it’s equally challenging to find the “right” one!).
- The weight bearing part on your road bike saddle is your ischial tuberosities. The weight bearing surface in aero on your Tri bike saddle is the pubic bones. (See picture above)
- Sit bone width is pretty much useless for finding a Tri saddle because your sit bones aren’t in significant contact with the saddle. This is because you’re in a much more forward tilt of your pelvis compared to more upright road, mountain or commuter style riding where this could be more applicable.
- If you think your sit bones are the weight bearing surface in aero, look at the different design of the chamois in regular bike shorts vs. tri shorts or a tri kit. The regular shorts have a much wider chamois in the rear than the chamois in tri shorts. This is because they know you won’t (or shouldn’t) be sitting on your sit bones on your tri bike!
- If you’re sitting more upright on your tri bike, not down in aero, and you’re on a narrower tri saddle, you will almost assuredly have saddle area pain because your perineum will be the weight bearing surface on the saddle because your sit bones are hanging off the sides. Narrow tri saddles are not designed for upright riding. They’re designed to be ridden in aero. (See picture below)
- Just like sit bones take some time to adjust to being on the saddle after time off, so do your pubic bones! Take more than about 2 weeks off from aero and you’ll be starting that process again!
- If the pain from the saddle is over the pubic bones, give it time to adapt to the pressure. It will, just like your sit bones do!
- If your pain from the saddle is at the vulva or perineum, do not accept the answer of “You’ll just get used to it. Keep riding.” It won’t get better and in fact will get worse because the perineum is not designed to be a weight bearing surface! This should not be a shocker, but it probably is for many of you!
- You need to sit on your Tri/aero saddle where the pubic bones are the weight bearing surface on the nose and don’t worry about where your sit bones are on the saddle or how much of the saddle is showing behind. (See picture below for weight bearing locations on the pelvis and saddle when in aero. Green on the pelvis is the sit bones and blue is the pubic rami, which is where you should be riding on your tri saddle. The blue color shows the location of the weight bearing contact points on the saddle and the pubic bones.)
- Your ability to get to that pubic weight bearing position on the nose is dependent on your bike fit, pelvic, lower and middle back mobility.
- Bike fit REALLY is key for getting this right and it may not even be your saddle choice that’s the problem! Saddle height, saddle fore-aft position, saddle nose tilt, cockpit reach, aero bar/forearm pad width, and cockpit height can ALL have a direct impact on how you’re able to position your pelvis on the bike. (For me and my tri-bike fit, until my cockpit was the correct width, my trunk was to rounded from my forearms being to narrow. I couldn’t relax my upper/mid-back down between my shoulder blades. This caused me not to be able to rotate my pelvis far enough forward to get the pubic bones on the saddle nose. We fixed the cockpit issue and THEN we could find the right saddle!)
- Position in aero on a Tri bike is more up and forward over the front of the bike but DON’T start upright on the back of the saddle and slide forward. You’ll squish and shear your vulva. No one will be happy on any saddle if you do this!
- Innies vs outies – outies need to make sure the vulva is “contained in the middle” when you put your bike shorts on so the labia aren’t smashed between the pubic bone and saddle. Cut out or flat saddle and saddle width is individual based on volume of the labia and width of the cutout. See #6 and #7 again! Speed and Comfort (formerly Cobb) has lots of great info on innies and outies. You can check it out here: https://speedandcomfort.com/blogs/comfort-issues/innie-or-outie
- Pubic hair – moderation is key! Don’t shave it all off or trim it super short or you’re asking for more issues. If you grow a jungle down there, that’s also a problem because of shear forces on that much hair. It will pull! Moderate length hair is the best to avoid shear problems, skin irritation and ingrown hairs. As I heard at a conference once: Pubic hair is MIPS for your crotch!
- Just because you’ve had a bike fit and you’re still uncomfortable, doesn’t mean bike fit is not still the answer. As there is in any profession, there are good and bad providers. It’s not meant to say I’m the greatest, but if you’re not getting the results you want and NEED from your fitter, it may be time to seek out a different bike fitter. At a minimum, make sure you have communicated clearly what your complaints are in regards to your fit and the pain experienced. Saying “my saddle is a little uncomfortable” is WAY different than, “if I’m in aero on my bike for more than 15 minutes it feels like there’s a fire in my crotch and after 30 minutes I start getting a saddle sore on the right side of my labia.” Communicate clearly and don’t be afraid to take your delicate parts (or any other painful areas) somewhere else if where you’ve not gotten the comfort you need! Advocate for yourself and your comfort because no one else will!
So, there you have it! If you’re having pain when riding in aero, check these things and see if they help. If fixing things you can fix doesn’t seem to help, seeing a professional bike fitter can help! There are a lot of male bike fitters out there. Ladies, while it may seem awkward to discuss problems “down there” with a guy, rest assured that this is not a new topic for them to discuss. But female bike fitters definitely have a distinct understanding of what you’re describing!
If you have questions about this or other bike fitting issues, feel free to reach out and ask me! You can contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 865-409-1782. I love helping people get comfortable on bikes so they enjoy riding as much as I do!