This guide was written by Total Women’s Cycling editor Michelle Arthurs-Brennan.
Saddle discomfort is something that affects a lot of women – it can even be the reason some women decide that cycling is just not the hobby for them. It doesn’t have to be that way, though – with a little careful analysis you can hunt down the right perch and turn painful rides into a thing of the past.
The difficultly in the saddle hunt is that no two women are created the same – so because one model is perfect for your friend, it doesn’t mean it’ll work for you. That also means that we can’t review saddles and say ‘this seat is excellent and will meet your needs’, because what works for our nether regions might be very different.
There are however some key trends, and we can provide advice to help you in your mission to find your own perfect perch.
The differences between men’s and women’s saddles
In the cycling world, there are many items that are considered ‘unisex’. Though some women do get on with men’s saddles, they’re generally not considered unisex items – women are shaped differently to men. The only exception comes when we consider noseless (most popularly ISM saddles) versions, where there is no material beneath the soft tissue.
Women generally have wider sit bones, so saddles for women are usually wider. Though not all women want a cut-out channel, to relieve soft tissue discomfort, most of us find we are more comfortable with one.
Saddles for different riding positions
Your chosen style of riding and your flexibility will impact your saddle preferences.
Women who ride in an aggressive position often have their pelvis tilted slightly forwards – particularly if they are riding a time trial or triathlon bike, or spending a lot of time in the drops. This means that a lot more pressure on the soft tissue. Therefore, these women are more likely to get on with a saddle that has a large cut-out, or relief channel, or a noseless option.
Comparatively, those who adopt a more upright position – perhaps riding a hybrid, or Dutch bike, or a road bike with a shorter reach, will be putting more pressure on their sit bones. These women might find they want a saddle with a little more padding at the rear. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that more padding means better – you still want something that supports your weight, rather than a fluffy pillow like perch that just depresses underneath you.
If you’re often riding over bumpy terrain, some saddles come fitted with seat springs – those from British Brand Brookes are the most famous example. The springs can dampen out some of the road buzz, and stop it from being transmitted to your buttocks.
Saddles for different bodies
Some brands that have carried out research into soft tissue discomfort in women have come to the conclusion it’s your body shape that determines the ideal saddle for you. Those who have more ‘pronounced’ genitals, they suggest, will need a wider cut-out or relief channel, than those who are more ‘petite’ down there – so do consider your own personal anatomy when saddle shopping.
Before you buy a new saddle, take some time to think about exactly what you don’t like about your existing model. Do you feel you’re sinking into it too much? Go for less padding. Find you’re getting soft tissue numbness? Look for more relief to prevent loss of blood flow. Chafing between the thighs? You might need a thinner nose.
Many saddles come in a range of widths, that can be fitted to suit you. If you’ve got wider sit bones, you’ll get on better with a saddle that’s wider at the rear, whilst those with narrower sit bones will want a narrower width. Sit bone width has nothing to do with the size of your jeans, but most bike fitting experts will have a tool that can measure your bone structure.
Look outside the saddle
Finally, it’s worth remembering that comfort in the saddle isn’t just about the leather and aluminium (or chrome or titanium..) structure beneath you. There are other factors involved, and it you find yourself repeatedly buying new saddles to no success it’s worth investigating further.
Firstly – there’s the way you’re sitting. Experts Selle Italia, for example, tell us their research shows 60 per cent of people are sitting too far forward on their saddle. Other issues can be a lack of flexibility causing excess pressure in the wrong places, or an overly long reach causing excessive rotation.
The best way to find out if the way you’re sitting is the problem is to book a bike fit, or to treat yourself to a specific saddle mapping session where an expert will show you exactly where pressure is being created.
The other common culprit is bad shorts. Padded cycling shorts are designed to relieve pressure, and worn correctly – in the right size, without knickers underneath – they’re usually successful. However, shorts that are too tight will restrict blood flow, and if they’re too loose you’ll experience chafing.
The key to finding saddle comfort is to be careful and thorough in your analysis of what sort of shape will suit your riding style, and your body. You need to consider what problems you have with your existing model, and what it is about that saddle that causes those problems – then look for a version that addresses those areas.
If you’re still struggling, the next step is to look at your position on the bike, perhaps investing in a saddle mapping session or a bike fit.