Millions of cyclists spend lots of time and money adjusting their bike seats to ride for hours at a time with no pain or discomfort. It’s normal for there to be an adjustment period where you figure out what kind of seat is best for you.
A saddle matching the sitbones’ width can reduce butt pain, just like a saddle of proper length matching your body and riding habits. Whether a saddle is completely flat or has longitudinal or horizontal curves, has a cutout, or how its nose tapers are all factors that can reduce butt pain.
If you’re not a saddle expert or you’re not sure where to start, let’s take a moment to talk about some of the different types of saddles, their shape and size, what they’re designed for, and which ones might fit you best. Let’s dive right in!
Types of Bike Seats
Broadly speaking, there are two different kinds of bike seats: performance saddles and cushioning saddles.
Performance saddles tend to be very narrow, somewhat long, and relatively hard. These saddles stay out of the way of your legs while you pedal while still providing plenty of support for your sit bones.
Cushioning saddles, on the other hand, tend to have short noses and very broad rears with plenty of padding. They’re better for less intense rides where your pelvis stays upright and you don’t have to worry about the saddle getting in the way of your legs.
If you’re experiencing saddle soreness, check for a mismatch between the type of riding you’re doing and the type of saddle on your bike.
Saddle Dimensions Explained
People will often use the length and width of bike saddles when comparing or recommending them. These numbers are exactly what they purport to be. The width of a bike saddle is the distance from edge to edge at the widest section, while the length is the distance from the nose to the back.
Just like with shoes, trying out a bike seat before you buy it is crucial. Your local bike shop will be more than happy to let you sit on some seats to see what works best for your body. Getting a rough idea of how wide your sit bones are can help get this process started, but there’s no substitute for actually sitting down on a saddle and seeing how it feels.
How Can I Measure My Sitbone Width?
Your sitbones are a three-dimensional part of your pelvis that support your body’s weight when you sit on a bike seat (or on just about anything else, for that matter). You can think of your sitbones as the edges of two bowls that provide sockets for your legs.
As you lean forward on a bicycle, you change which part of your sitbones make contact with the seat, meaning that the width of your sitbones will vary a good bit based on how aggressive your riding position is.
The easiest way to measure your sitbones at home is to put a piece of paper on a flat chair and sit on it. You should see an indentation on the paper from the bones in your butt. If this doesn’t provide the clarity you’re hoping for, the next best thing to use is cardboard.
This measurement can form a starting point for your saddle shopping. Take this number and add about 2 cm to estimate the right saddle width for you.
Please bear in mind that this is a rough estimate and that you should take your experience, preferences, and comfort into account.
If a saddle that’s “right” for you doesn’t feel good, look for something else.
Does Saddle Length Matter?
You don’t use a lot of your bike’s saddle when you’re firmly sitting down. When you’re shifting positions or sliding around, however, having an appropriately sized nose can make it easier to find the right place to sit.
The modern trend is to use fairly short saddles for most riding disciplines, but the important thing here is to find something that makes sense for you and your riding habits.
Don’t just think about the raw length here. Pay attention to how the saddle tapers. If you shift riding positions a lot, look for a tapered saddle that feels good no matter how you ride.
Curves, Noses, and Cutouts
Saddles are more than just raw dimensions. Many modern bike seats have a longitudinal curve that lets you sit in a divot in the middle in a somewhat upright riding position. This curve helps allow some riders to rotate their pelvis more comfortably.
For riders that tend to move around a lot on the saddle or ride in a forward-leaning position, a longitudinal curve on the saddle can cause pain.
If you feel like it’s pushing you towards a part of the saddle you don’t like, however, look for a flatter saddle right away!
Similarly, many saddles have a horizontal concave that helps to keep riders centered and in a more upright position. Flat saddles are thought to put less pressure on riders’ sensitive parts, but they have the downside of giving you less margin for error with your seat position.
If you’re experiencing pain in your genitals with a curved saddle, consider looking for something flatter – or something with a pressure relief channel or center cutout.
Center cutouts, or pressure relief channels, are trenches dug into a bike seat to keep pressure off of your groin. They’re almost always a good idea for riders of all genders, provided you sit fairly squarely in the saddle.
If you try to sit in a saddle with a center cutout at an angle or in the wrong position, you’ll stick your groin straight on the hard part of the saddle and miss the relief channel, making your problems worse. Many people have asymmetrical bodies, so don’t feel ashamed about asking your local bike shop or fitting expert for help figuring out how to solve this problem.
Finally, let’s talk very briefly about saddle noses. Noseless saddles are essentially saddles with pressure relief channels with the front bit chopped off. There’s certainly an argument to be made for removing the nose entirely, but it’s not a step you need to take if you don’t want to – or if the noseless saddle is more expensive.
If you can, try to sit on saddles with different types of noses at your local bike shop and see which styles feel right to you.
Try It Out
Everyone’s body is different. Bike seats must be compatible with an invisible part of your anatomy with a complex, 3D shape that changes as you tilt your pelvis. When you add in different riding positions, different riding styles, and the fact that you’ve got lots of flesh surrounding these complicated bones, you get a nearly impossible situation to generalize.
So what can you do to prevent butt pain while cycling? At the risk of repeating myself too much, the very best thing to do is to head to a physical bike shop and sit in a bunch of saddles.
Check Your Saddle’s Position
In many cases, the cause of your pain isn’t your saddle itself. Instead, the placement of your handlebars, your pedals, and the height of your saddle could be shifting you to a poor riding position. In other words, you’re being forced to sit “wrong.”
For further information on the right saddle position, you can check my article on this topic.
Do I Need A Leather Saddle?
Saddles are made of a lot of different materials. It’s a good idea to think about the stuff outside your saddle and how it interacts with the stuff you’re wearing. Bike shorts with a chamois can slide around on materials that won’t work with some types of clothes.
You might not need to change your saddle to fix issues related to saddle material.
Cushions Don’t Always Help
Road cyclists sit on their saddles more than most other riders, and yet they tend to use the smallest saddles with the least cushioning. There’s a reason for that – it’s because they’re more comfortable.
While thick cushioning can help distribute your weight across the saddle, it makes the saddle unnecessarily wide and often puts pressure on parts of your body you don’t want. Instead, a well-designed saddle without much cushioning puts pressure on the right places while avoiding the wrong ones.
Sitting In The Right Place
If you’re sitting very upright, sitting on the nose of the saddle will usually feel terrible. Conversely, rotating your pelvis forward while sitting on the back of the saddle might cause your thighs to rub against the saddle, creating friction and possibly leading to sores.
If you can, try to set things up so you can sit in your “normal” riding position in the middle of the saddle. This should allow you to lean forward and climb hills or sit back and relax without running into saddle-related issues.
I have written to a greater extent on how to reduce butt pain when cycling in these articles: