The Importance of Saddle Shape For Cycling Performance

Marc Lindsay
by Marc Lindsay
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The Importance of Saddle Shape For Cycling Performance

The height of your saddle gets most of the attention, and rightfully so. Setting up your saddle in the right position so the height allows your knee to bend to 25- to 35-degree knee flexion at the bottom of the pedal stroke has been shown to maximize power and performance. But what is equally important and gets much less attention is the shape and fit of a saddle.

Like your shoes, helmet or even your bike frame, the shape and length of your saddle is vital to your comfort and pedaling efficiency. Let’s take a look at how you can get the fit of your saddle right to boost your pedaling power and ride longer without discomfort.

WHY SADDLE SHAPE IS IMPORTANT

When cyclists look at performance saddles, the weight and materials used to construct the saddle are often deciding factors. But when it comes to comfort — and ultimately your performance — the shape of a saddle should be driving your decision. While some might believe the amount of padding is more important, the shape of the saddle is actually what determines how well your weight is distributed and the amount of pressure that is being placed on sensitive areas of the body like the ischial tuberosities (the butt bones that contact the back part of the saddle) and the perineum — which rests near the front.

Find a saddle that distributes the weight of your body correctly and fits the shape of your pelvis, and you’ll improve your overall comfort, allowing you to pedal more efficiently and for greater durations. And since your body position changes on the bike depending on whether or not you scoot forward to accelerate in the drops, scoot back to climb a hill or sit somewhere in between when cruising on flats, if your saddle doesn’t fit you correctly you’ll naturally adopt bad posture habits while you ride.

In terms of pedal stroke, power is ultimately generated from your muscles. The proper alignment of your joints (hips, knees, ankles) is necessary to generate power and utilize your strength during the pedal stroke. If you’ve adopted bad posture because your saddle doesn’t fit you correctly, your performance suffers Poor posture from using the incorrect saddle can also lead to injuries like neck and lower-back pain, and even problems with the shoulders and knees.

TIPS TO GET IT RIGHT

While a bike-fit specialist is ultimately the best resource to help you find the right saddle shape for your body, there are some things you can do to make the correct selection. Whether you’re having problems with your current saddle or are in the market for a new one, here are a few tips you can use.

  • Measure your sit bones: Whether or not you need a wide saddle or a narrow one depends on how far apart your sit bones, or your ischial tuberosities, are. Most specialty bike shops that conduct bike fits will have a pad of some sort that you sit on to measure your sit bones for you. If you don’t have the money or aren’t interested in investing in a bike fit, you can measure this distance between the lower parts of the pelvis with a piece of aluminum foil. Simply place a sheet of foil on the floor in a carpeted area and lean forward to mimic how you sit when you ride. Measure the two deepest imprints to determine the distance. Anything that’s 100mm or less is considered narrow, while anything greater than 130mm is considered wide. Measurements between those two distances puts you into the normal range. How narrow or wide a saddle you purchase should depend on this measurement.
  • Taper: How much the saddle width changes from the back to the nose is important. Teardrop shapes are common, being wider in the back and becoming narrower toward the nose. This shape minimizes thigh rub against the saddle. Linear shapes are usually shorter and don’t have as significant of a width change between the back of the saddle and the nose. This type of saddle is usually ideal for more aggressive cyclists.
  • Flat versus curved: Flat saddles are usually best suited for cyclists who are flexible in the spine, hip flexors and hamstrings. These saddles allow you to move around more and stay in a good saddle position even when you get really low in the drops. For less flexible cyclists, a curved saddle might be a better option. These options are typically curved in the middle to keep you in place and provide additional support to the pelvis and spine.
  • Riding style: The type of cyclist you are influences your saddle choice. If you’re a time trial cyclist or someone who likes to scoot forward to generate power, a saddle with a short, padded nose might be a good choice. If you change fore/aft position frequently, a longer, flat saddle may suit you. If, however, you like to hunker down in a single position and don’t scoot to the back of the saddle when climbing, for instance, a curved saddle is ideal in most cases.
  • Cutouts and padding: These parts of the saddle fall into the personal preference category. Some people prefer a cutout in their saddle to relieve pressure on the nerves in the perineum, while it causes more discomfort for others. The amount of padding preferred from person to person also varies. For this reason, it’s a good idea to participate in the “try before you buy program” offered at many local bike shops. This allows you to ride with a saddle for a day or two and switch it out if it’s not working.

About the Author

Marc Lindsay
Marc Lindsay

Marc is a freelance writer based in Scottsdale, Arizona. He holds a master’s degree in writing from Portland State University and is a certified physical therapy assistant. An avid cyclist and runner of over 20 years, Marc contributes to LAVA, Competitor and Phoenix Outdoor magazines. He is the former cycling editor for Active.com.

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