Why Are Bike Seats So Hard?

Peter Glassford
by Peter Glassford
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Why Are Bike Seats So Hard?

New riders are often surprised by how hard their bike saddle is, but this firm surface allows you to be stable and produce power. In stark contrast to a comfortable living room sofa, a bike seat is not meant for moments of relaxation and cushioning. You need a firm surface from which to work — and that serves as a launching point to quickly get out of the saddle to climb, sprint, and roll over obstacles.

As you become more experienced and aggressive in your cycling, your saddle generally becomes less padded. Elite riders often use weird-looking saddles with the ‘nose’ cut off so they can lean forward more comfortably or with cut-outs in the middle to reduce pressure on the sensitive tissue of the perineum.

BIKE POSITION AND SADDLE BASICS

When you sit to pedal your bike, you want a nice stable platform to pedal forcefully from so those powerful hip muscles are free to work. That’s why the proper way to sit on a bike saddle is with your tailbone slightly tilted up and pelvis slightly down and your sit bones (ischial tuberosities) connecting with the saddle. The sit bones are the two bony areas you can feel just below your butt. You put the majority of the weight there as you pedal to avoid bearing load on your delicate soft tissue.

As you pedal, your butt shifts slightly on the saddle, from left to right, depending on which foot is pushing the pedals down. As you shift, your body is trying to press against something to help push the pedal down. This is where the firm saddle comes in. If your sit bones are cushioned by a thick layer of oh-so-soft-gel then you won’t be able to pedal as effectively. Compare this to standing on a balance ball and trying to squat; you would squat more weight standing on firm ground than a squishy ball. It sounds counterintuitive, but ultra-cushy saddles also add pressure where you don’t want it. As your sit bones push down, the foam or gel shifts as well, putting more pressure on the soft tissues.

An overlooked area related to padding is bike shorts. A great set of bike shorts with a chamois adds padding to key areas. The chamois also serves to wick moisture and prevent saddle sores. Combining a great set of shorts with a saddle designed for your pelvic structure optimizes your riding.

HOW TO FIND THE RIGHT SADDLE

  • Take measurements: The right saddle for one person may be completely wrong for another. Because our sit bones are spaced differently and our goals in cycling are different, we prefer different saddles. Most bike shops are equipped with some kind of measurement device to find the best saddle width for you: It isn’t based on your size or weight, it’s based on your sit bones. Fun fact: While you may think your sit bones would correlate with how wide your hips are, that’s not always an accurate measurement. A 120-pound female might have the same sit bone width as a 260-pound male rider.
  • Consider your riding style: Your riding style also dictates which saddle works best for you: An aggressive rider doing time-trials on the road wants a saddle that lets them hinge far forward to get aerodynamic. A more casual commuter who likely isn’t wearing bike shorts with a soft chamois might enjoy a bit more padding and a saddle that supports a more upright sitting position.

READ MORE > WHY CYCLISTS CARE ABOUT AERODYNAMICS


KNOW WHEN TO GET OUT OF THE SADDLE

If you’re finding your saddle uncomfortable after riding for a while, it may not be the saddle itself is to blame, you may be sitting in one spot too much and not moving around and standing up. Standing more often won’t be a replacement for the proper seat, but it is worth reflecting on how comfortable you are standing to climb, descend or simply to change positions.

In my experience, mountain bikers end up with fewer issues with saddle discomfort and saddle sores because they are forced to move around on the saddle to get over obstacles and up short hills. It is not uncommon for new cyclists (in all disciplines) to be uncomfortable standing or shifting their weight around on the saddle. Small shifts of your weight and standing to climb can help reduce and shift the loads so your weight isn’t just in one small area.

About the Author

Peter Glassford
Peter Glassford

Peter is a cycling coach and registered kinesiologist from Ontario, Canada. He travels frequently to work with athletes at races, camps and clinics. He also races mountain bikes for Trek Canada and pursues adventure in all types of movement. Follow @peterglassford on Twitter, or check out his online and in-person coaching at www.smartathlete.ca.

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