Saddle sores from cycling: Why they happen and how to prevent them

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Saddle sores. They’re one of the most frustrating and uncomfortable ailments you can develop as a cyclist. They happen to all riders, regardless of gender, age, or experience on the bike, and they can make cycling deeply unpleasant, assuming you can even ride at all.

So how do saddle sores occur and how can they be prevented? And if you’re already past that point, how can they be treated? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

What are saddle sores and how do they occur?

Broadly speaking, saddle sores can be divided into two main types: those caused by abrasions, and those that result from infected hair follicles. Here’s how each type occurs:

Abrasions

The most simple type of saddle sore is one that’s caused by abrasion of the skin due to excess friction. When your undercarriage is rubbing on the saddle in a repetitive way, it can eventually wear away the top layer of skin.

Gary Cairnduff is a sports physiotherapist at the Olympic Park Sports Medicine Centre in Melbourne and an ultra-endurance rider in his own right. He’s completed Paris-Brest-Paris and Perth-Albany-Perth and has plenty of first-hand experience when it comes to saddle sores. He tells CyclingTips that abrasion saddle sores are often the result of unnecessary movement in the saddle.

“You want your contact with the saddle to be on the ischial tuberosities — the sitting bones — and these need to be still, not moving back or forward or side to side on the saddle,” he says.

There can be a bunch of reasons for this excess movement.

Your saddle isn’t right for your body: It might be the wrong shape or putting pressure in the wrong spots.
Your bike fit isn’t right: Your saddle might be too high, too low, too far forward, too far back, or tilted too far up or down at the front. Your handlebars might also be forcing you to reach further than is desirable.
Leg-length discrepancy: It might be that one of your legs is slightly longer than the other, which is causing instability in the saddle.

Abrasion saddle sores initially present as red, raw marks on the skin. If they develop further the skin can break or they can appear crater-like in appearance.

Infected follicles, boils or cysts

As Cairnduff notes, things can get more serious than losing a layer or two of skin through abrasion.

“Staphylococcus aureus is a natural bacteria on our own skin,” he said. “If we open up our skin with friction or we open up the hair follicle, we introduce this bacteria inside our body. This can escalate into something more medical that will not merely respond to a topical ointment, but require oral antibiotics.

“It is possible to develop a cystic collection beneath the skin owing to friction which may require surgical intervention.”

An infected follicle often looks something like a pimple, and can sometimes have a head on it. That lump has the potential to turn into an abscess or boil — something you certainly want to avoid.

How to prevent saddle sores

As with any ailment, prevention is better than a cure. So here are some things you can do to avoid developing saddle sores:

Get out of your cycling kit ASAP: Some people will tell you that chamois time is training time but you should really get out of your sweaty cycling kit as soon as you can post-ride. It should be reasonably obvious that skin abrasions and damp, sweaty clothing aren’t a great combination.

Practise good hygiene: Make sure you wash and dry your kit after every single ride. It should go without saying but make sure you shower well after each ride too.

Wear good-quality, well-fitted shorts: It’s worth investing in a good pair of knicks with bib straps, to ensure that everything stays exactly where it’s supposed to be. You don’t want loose knicks that are going to rub excessively.

Don’t wear underwear under your knicks: If you’re new to cycling, trust us on this one: cycling shorts go directly onto your skin. You’re wearing lycra to reduce friction. Underwear in between will only increase the friction. You don’t want a seam from your undies rubbing against you with every pedal stroke.

Make sure your bike fits properly: See a sports physiotherapist or reputable bike fitter to ensure that you’re in the optimal position on the bike. This includes everything from your saddle height, to position and tilt, to stem length, to handlebar height.

Avoid increasing your riding distance too quickly or doing multiple days in a row when your body isn’t used to it: “Riding consecutive days when this is unusual for you is a fast track to breakdown,” Cairnduff says. “Whether your back, your neck, your knees or your nether regions – they all have to take time to be conditioned. Just like the stringed instrument player, the rower or gymnast has to build calluses — so too does your butt!”

Use chamois cream on longer rides: The definition of “longer rides” will differ from person to person, but if you’re riding well beyond your normal distance, consider a bit of lubrication for your undercarriage, to reduce friction as much as possible. “Lather it on!” says Cairnduff. “If you are going longer than 200 km then reapply after 4-5 hours. I prefer creams that come in a squeeze tube rather than the tub so I’m not running the risk of ‘double dipping’. I also use antiseptic wipes on the area before I reapply, and also use another set of them on my hands after use.”

Be sure to vary your position on the bike: Do you spend most of your time in the saddle? It might be worth making a conscious effort to stand up every once in a while to relieve pressure on the area. This is particularly true if you’re riding on a stationary trainer. “Please consider that stationary trainers favour us sitting for prolonged periods without shifting, or offloading our sitting bones by rising out of the saddle as we normally would on the road or on the mountain-bike trails,” Cairnduff says. “Force yourself out of the saddle every 30 minutes or so.”

If you think you have a leg-length discrepancy, consider seeking help from a professional: A sports physiotherapist will be able to put you on the right path. Installing a shim between your shoe and your cleat can be a good way to even out any discrepancy.

Avoid shaving or waxing downstairs: Hair removal can irritate the hair follicles, and allow skin bacteria into those follicles. You don’t want an infection to get in there. It’s worth reading up on the case of Team Great Britain’s track riders who, in 2016, were advised to stop waxing and shaving to help prevent saddle sores. It reportedly worked wonders.

Be nice to your butt after long rides: This can help prevent saddle sores developing on your next ride. “Don’t be shy – check yourself out!” says Cairnduff. “If there’s anything sensitive then use the appropriate ointment – lanolin, antiseptic crème, like Bepanthin for babies. I’ve used paw paw ointment to good effect, but I don’t use it as a chamois crème.”

Take a break if you notice saddle sores developing: Got a bit of chafing going on? Take a few days off the bike if you can. If you can’t, lather up with chamois cream.

How to treat saddle sores

Let’s say you’ve gone past the point of prevention and you’re in need of treatment. We’ve all been there. Here’s what you can do:

Take some time off the bike: The easiest remedy, and the one you should always try if you can, is to take some time off the bike. Depending on the severity, saddle sores should usually sort themselves out within a week. More severe cases may require up to a month off.

Wash the area thoroughly and use an anti-bacterial cream: Again, it should go without saying that you’re washing your undercarriage with warm water and soap after each ride. You can also use anti-bacterial cream to help prevent infection.

If the sores are severe, seek medical attention: If you’ve got saddle sores that are lingering or growing, or extreme pain that lingers for more than a week, go and see a medical professional. You might be prescribed antibiotics or, if it turns out you’ve developed an abscess, you might even need a surgical procedure. Pro tip: don’t let it get to this stage.

Anything else?

Have you had problems with saddle sores in the past? What have you found useful in preventing or treating them? We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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