Female Bike Seat Pain: Why Women Suffer More than Men and Solutions to Eliminate Discomfort

by | Jun 25, 2024

From an anatomical perspective, humans have not evolved, arrived, or emerged ready-made to ride bicycles.  Nowhere is this more obvious than where the body meets the bike at the saddle.  Sitting on our butts for long periods is not a good idea to start with, and sitting on our genitals is even worse.  And yet we do it as generally the gain exceeds the pain.  Except there should be no pain, discomfort, swelling, genital numbness, saddle sores, or other bodily complaints.  But there are.  For both men and women.  Bikes have been around for well over a century now, and yet there is still persistent ignorance, unhelpful attitudes, and mystery regarding cause, effect, and cures for bike seat pain.  For the vast majority of cyclists, saddle issues should be considered optional and not obligatory.

Men and Bike Seat Pain & Discomfort

The public recognition that bike saddles could adversely impact men’s sexual health and function came about from an article published in Bicycling Magazine in 1997.  Although offering some controversial ideas, the basic premise that current saddles didn’t serve the body well led to discussion, conversation, and a gradual progression in saddle design to reduce and eliminate excessive pressure in the perineum, which is effectively the part of the penis inside the body. “Sleepy pee-pee” still happens to a surprisingly high number of men, but there are a plethora of current saddles far superior to those on offer decades ago, and a combination of the right saddle and a good bike fit can usually resolve that pretty quickly – provided the rider takes action other than misinformed advice to get used to it, man-up, or assumes that it is part of the cycling experience.

Women and Bike Seat Pain & Discomfort

The fact that women also experience a range of problems with saddles while riding is not new news, but I was pleased to see this topic highlighted in a much more recent (May 2024) Bicycling Magazine article (in print and online) by Gloria Liu, called the Cycling’s Silent Epidemic, subtitled “Too many women stop riding their bikes because of labial swelling and pain. Here’s why it happens, what they can do about it, and how to prevent it in the first place.”

I’m not going to repeat the article but I encourage you to read it, as I want to step back to offer broader thoughts on the subject.  I’m not sure what is silent about this, as I hear about this from almost every single female client coming in for a bike fit – but that is a biased sample as those women are taking action to address fit issues including bike seat discomfort.  I’m more surprised when a woman who comes in for a bike fit does not list saddle discomfort as her #1 issue.  But presumably, too many women are suffering in silence on their bikes and not discussing the suffering with their riding buddies or significant others, or are not finding the right route to relief. I suspect this may be common enough that it does qualify as an epidemic.  Musing on that article compelled me to write this article, as more discussion is needed.

First, let’s acknowledge some history.  Gloria is not the first person to bring this topic to the forefront, and neither is Specialized to whom she gives a big shout-out for the important work in saddle research and design done by Andy Pruitt.  Many others have made a contribution in the past, including:

  • John Cobb, pioneer of triathlon fit and tri saddles. John quickly recognized that the increased anterior pelvic rotation on a triathlon bike did not serve women well and that this became an inhibitor to cycling performance.  There is no point being aero if you are too uncomfortable to power the pedals.  He has been proactive in raising awareness about this since the 1990s and coined the terms “innie and outie” to describe the predominant differences in presentation of the female vulva and the implications for saddle contact pressure.  Check out a couple of his articles here:
  • Georgena Terry, an acclaimed female cycling pioneer who not only started designing and building bikes for women, but also ventured into saddles, launching her eponymous brand that still makes bike seats marketed to women.
  • Molly Hurford published a most excellent book in 2014 (revised 2016) called Saddle, Sore: Ride Comfortable, Ride Happy, The subject matter is primarily women and bike saddles and I recommend it highly. Unfortunately, it has not received the recognition it is due and is largely missing from the library of most bike fitters. Get it. Read it. Learn from it.

So although there have been some important contributions to our understanding of what women experience on a bike seat, they probably haven’t made the mainstream cycling news and influenced general conversation and understanding.  Let’s take this quote from Gloria’s article:

“she could never ride more than 10 miles on her hardtail mountain bike before saddle pain overwhelmed her. Longtime female cyclists told her this was normal, that she’d get used to it.” 

NO! This is not to be considered “normal” and female (and male for that matter)! Cyclists should not be telling other female cyclists this at all. It just perpetuates bad advice and unneeded suffering.  Any cyclist (male or female) whose riding is negatively impacted by anything other than mild pressure on the saddle needs to talk about it, investigate it, and take action to resolve it instead of putting up with it.  Or suffer the self-inflicted consequences.

Both men and women can experience the consequences of undue pressure sitting on a bike saddle, and there is much in common between the genders to the extent that saddles now are rarely marketed as men or women-specific.  However, with women on bike saddles, there are more complexities and complications than there are with men. Why? Primarily this is due to anatomical differences in the pelvis and genitals, and secondly, I think women are more often in a poor fit position on their bicycle compared to their male counterparts.

Anatomical Differences Between Men and Women on Bikes

When we sit on a bike seat we have pressure somewhere, and this is in a zone from the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) to the pubic symphysis, depending on torso angle and pelvic rotation.  The primary skeletal support structures are the inferior (lower) surface of the pubic rami bones, forming a V or U shape from sit bones to the pubic symphysis.  Sandwiched between these bones is the “soft tissue”, generally referred to as the perineum even if that is not technically totally correct.  You can review your anatomy at that link.

For men, this correlates to the root of the penis, and for women, it’s the vulva.  So men aren’t sitting directly on their external genitals (penis and scrotum). These are lifted and tucked up, clear of the saddle.  But women are sitting directly on their external genitals*, and there is enormous variation in the presentation and sensitivity of the vulva which has significant implications for what saddle shape and style works best for a woman.  Not sure what I mean?  For a non-pornographic exploration on this topic, take a virtual visit to a British art project that involved plaster casts of the vulvas of hundreds of women with the prime object to convey that people are different, and different is normal.

Bottom line: a dream saddle for one woman can be a nightmare saddle for another woman, due to individual anatomical variation.

As a generalization, men will also have a higher pelvic arch than women, meaning there is more clearance between the saddle and perineum which equals less pressure.  Women will more commonly have a wider and shallower pelvic arch, meaning less to no clearance between the vulvic area and the saddle, therefore more pressure potential.  Add in the thickness of the chamois, and there can be a lot of competition for space on the saddle.  The video below from Complete Anatomy provides a visual of the differences between the pelvis of men and women.

*Author’s note: I  grew up in a country where sex education is a thing and knew the names of male and female genital anatomy before reaching puberty. That doesn’t seem to be the case in the USA, so self-educate if needed so you can differentiate between a vulva and a vagina.  They are not the same thing!

Riding Position in Relationship to Bike Seat Discomfort

Bike seat discomfort rarely exists in isolation from the broader bike-to-body relationship, being the rider’s position which includes saddle and handlebar position.  So when I get a call from someone saying “it’s just the saddle, everything else is fine!”, I’m dubious to the point of not offering saddle-fit sessions only.  That’s not to say the cyclist’s saddle doesn’t suck, but simply changing the saddle may only be part of the solution, or may not even be the solution!

I once tested about 20 different saddles under a female cyclist without her finding nirvana. All the while I knew she was too stretched out on the bike and I needed to address the handlebar position.  After 2 hours of focusing on the saddle without success, I worked on the handlebar position, and miraculously the saddle she had been having so much discomfort with transformed to the best of the test.  I’ve never forgotten that lesson.  Address the overall position before obsessing over the saddle.  Here’s why….

Female Cyclist with red shirt and green bibs riding in a bike fitting studio. The image shows the female cyclist in an improper position which will create bike seat discomfort.

Female cyclist riding position with a negative impact on bike seat comfort.

Professional female cyclist with white helmet and white shoes riding with a saddle height that is likely too high and causing bike seat discomfort

Pro female cyclist with a questionable saddle height.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saddle Height:  if you are mechanically attached to the pedals and your seat is too high, you’re going to be increasing the load on the saddle.  Far more riders have their saddles set too high than too low, and this is particularly noticeable with many female cyclists, pros included.

Saddle setback:  if the saddle is too far back the pelvis will want to move forward to get the legs over the pedals under high work load demand.  As the pelvis comes forward load will increase on the nose of the saddle, often leading to a postural compensation of rotating the pelvis back away from the nose of the saddle.  This might relieve saddle pressure but it puts too much workload on the lower back muscles leading to a sore lower back.

Saddle angle: sometimes a slight lowering of the saddle angle  (nose down) will relieve pressure, but too often it has the opposite effect!  The rider will end up sliding down onto the nose and be less supported at the rear or in the cup of the saddle  (depending on design), or will increase load into the hands and arms to stay on the saddle, resulting in numb hands or sore neck.

Handlebar reach:  handlebars too far away for function and comfort will cause some type of compensation. It could be more anterior pelvic rotation to lengthen the spine and in turn, brings the rider closer to the bars.  When that occurs, there is an increase in pressure on the labia, which can cause discomfort and even pain for the rider.

Handlebar drop:  Statistically, women generally have shorter arms than men, and this has a notable influence on the height difference between the saddle and the bars.  Far too many women are riding with too much saddle-to-bar drop, which again leads to more anterior pelvic rotation (hips rolled forward) unloading the skeletal support on the saddle and loading up the pressure in the vulvic area.  This is endemic amongst pro women riders who unknowingly or unwillingly and reluctantly sacrifice personal bodily well-being for the performance-focused aerodynamic position the job demands.  Recreational cyclists don’t need to subject themselves to this demand, and neither should the pros. That doesn’t mean pro women must choose between high performance riding or saddle comfort.  Both are achievable but it can take significant nuance in the bike fit and equipment selection to achieve that.

Bike Seat Anatomy

The riding position should at least be roughed in before evaluating bike seats, to remove the previously mentioned variables that can detract from saddle comfort. While I can never choose a saddle for someone just by looking at them, I can often narrow down the selection once the rider has tried a few different types of saddles, as a rider will often gravitate toward a particular shape.  Hence it is important to understand the variables in saddle design.

Width:  This is important, but is not the be all and end all of saddle selection.  The reason width is important is that if there is not enough real estate under the rider’s butt to provide a stable support platform for the pelvis, then any number of compensatory problems will emerge.  But 5 saddles all the same width can feel completely different because other aspects of shape are also critical.  Nevertheless, I like to get a sit bone width indication from a butt-o-meter device to have an idea of how much saddle a rider might desire.  A saddle that is too narrow for the rider is a sure recipe for problems, but one that is an appropriate width is no guarantee of happiness.

Arrows at the bottom of a bike seat from behind showing the width

Cross sectional profile:  This is the shape of the saddle across the rear from side to side; most common is semi-round.  Other options are flat and rounded.  A rounded saddle supports the sit bones at a lower elevation relative to the rest of the saddle, which can mean more pressure in the center.  This can be an ouch factor.  Flatter saddles provide support at a higher elevation and can help create clearance through the pelvic arch, but can unduly concentrate pressure at the sit bones.

Longitudinal profile:  This is the shape of the saddle looking at it from the side.  Common shapes are flat, hammock  (with varying depths), or with a tail kicker (higher at the rear).

Nose-to-tail transition:  This is how quickly the saddle gains width.  Some saddles gradually taper out, and others have a very abrupt and short transitional area.  Too abrupt or too wide can interfere with leg action and impinge on the hamstrings, forcing the rider forward onto the nose, and again causing problems in the genitals.

Relief Zone:  this is the desired gap in the middle of the saddle, running lengthwise.  It may be a full cutout or a depressed channel. It’s the single biggest factor that women notice on a saddle, as this is the area directly under their vulva.  Generally, women respond better to a more generous cutout rather than a narrow cutout.  A narrow cutout can actually trap or pinch the labia, increasing discomfort.  This is why some people advocate for a channel over a cutout, and the Specialized Mimic effectively provides a relief channel.  However, that works for some but not others.  Related factors that also influence the feel of the relief zone are the overall width of the saddle nose, and how the padding and cover transition into the relief zone.  Anything edgy and hard can be problematic.

Form Cycling Throne RS2 Saddle - Horizontal View

Form Cycling Throne RS2 Saddle showing the center “relief” zone

Padding:  The Goldilocks dilemma: not too hard, not too soft, but just right.  This is mostly a personal preference, as is the whole saddle actually!

There is yet no known way to reliably predict a suitable saddle from either looking at a rider or simply measuring their sit bones.  It has to be user choice, and the best way to facilitate that is for the rider to be able to try a range of saddle shapes in quick succession, essentially performing a comparative evaluation.  Yes, a saddle choice needs proving out over multiple rides under different conditions, but initial impressions carry a lot of weight, provided the saddle is installed and adjusted appropriately.

What can you do as a rider experiencing bike seat pain or discomfort?

Don’t suffer in silence.  Confide in others, ask for advice – but don’t act on bad advice.  What is bad advice? Any comments about getting used to it or putting up with it.  And don’t ask for saddle recommendations on social media or you will end up with a whole bunch of saddles that work for other people but not for you.

Know your own anatomy, use the appropriate medical terminology to describe where you have discomfort, and describe what you experience.  Euphemisms like “soft tissue” “lady parts”, “down there” and “undercarriage” are helpful for breaking the ice and starting a conversation but not helpful for accurate understanding and problem solving.  You may not want to get into details with the teenager in the bike shop, but you should be prepared to if you are seeing a physical therapist, sports medicine doctor, or professional bike fitter.  It helps us help you if you can describe the what, where, when, how often, how bad, and what you have already tried.  If a bike fitter doesn’t have a selection of saddles to try, find another bike fitter.  A good bike fitter is part bike mechanic, equipment consultant, PT, coach, counselor, personal trainer, and anatomical expert.  And at some point, you may need to also see one of these other more highly trained specialists.

What can you do as a bike shop associate when you encounter a female who is experiencing bike seat pain?

The best thing you can do is refer the customer to a reputable local professional bike fitter (which may be in-store).  Sure you can measure sit bone width, but that is only one of about 10 variables that will influence saddle selection.  If a woman is suffering enough to come in and ask for advice, simply measuring sit bones and picking a “popular” saddle off the wall is just a crap shoot that is unlikely to result in a resolution and will just alienate your customer. I couldn’t count the number of women I’ve seen who have been sold the much-touted Specialized Mimic saddle and found it did nothing to help them.  It does work well for some women, but not for a lot of other women, so in that regard, it is no different than any other saddle. I mention this saddle as it gets a big shout-out as the holy grail of saddles in the Bicycling magazine article.  I’m not a Specialized dealer so I don’t sell them, but I do have both the Power and Mimic in my saddle test collection, and they rarely make the top 3 in comparative testing.

How can bike fitters provide solutions for female bike seat pain & discomfort?

Let’s start with a quote from the Bicycling magazine article….

“but her problems persisted—and the sores progressed to permanent swelling on one side. When she told bike fitters, who were almost always men, they stared at her wide-eyed.”

If you are that bike fitter, either amp up your education on women’s saddle issues or find another occupation.  It is a fact that the vast majority of bike fitters are men, who simply don’t have the same direct experience with saddles as women do, and most women are more reticent than forthcoming about describing their concerns with a male fitter who they may have just met for the first time, which makes the problem solving a little tougher.  In my experience, bike seat discomfort is the #1 reason women seek out a bike fit, so as a fitter, it is important to know your client’s anatomy and be receptive and sensitive to the concerns and needs of the rider.  The cycling industry already has enough intrinsic bias against women in bike and component design.  Those of us in roles working to counter these challenges need a mix of empathy, understanding, and education to provide the best possible service and outcome for our female customers. Be aware of the range of problems women can experience from saddles.  Inquire about the issues but be sensitive to potential embarrassment or reticence from a woman in sharing medical-level personal information and symptoms.

  • Ask where the problems are: sit bones or genital area?  One side or both sides?
  • How far into a ride before you notice discomfort?
  • Any saddle sores, chafing, or labial swelling?
  • How long have you been on this saddle?
  • What other saddles have you tried?
  • Have you had a fit on this bike and saddle before?
  • Any lower back or hip pain?
  • Can you ride comfortably in the drops (road bike) or stay on the aero bars (tri bike)?
  • Anything else you’d care to mention that might help me understand your situation better?

Bike fitting 101:  to resolve a problem it helps to understand the problem, so ask a mix of specific and open-ended questions to elicit information that can help deepen your understanding of your client’s experience.

Have a solid selection of test saddles available, and a means to swap them out on bikes. For women (and men) I have found good success with saddles from Form Cycling (Throne series), Ninety K Saddles, SMP Saddles (TRK and Plus models), Bisaddle (especially for triathletes), Ergon, and sometimes a model from Infinity Bike Seat.

A pressure mapping system is a bonus, as this tool provides a quantitative assessment which many riders (both male and female) find validating of their personal qualitative experience on a saddle.  A rider often has a great sense of relief and validation of their experience when they can point at a pressure plot and say “yes, right there!  I’m not making it up!”  This tool also provides a basis for discussion about where pressure is expected, where it is not expected or wanted, and how stable the pelvis is.  It can also be used to parse between two saddles that feel similar to the rider, providing insights as to which saddle might be the better choice.

A pressure mapping image of a cyclist on a saddle showing the digital readout of different colors - blue, green and yellow indicating more or less pressure

Pressure mapping image showing analysis of a rider’s pressure points on a bike seat

 

Speaking of pelvises, it’s also useful to have an anatomical model pelvis for illustration and discussion or use an online anatomy app to be able to reference different parts of the body.

The Wrap

There are many riders who can ride any saddle, any distance, and not have any complaints whatsoever.  That is not every cyclist’s experience.  There are also many who put up with discomfort that can turn into serious medical issues unless addressed.  As a generalization, women will experience more bike seat-related issues than men, and to a more serious degree of discomfort with potential long-term negative effects.  It doesn’t have to be this way.  The first step is awareness.  The second step is doing something about it.  Giving up the enjoyable sport of cycling due to saddle issues should be a choice of last resort.  Bike brand product managers, bike shops, saddle manufacturers, bike fitters, and cyclists themselves all have a role to play in this. Take it seriously.  People’s health and enjoyment depends on it.

There is much more to say, explore, and explain on this topic, but I’ll leave it at this for the moment or this will be book length.

John Higgins

John Higgins

John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists - although a few have won races! Many don't race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)

4 Comments

  1. Ray Keener

    Well done, John. Sharing with several female friends!

    Reply
  2. Matt Ferris

    Great article John.

    Reply
  3. Drew

    Thanks for writing this, its been very helpful.

    Reply
  4. Jason Covais

    John,
    Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us.
    This was a very well thought out article packed with tons of great information.
    I will definitely save this for future reference.

    Reply

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