I went to the ER at Mercy Medical in Durango, Colorado, less than 1,000 miles into the 1996 Race Across AMerica. They peeled down my shorts, looked at my butt and said, “Your race is over. You have second-degree burns on your buttocks.”
A second-degree burn is through the epidermis and into the dermis, the thick layer of tissue that forms the true skin. I didn’t care what second-degree meant, all I knew was that it hurt like hell!
The day before it was 108F (42C) and I was racing across the desert down on my aerobars with a great tailwind. Concerned about saddle sores, I’d put a black gel-filled saddle pad on the bike. The pad heated up and literally burned my butt!
While it was definitely an unusual way to be afflicted, I was certainly in good company as a road cyclist suffering from saddle-related discomfort.
Saddle Discomfort/Sores the No. 1 Roadie Affliction
A Question of the Week posed in the past was, “What is the Biggest or Most Common Physical Issue that Affects Your Riding?” RBR readers responded:
- Saddle Discomfort / Saddle Sores – 135 votes, 20.5%
- Upper Back, Shoulder, Neck Pain / Discomfort – 115 votes, 16.8%
- Numb / Painful Hands – 108 votes, 15.9%
- Something Else – 97 votes, 14.6%
- Lower Back Pain / Discomfort – 77 votes, 11.5%
- Cramps – 74 votes, 11.0%
- Hot / Painful Feet – 62 votes, 9.1%
- Nausea – 3 votes
In recent columns I’ve already discussed cramps and nausea because of inquiries from individual readers. Today, I describe the various types of butt problems, how you can avoid them and what to do if you suffer from saddle pain during a ride. Future columns will discuss the other problems.
Butts Are Like Faces!
Riders’ butts (and sitting area, in general) are as different as riders’ faces. This column discusses the general types of problems, causes and solutions to sitting-area afflictions. If you suffer from pain in the nether region, hopefully you can use or adapt one of these.
Types of Saddle Sores
Saddle sores develop in five different ways, several of which may occur at the same times:
Sitz bones. Pressure on your ischial tuberosities (sitz bones, see photo) reduces blood flow to the skin, depriving the skin of oxygen and nutrients, resulting in pain. In one study of amateur endurance
cyclists, over 70% of the seat-related discomfort was due to pain around the sitz bones.
Chafing. Friction between the inner thighs and groin and the saddle causes red, inflamed skin breakdown.
Crotchitis and crotch rub. Crotchitis is a group of skin problems in the groin that can cause great pain in a female cyclist’s life. Crotchitis is basically a form of diaper dermatitis between the vagina and the anus, a red, tender, itchy, eczematous rash. This condition is almost always compounded with a yeast infection, and almost always responds to steps to maximize dryness while riding and medication to kill yeast.
Folliculitis and furuncles. Folliculitis is an infection at the base of a hair follicle, and a furuncle, or boil, is a collection of pus, an abscess. These infections usually occur in the groin.
Skin ulceration. If the outer layer of the skin is damaged, bacteria may enter and infect the deeper layer of skin, forming an abscess.
Mercy Medical was concerned that my second-degree burns would get infected. I went twice a day for a week to soak my butt in an antiseptic bath.
How can you avoid problems?
Bike fit — The first step in avoiding pain in the butt is a good bike fit:
- Your weight should be properly distributed between the saddle and the handlebars. With your hands on the brake hoods your torso should form about a 45-degree angle with the top hood.
- Your saddle should be at the right height so that your hips aren’t rocking, which causes friction.
- If one hip drops more than the other hip as you pedal, then that leg may be shorter than the other one, making that side of your butt more prone to pain.
Saddle choice — Because your butt is individual, your saddle should be the right one for you:
- It should be the right width so that your sitz bones are supporting you, not your crotch. Specialized makes a tool to measure the width of your sitz bones (see photo, above).
- The curve between the nose of the saddle and the broader part you sit on should accommodate the width of your thighs. Although a wider saddle may seem more comfortable for the butt, it will increase friction.
- It may have a cutout. For women, a cutout may reduce problems with abraded soft tissue. (You can learn more about women specific issues related to saddles in this Bicycling magazine article.)
- A cutout may reduce pressure for man who is developing an enlarged prostate.
- It should be lightly padded if your problem is pain under your sitz bones. However, heavier padding will allow your butt to rock, causing friction.
- It should be smooth enough so that you slide easily without friction.
Get the saddle that fits you, rather than a lighter one. Even if it’s a heavier saddle, pain-free riding will let you ride more, have more fun, and get fitter!
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Fitness — How much you have been riding (or haven’t) contributes to sitz bone pain:
- The stronger your legs, the more they support your weight as you pedal.
- The leaner you are, the less pressure on your butt.
Some riders develop thicker skin after many hours of riding.
Technique — Alternate sitting and standing – even on the flats, get out of the saddle every 10-15 minutes.
Shorts — Shorts, like saddles, come in various models and cuts; however, even the best shorts can’t make up for a poor choice of saddle or bad bike fit.
- The chamois shouldn’t be too thick or it may bunch up, causing friction.
- If the chamois is cut in an arc to fit around your upper thighs, it will also bunch up if the arc doesn’t fit you.
- The shorts should be dry. Moisture, whether from sweat or rain, increases the friction.
Lubricant — With the right saddle and shorts, many riders don’t have problems with chafing, in which case there’s no need to use a lubricant.
- Use pure petroleum jelly. A friend who is a cycling dermatologist recommends it because it contains no additives, which might irritate the skin. I use it and it’s readily available even at mini-marts.
- Try CeraVe Therapeutic Hand Cream, which my dermatologist friend now uses.
Folliculitis — is an infection in the groin, which is relatively painless and usually heals without any problems.
Furuncle — looks and feels like a pimple and is usually painful. If untreated it can become extremely painful. See your doctor.
Skin ulceration — the outer layer of the skin is damaged, bacteria may enter and infect the deeper layer of skin, forming an abscess. See your doctor.
Cleanliness — Wash yourself and your shorts after every ride, and if you are using a lubricant, wash it off thoroughly. If you still have an expensive anti-bacterial, soap throw it away — the FDA recently banned them because they do more harm than good. Bacteria are normal on the skin and will migrate back after you wash anyway.
Butt it still hurts!
If in spite of trying the above remedies to your particular issue – and having no success – what can you do if you still develop some sort of butt pain?
Lubricate it — if you’re developing a friction sore, use (more) lube; however, all the lube in the world won’t deal with pain under your sitz bones.
Pad it — A bunion pad may protect a tender spot under a sitz bone.
Persevere — A sore butt doesn’t have to be a showstopper. After burning my buttocks I have a permanently tender butt. I’ve learned to use my mental skills to finish many rides despite saddle sores!
Numb it — Lidocaine is a generic over-the-counter medication used to numb the skin. I’ve used it on ultra rides when quitting wasn’t an option. It’s also known as xylocaine and lignocaine. Look in the pharmacy section for treating hemorrhoids.
See your doctor — If you develop a furuncle or skin ulceration, see your doctor.
By following the steps above, almost all saddle sores can be prevented.
With the help of these columns I hope you have pain-free riding!
The principles and recommendations for eating before, during and after a ride apply to all roadies. These are explained in my eArticle Nutrition for 100K and Beyond. Although written for roadies riding 100K and farther, all roadies can learn from it. I show you how to calculate how many calories per hour you burn. I compare the nutritional value of bars, cookies and candy. Both Peppermint Patty candy and Fig Newton cookies have a higher percentage of carbs than any of the sports bars! I also discuss hydration and electrolytes. I conclude by discussing what you should eat every day to ride your best. My 17-page Nutrition for 100K and Beyond is just $4.99.
My eArticle Eating and Drinking Like the Pros describes in detail what they eat for breakfast, during a race, after the race for recovery and for dinner. During a race they consume some sports bars, gels and drinks; however, most of their calories come from real food. The eArticle includes a dozen recipes to make your own riding nutrition, each of which I tested with clients and friends. The 15-page Eating and Drinking Like the Pros is just $4.99.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
Avoid the pads, the gels, the rubbing, the squeezing, the friction by using a Moonsaddle. I have 20,000 miles on mine with no discomfort ever. http://www.moonsaddle.com
Brian Nystrom says
Common saddle sores (infected hair follicles) can be quickly remedied using acne medication, since they’re essentially the same thing as acne pimples. It will usually heal them overnight.
If you need a lubricant and saddle sore treatment during rides, Bag Balm serves both purposes well, as it’s designed to lubricate and heal chafed, damaged skin. It’s basically medicated petroleum jelly.
Ditto on Bag Balm as per Brian. I have been using it for decades when riding both road and mountain bikes. On really long rides I apply a thin coat of Ghamois Butt’r over a thin coat of Bag Balm. A wonderful combination! Knock wood, but I have never had the first problem down below. Or perhaps I simply have a tough butt.
Tom in MN says
There was a interesting article a while back (can’t find a good link, sorry) about Team Sky washing each rider’s kit in a separate washing machine and eliminating saddle sores. The idea being you are used to your own skin bacteria, but bacteria from others can infect your skin irritations and cause sores. So washing your bike shorts separately from the rest of your family may be a good idea.
Peter Leiss says
Hi John great article as usual. As a long distance rider Randonneuur and Ultra cyclist this issue can be ride ender as you know. My experience is that fit and fitness help a lot. I also use leather saddles almost exclusively the exception being my track bike. Once I started using them the only issue I now have are occasionally abrasions when riding in hot humid conditions which I treat with zincofax.
Zvi Wolf says
My dermatologist recommended that I use corn starch rather than Vaseline. Vaseline prevents your skin from breathing. The corn starch has worked for me.
Kildrum Shankbridge says
Great point on petroleum jellies of any branding. Don’t use them.
Dan Waiswilos says
I almost always get at least a little skin irritation on my butt and upper thighs after a long ride. I have found that a balm containing calendula immediately takes away the pain and reduces the time for healing. I am a cranky sceptic in regard to herbal supplements and potions found in health food stores etc, but at my wife’s insistence, tried the calendula cream to prove her wrong. It worked amazingly well! I use a brand that is water soluble (MJ’s herbals) I use it pre ride as well instead of ridiculously expensive chamois cream.
John Lynn says
Get the Infinity saddle if you can find one and don’t worry that it looks strange. Once you get used to it, you won’t have butt pain from your sit bones because you are not sitting on them.
Crisscross two Band-Aids.
If I have a localized area of discomfort, I put an antibiotic jell on a band-aid and apply it to my sore. Then I use another band-aid at right angles to the first. The second Band-Aid slides over the first while the first remains stationary on the injury. Not only does it feel better, but the damaged area starts to heal while riding.
Mark Dionne says
1) Wear 2 pairs of padded shorts. Really helps a lot. One pair can be “liner shorts”.. If one gets sweaty you can also swap them. Good for commuting.— it’s not good to start for home with sweaty shorts.
2) Ferris Shapes Oval Film Island Wound Dressing (2×3 inch) found on Amazon, works like magic for me to prevent sitz bone pressure wounds. They don’t look like much but they work for me. Expensive.
Some good info and good, new-to-me suggestions. Butt pain (chaffing) is so frustrating to me, because I’ve spent over $$$ on Assos, Crotch-Guard oil, Lantiseptic, Bag Balm, … Each body is different. For every good product review, there are others that say it didn’t work. Recently I rode a 1200km brevet and made it successfully, but the skin was so raw by the end that I needed 10 days for it to heal. During that ride I put a pair of bib shorts on, inside-out, on top of the regular cycling shorts, the theory being that smooth Lycra can slide over smooth Lycra. A nurse I rode with suggested that my problem on that ride stemmed from the rain during the first few hours. Lantiseptic changed their formula, removing beeswax, so it’s not what it used to be. Blue Steel anti-chafe didn’t work. Crotch Guard didn’t work. Lantiseptic didn’t work. Maybe I’ll try petroleum jelly next. My saddles are Infinity. Another bike fit, as I age, seems to be in order. It’s been five years since the last one. (Are the recumbent riders smiling and feeling smug at this point?).
William Wightman says
For completeness I have to add in a solution that is not popular for various reasons, the most of which have to do with the social nature of bike riding. One solution for at least the top three problems (53.2%) is to ride a quality recumbent. I started riding a Cruzbike V20 almost five years ago and (after a short learning curve) my speed went way up and all the butt, hand, and back/neck problems went away. The pain was ruining my biking and I did not want permanent injuries like bone spurs in the neck. It is a non-conformist solution that works great for me at least.