Saddle soreness – is it the end of cycling ?
Saddle soreness from cycling is a real ‘pain in the backside’ that can really undermine the time spent on the bike. Official statistics documenting the extent of these issues are hard to find although piecemeal surveys have been conducted which reveal that the extent of the condition is more widespread than is openly discussed. The subject remains taboo and the lack of open discussion is corroborated by pelvic pain specialists as being part of the issue hampering effective treatment [‘Whenever I think of Switzerland, my pelvis hurts!’].
If you have never experienced saddle soreness my experience is that you’re one of the very lucky few. That said it may well creep up on you…there is no reason to expect that you will remain immune from the condition. The types of irritation can vary and can side line cyclists for a significant length of time.
The types of aggravation that are commonly experienced are listed below:
- Penile numbness
- Pain while urinating
- Saddle sores
- Boils from infected hair follicles
- Perineum soreness
- In-growing hairs – cyclists tend to shave their legs and intimate body parts
Commonly the shop or cycling website advice to tackle such issues are fairly standard and are administered with little individual consultation beyond conveying general re-current beliefs. It’s likely that you will be suggested to experiment with saddles. Or buy better quality bibs. There are potions and lotions to soothe sores and chafing whilst more serious conditions may require a referral to a doctor. A slightly more holistic and longer term approach may include bike fitting or some ideas around nutrition and rest…
Standard Bike Fitting to fix saddle soreness.
A standard bike fit offered by the majority of bicycle shops generally uses motion capture technology to discern ‘precise’ angles through which torso and limb extremities should move whilst the rider is on the bike. The process may involve some off the bike measures such as static range of motion measures for hips, knees or ankles.
The system can be used by virtually any shop with relatively little experience as the software principally guides the fitting process. The system has a heavy ‘bio-mechanical’ perspective and corrections are addressed by altering components (e.g. shoes wedges, saddle, bib-shorts, handlebar, stem).
What are the options and alternatives?
The ‘go to’ suggestions listed above generally involve spending some cash on an uncertain ‘remedy’.
The question now is, what else could or should I do? Over this article I intend to cover saddle soreness with a more modern approach.
SADDLE SORENESS – A MODERN APPROACH
A modern approach to Saddle Soreness
The new generation of Pain practitioners view pain as an interpretation rather than a reflex to the state of the tissue – i.e. how much of a threat does an accident have rather than a reflection of the severity of damage. Butler & Moseley are the leading researchers in the field of Pain (NOI Group) and their work views pain as the body’s way of telling us to change behaviour. The good news is that humans have an ability to ‘change’ and we use the term ‘plasticity’ to refer to this ability.
Neuro Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to facilitate ‘change’. Dealing with pain is as much to do with altering the brain response via plasticity. [Smudging ] Saddle soreness therefore may have nothing to do with the state of the saddle or bibs; there may be hidden factors that are stressing the user and presenting as saddle soreness.
There are techniques and practices used by professionals such as Graded Motor Imagery (GMI) and Mindfulness amongst others to help alleviate pain suffering. Other alternatives include movement exploration and movement variability as well as graded exposure to cycling to tackle the issue of saddle soreness.
- Graded Motor Imagery (GMI)
If we understand saddle soreness as a ‘brain’ response rather than localised tissue damage, GMI techniques use visual cues to stimulate regions of the brain to reactivate lost neural pathways and re-educate memories without pain associations with certain behaviours. i.e. disassociate painful saddle soreness memories by changing our memories and responses to negative associations with a given activity.
Mindfulness techniques help us cope with pain better. Heightened self-awareness is the first step to acknowledging resistance and tensions from saddle soreness experiences and through thoughtful responses, we can mitigate the on-going soreness. Directly addressing our experiences can have a profound re-organisation of our values as a more compassionate response reduces additional anxiety and permits us to continue cycling.
- Graded Exposure
Breaking the associations with negative saddle soreness by controlling the environment and time spent cycling to reduce the ‘alarm’ signals. There are several factors we could employ – time of day, duration, distractions to name but a few.
- Movement Variability
Building robustness and resilience by re-introducing lost movement skills. Very often I see specialisation being favoured over a balanced movement repertoire and the consequence is saddle soreness. Re-invigorating the organism can reverse the soreness.
The neuro muscular aspects of saddle soreness addressed in these techniques are a complete divergence from the conventional bio-mechanical responses offered conventionally. To complement these strategies there is also a holistic approach to bike fitting which I will address below.
SADDLE SORENESS – HOLISTIC BIKE FITTING
Holistic Bike Fitting and Saddle Soreness
In the previous section I discussed the neuro muscular aspects of saddle soreness and how a bio-mechanical response is inappropriate as a long term solution. I outlined four strategies using a modern pain science perspective to address saddle soreness. In this section I will discuss the Holistic Bike Fitting technique to complement these strategies as an alternative to the conventional bio-mechanical approach to bike fitting as outlined earlier.
A holistic approach to bike fitting as offered at Le Beau Velo has more sensory apparatus beyond just the bio-mechanical. Additional factors considered include individual lifestyle factors – aches and pains caused by stress, sports injury history, work/life balance, movement skill, or psychological and social factors. Understanding the ecological framework gives us a more accurate picture of the presenting condition and a more sophisticated response in the assessment. An open dialogue with someone skilled in the holistic approach offers better interaction and feedback for the rider.
The physical characteristics of a rider’s position are also addressed using a mechanical fitting jig – here the guiding principle is the rider’s movement skill and coordination rather than observance to a software program. The ideal position blends limb proportions and lengths with ‘real life’ rider perceptions and abilities to find a meaningful and tailored outcome.
The level of detail and feedback in this type of approach avoids unnecessary short term fixes and concentrates instead in providing longer term solutions to address imbalances. As well as a new set up, you may be directed to consider the current science relating to best practices around training programs or movement exploration to aid robustness and resilience. Ultimately, this is not a cookie-cutter approach and needs to be resolved according to the circumstances as they arise.
SADDLE SORENESS – SUMMARY
So who is right ?
‘Edgy’ practitioners who use ‘cutting edge’ tools are often viewed sceptically as being different for the sake of being different or are themselves identified as ‘quirks’ by the mainstream. The counter argument is the mainstream get labelled as ‘old school’ and are chastised by the avante garde.
How we move and how we choose to move and how we recommend people should move is a contentious debate. There are competing interests, ideas and values. Practitioners invested in systems, ideas and techniques can be closed to any new suggestions and a cognitive dissonance can arise. For example, bike fitters using fitting systems can be overly influenced by the algorithms and not take heed of your movement skill or use shoe cleat wedges to ‘correct’ imbalances or suggest alternative saddle shapes when a more judicious approach would not reach the same conclusion.
The leading edge techniques consider improving the cyclist’s movement skills by focusing on the brain’s plasticity to recover capacity and tolerance. This offers a profound healing element and enrichment to qualitative aspects of living – the learning aspect of improving movement skill enables you to cope with changing and variable situations better. There is less dependence on the ‘crutches’ of shoe wedges, inappropriate bike set ups or ‘quick-fix’ remedies.
Addressing saddle soreness competently to safeguard your long term health deserves a full exploration. Saddle soreness is not a new phenomenon but it is still not well discussed or treated. The techniques used to address discomfort have not changed and are repeated by rote through the cycling industry. Adequate investigation and exploration can offer significant new strategies to ease distress.
In the final outcome, I suggest the best strategy to relieve saddle soreness will leave you empowered to rectify the condition rather than leaving you with a sense of being another statistic within a cookie-cutter approach. A tailored approach will consider your life circumstances that have created a particular situation rather than just offering you a short term fix.
This article was written by Mal Pires of Le Beau Velo