How to Deal with Discomfort “Down There”
Finding the right saddle, getting a proper bike fit and wearing a good chamois can go a long way in preventing chafing, friction and other women's saddle pain issues that occur when you ride. The good news is that in almost all circumstances, saddle pain (and saddle sores) is completely preventable. Here's what you need to know, whether you're a new cyclist or you've been riding for years:
You deserve to be comfortable. First and foremost, it's important to say this: Cycling should not be uncomfortable. Your nether regions—specifically, your vulva and your inner thigh area—should not be numb, chafed or in pain when you pedal. Many women suffer in silence simply because they don't realize that cycling can feel completely comfortable (well, maybe not completely comfortable, your legs will still burn on hills!) or because it feels awkward to talk to a coach, spouse, bike shop mechanic, bike fitter or even family doctor about discomfort down there when riding. So, say it with me: "I deserve to feel good on my bike!"
Now that we've cleared that up, let's talk about how we can take action to improve the quality of our ride and avoid women's bike saddle pain.
Find the right cycling shorts
First order of business: Cycling shorts. If you're new to cycling, bike-specific shorts are the ones that have a diaper-like pad sewn into the butt. This provides a bit of cushion between you and the saddle, but also offers antimicrobial (bacteria-trapping) benefits and fights friction between your butt and the bike at the same time. Look for a pair that fits snug, but not so tight that your breathing is restricted—and when you try them on, make sure you bend over the way you'll bend over to ride a bike, since that can change how a pair of shorts feels around your waist. You may need to try shorts from a few brands before you find a pair that feels comfortable in the legs and the waist, but it's worth making the effort.
Pro tip: It's better to spend a bit more on a single pair of shorts versus buying multiple cheap, less comfortable options.
If you haven't yet, consider trying bib shorts. They might look silly at first (and they're meant to be worn under a jersey, not over it like suspenders!) but they're much more comfortable than regular shorts since they avoid a waistband that digs into your stomach. The only issue with bib shorts is that it can be tricky peeing while wearing them, but now, many brands make bib shorts that can pull down in the back, making it easier to go to the bathroom.
The deal with underwear and bike shorts
Don't wear underwear with your bike shorts. Not bikini cut, not thong, not g-string. Nothing. This deserves its own section because it's something that beginners are rarely told, and even if you do know, you may not know why. It's not about avoiding unsightly panty lines, or in any way about style. It's all about making your ride more comfortable by avoiding friction between skin, underwear and bike shorts. The pad in bike shorts is meant to trap bacteria and also alleviate friction by providing a single smooth surface from the top of your thighs across your nether regions. If you add an underwear layer, not only are you no longer getting any use out of the antimicrobial chamois pad, the two fabrics will rub against each other and your skin, which can lead to micro-tears in the skin, which can lead to saddle sores. So... just don't wear underwear with your shorts!
Get a bike fit
Another important investment you can make in your bike comfort is getting a proper bike fit. First off, this should involve selecting the right saddle (more on that here). There are also a lot of factors that can make your saddle less comfortable that have nothing to do with how padded it is. For example, if your seat is too low (a common issue for beginner women cyclists), you're pressing down harder on your saddle as you pedal. If it's too high, you may be rocking from side to side as you pedal. If your bars are too far forward, your pelvis might be rolled forward so far that you're putting a lot of pressure on your clitoris and causing friction and pain (yep, that's a thing that can happen).
Even if you've had a bike fit in the past, remember that your fit can change over time so if you notice it's feeling less comfortable, you might need to get fit again. There are obvious changes like a pregnancy or injury that can impact how your bike fit feels, but there are less obvious changes like starting a yoga practice and gaining more flexibility that can make a difference.
Keep an eye on your saddle
Most of us are tossing bikes in the car, slamming them onto bike racks, or just knocking them over on the ground on occasion. If you notice that suddenly your bike is a lot less comfortable, check your saddle's angle and tilt. It should be relatively level, maybe pointed just slightly downward. And check from the back as well: It should obviously be pointing straight ahead, in line with your top tube. It doesn't take much for it to get knocked out of alignment, and a few millimeters can make a big difference to your comfort.
Try chamois cream
If you still have issues with friction and chafing on longer rides, a chamois cream—a thick lotion applied to your chamois area—can help. Use a quarter-sized amount, and apply it directly to your skin where you tend to have the most friction, rather than slathering it in your shorts. And don't use petroleum-based products or diaper creams instead of a chamois-specific cream, as those can damage the fabric of your shorts.
The biggest thing you can do to reduce chafing, friction and numbness is stand up regularly as you ride. You don't need to start sprinting, just stand up for one or two pedal strokes every few minutes. This alleviates pressure immediately, but also helps avoid saddle sores because when you sit back down, you've made tiny adjustments to the tissue that's hitting your saddle, so you don't have one "hot spot."
Keep it clean
As soon as you finish your ride, channel your inner Donald Duck and get the heck out of your sweaty bike shorts! Think clean and dry ASAP: If you're at a trailhead and have a long drive home, have a skirt or loose pants you can switch into, and use a baby wipe to give yourself a quick clean. If you're home, don't sit around in your wet shorts while you eat a snack and catch up on emails. If you can’t wash your chamois right away, don’t ball it up and stuff it in a bag, hang it up until you can do your laundry, and click here for more tips on how to wash your cycling gear.
Give it a few rides
If your first few pedal strokes are truly painful, something is likely off with your saddle choice or bike fit. But if you're just feeling a low level of discomfort and you're new to riding, don't panic just yet. Especially for new cyclists (or riders who are returning to the sport after a few weeks or months off), it may just take a while for you to get used to the pressure of your skin against the saddle. However, be on the lookout for any post-ride issues. If you have chafing that leads to painful reddened skin that lasts long after the ride is over, or you get saddle sores—pimple-like bumps down there—post-ride, those are signs that something needs to change.
And about those saddle sores...
Saddle sores can happen as a cycling female, but don't panic. If you have issues from improper fit or poor saddle choice, there are some things you can do to alleviate the immediate pain of a saddle sore. Sometimes, those chafed, red areas, pimples or irritated hair follicles can become infected, or inflamed and uncomfortable. If that happens, take a day or two off riding, and keep the area clean and dry. Let it breathe by wearing maxidresses or loose pants if possible. You can also apply warm compresses a couple times a day to ease pain. Beyond that, a topical antibiotic like bacitracin applied once a day may also help. If the saddle sore persists for a few days or you develop a fever, check in with your doctor. Don't wait for things to get worse! It's rare, but serious infections can occur and while they're easy to treat if caught early, they can lead to a need for (gulp) surgery.
If something doesn't feel right, you have the power to change it. Try a new saddle or different shorts, ask for a tweak to your bike fit, use chamois cream—but don't suffer in silence any longer!
So there you have it. Basically, EVERYONE has had issues at one time or another from saddle soreness and chafing. We have all lived through it and come out on the other side. While finding the right saddle for your riding style and anatomy may be a challenge, it is possible! So, never give up on riding or give in and live with pain. There is a solution out there for you. Hopefully these tips have helped!
Molly Hurford is a journalist in love with all things cycling, running, nutrition and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing about being outside and healthy habits of athletes and interviewing world-class athletes and scientists for The Consummate Athlete podcast and website. She also coaches running and cycling, as well as yoga both online and IRL in Collingwood, Ontario.
@MollyJHurford on Instagram and Twitter