Help me ride my bike more
April 26, 2018 6:18 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to ride my bike more but my nether regions get really sore really quickly. Padded bike shorts only help so much. The (aftermarket) seat is somewhat squishy and it's been adjusted to the correct height by a professional. I take breaks and ride standing up but it's not enough. I rarely ride and this is one of the main reasons. Is there anything else I can do?

For the purposes of this question, assume I have the anatomy of a cis woman and I wear bike shorts marketed to women. I am also skinny and bony. Most of my riding will be on flat, paved trails.
posted by AFABulous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
In my experience this is something your body gets used to pretty quickly. I used to ride to and from work occasionally, and the first time of the season was always awful, the second time not too bad, and after that I didn't notice any soreness at all. Have you tried pushing through and riding a few times a week for a while to see if the soreness subsides?
posted by something something at 6:23 AM on April 26, 2018 [10 favorites]

Is your seat TOO squishy and wide? The seats that come with those bikes look hard and aggressive, but (if they are good) they are actually much easier on your privates than a "comfort" seat. When I started riding a road bike, I was uncomfortable for the first few rides but eventually got so used to the seat that I only needed padded shorts for more than 15 miles.
posted by beyond_pink at 6:24 AM on April 26, 2018 [17 favorites]

Fit matters a LOT, and isn't confined to the saddle height. Most people on hybrids never do a fitting, but for some small amount of cash your local shop will check you out and adjust anything glaring. Serious fittings cost hundreds, so I figure that's not on offer here, but lots of aspects of the bike can be adjusted to your biomechanics, and small changes can have great effects.

In particular, note that saddles come in sizes. Ensure your saddle matches your anatomy. Your shop can help with this.

Riding more is going to help, too. I know that sounds daunting, but it's part of getting used to it.

Also be aware that cushy saddles are not a passport to comfort. It's more about fit than plushness.

Finally, in my experience bike shorts have a WIDE WIDE range of quality, and the ones at the very low end can be worse than riding in jeans. For shorts, I find the price point that yields a good pair for me is about $100-110 -- which sounds like a lot, but the good news is that sales are common, so I rarely pay more than 50-60% of that.
posted by uberchet at 6:30 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it’s something that you need to work on. Your body will adapt. When I ride regularly it’s no problem. When I don’t, I can get sore after just a few miles.

Sure, maybe get a better saddle but just like horse saddles, there’s no substitute for putting in the time to get your body used to it.
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:31 AM on April 26, 2018

Counterintuitively, a firmer seat with less squish may feel better. Your weight should be on your ischial tuberosities (your sitbones). Lots of people have a tendency to rock forward on a bike seat, putting pressure on the soft tissue and wider, softer seats encourage this. I agree that this will also generally get better by riding more often. If you wait a long time in between rides, every ride is as uncomfortable as the first. And padded shorts are meant to be worn without underwear, which adds an extra layer for chafing-- apologies if I'm stating the obvious, but I used to teach indoor cycle classes and not everyone knew that. Chamois glide is also a great product for protecting the skin on longer rides.
posted by danielleh at 6:36 AM on April 26, 2018 [13 favorites]

To reiterate what has already been said, if you haven't ridden in a while, the second/third rides will hurt, but your butt gets used to it. Plus softer is not necessarily better, especially for skinny/bony people. You need to properly position your "sit bones" so that they and not the soft parts in between are pressing on the saddle. Soft saddles can interfere with this. Perhaps your first ride is too ambitious and should be scaled back a bit, but press through quickly with short second and third rides within a few days and your problem will most probably go away.
posted by GregorWill at 6:37 AM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Cis woman here, caveat of neither skinny nor bony, have no experience with padded bike shorts, and I ride almost exclusively on flat paved trails or streets. I have issues with soreness and numbness when I haven't been riding consistently, or if I'm having a particularly long day in the saddle relative to my usual practice. (For me, this is making sure I ride at least a couple of miles 3-4 days/week, and I consider a 25-mile day longer than usual for me.)

On preview, what danielleh is saying sounds like what my LBS mechanics told me. What position does your bike put you in for riding? I switched from:

- a hybrid bike where I was moderately leaned over my
- flat-bar handlebars
- that were at the same height as my seat
- with a padded saddle


- a city bike with a more upright position thanks to
- swept-back handlebars
- a seat position lower than the handlebars
- and a leather saddle

(I could not get comfortable on a road bike, especially with their drop bars, at my skill level then.)

If daily or near-daily riding isn't helping your nether parts get used to it, try lowering your seat position, and/or get fitted for a saddle that suits your riding position and shape better. (Replacing the handlebars is less common, but I mention them because they were key to my riding posture.)
posted by Pandora Kouti at 6:50 AM on April 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

It just got warm enough for me to start bicycle commuting again; my first week was awful and painful, but by now I've gotten used to it and it doesn't hurt at all. I'm not sure there's a technological solution...
posted by Comrade_robot at 6:52 AM on April 26, 2018

I rarely ride and this is one of the main reasons. Is there anything else I can do?

Ride a bit more. You seem to have done most of the things you can do to adjust the bike and your equipment. There's more sure, and you could try other seats, but fundamentally, you need to train your fundament (and legs) and the only way is time on the bike.

I'd do it in stages, pushing until you start to get sore then stopping, but you have to keep pushing. What you should be trying to do is to start bearing weight on your feet, resting your butt on the saddle mostly for balance and steering, rather than fully sitting. That takes leg strength and being comfortable with technique. That's what the time on the bike should be working towards. Ultimately most of your weight should be on the pedals and not the seat (or the handlebars). That's what you need to work towards.
posted by bonehead at 7:07 AM on April 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

For a long time I rode on an old city-bike with an upright sitting configuration and a wide, padded, spring-loaded saddle with no issue. Then I got a cyclocross bike with drop bars and the saddle was pretty uncomfortable (with or without padded shorts). If you are looking for specific recommendations, you may want to check out Terry saddles. [seconding chemicalsyntheticist on preview] Once I changed to one of their saddles, I found I could ride the cross bike for hours with no discomfort, even without bike shorts/bibs. Try out different saddles.

I also found that the bike shorts I originally tried had too much padding and made riding uncomfortable. I changed to bike bibs that have thinner padding (Sugoi) and that also made riding much more comfortable for me.
posted by BeHereNow at 7:12 AM on April 26, 2018

Actually, looking at your bike and your preferred riding style, it appears that that could also be your problem. Your bike is designed for mountain biking, or for aggressive riding. It appears that you want to do fairly leisurely rides without a lot of changes in direction or elevation. "Most of my riding will be on flat, paved trails." This is a good bike for city riding or non extreme mountain biking (non extreme because no shocks), but a different bicycle as pointed out by Pandora might help you enjoy your ride more as well as the suggestions to ride more/different saddle etc. You could also work with your local bike shop to switch in a raised handlebar and make this bike work better for your needs.
posted by GregorWill at 7:19 AM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nthing all of the "squishy saddles are counter-intuitively worse" as well as the recommendations for Terry saddles!

Also, to be perfectly blunt, a lady saddle that had a slit cut out of the middle of it so that my most sensitive bits didn't rub up on it made things a WHOLE lot better.
posted by knownassociate at 7:26 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I ride recumbent bicycles and have never needed padded shorts. Think stool vs lawn chair. You can get recumbents used for about the same price as your current bike new.
posted by aniola at 7:35 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Also know that sometimes nothing helps. I don't find anything about a bicycle to be friendly to that area. I have a perfect, excellent seat that I searched high and low for, and I absolutely love it. But I am still often in pain or annoyed or chafed or whatever, no matter how regularly I ride (every day for an hour, minimum). I am fit and thin, my bikes have been the right size, they've been adjusted every which way, etc. Just know there may not be some magic ingredient to make the goofy ergonomics of a bike be endurable for everyone.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 7:52 AM on April 26, 2018

You need to properly position your "sit bones" so that they and not the soft parts in between are pressing on the saddle.

Can someone link a picture of the correct posture? Because this sounds like I should be sitting upright as one would on a barstool, which doesn't sound right for riding a bike?

The shorts I have are the Specialized brand and were about $100 retail so I assume they're decent quality. I didn't know the thing about the underwear.

The seat is not too squishy - it's comparable to pressing below your thumb after making a fist.
posted by AFABulous at 7:54 AM on April 26, 2018

It's not so much about the angle you sit at as it is the saddle seat shape - if you sit on a hard bench, feel the parts of your butt that are taking your weight. Those are the parts you want taking your weight on a bike saddle too. This usually means a harder saddle and often a saddle advertised as female, depending on your bone structure (the wider your hips are than the average male cyclist, the more you'll benefit from this. Some brands have a range of widths, while many just have a single, wider "female" saddle).

Seconding that the larger factor though is just getting used to it. I've biked regularly for more than 10 years, all summer, and the first few weeks of the season are still always rough even if I ramp up slowly. You need to be biking at least a little every week or you don't really get your muscles used to it. Padded shorts help but it's still painful at first every year for me, unfortunately. But then there's zero pain (ok, some exceptions may apply) once you break yourself in for the season, so you can look forward to that.
posted by randomnity at 8:07 AM on April 26, 2018

For me, tilting the seat down a bit solved some circulation problems.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:11 AM on April 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

Getting past saddle-soreness takes a surprising amount of time, I think? I used to do a long bike commute, only during daylight savings time for reasons, and every spring my butt would be killing me for long enough that I thought it was never going to get better, and then sometime around late May or so I'd realize that it hadn't been bothering me for a while. So, like, it'd take me a month of 50-100 mile weeks before I really toughened up.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:45 AM on April 26, 2018

>The seat is not too squishy - it's comparable to pressing below your thumb after making a fist.

The seat might not be too squishy, but the combination of slightly squishy seat plus bike shorts might be. For me it was either hard seat and bike shorts or slightly squishy seat and regular clothes. I prefer regular clothes and slightly squishy seat because most of my riding is for transportation/social riding as opposed to training.

>Can someone link a picture of the correct posture? Because this sounds like I should be sitting upright as one would on a barstool, which doesn't sound right for riding a bike?

Correct posture depends on all sorts of things, such as height of handlebars, drop bars or not etc. The important thing is putting your weight on your sitbones on the back part of the saddle. There should be almost no weight on the nose of the saddle. It took a while for me to feel comfortable sitting as far back as I should. Depending on the height of your handlebars, as RobotVoodoo says, you can tilt the front of the saddle down so that you are on top of the seat so you aren't putting much weight on your nether regions.

Here is an example of a "no-nose saddle". That is where you should be putting almost all of your weight, even on regular saddles. The nose of the saddle is only there for bike control. You can properly position yourself on a regular saddle by tilting your hips and making sure you are sitting far enough back on the seat so your sitbones are in the same spot they would be in a no-nose saddle.

As pointed out though, part of the problem could be the geometry of your bicycle. With it's low handlebars you will be leaning forward. You will be putting weight on your nether regions. With the bicycle you have, you should be going all out so that your legs are taking most of the weight, or standing up so that your legs are taking most of the weight.

I personally like my saddle to have a cutout in the middle, with the nose for bike control, like this though that one might be too soft for me.

Here is a video on how to find out how wide your sitbones are. Once again though, most people don't sit far enough back on their seats.

Getting a properly fitted saddle through Terry or your local bike shop might be a good option--a local bike shop near me allows basically unlimited exchanges on saddles within a 30 day or so time period, sort of like Terry does. See if that's an option in your area.
posted by GregorWill at 9:12 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

The quickest way to find out where your sit bones are and what sitting on them should feel like is to try sitting on a curb. Your knees will be up, and the curb is hard, so those poky-outy bones where your weight is are a lot easier to feel.

Bike shops that do saddle fitting often have a sort of memory-foam bench you can sit on in the same way, and they can measure the distance between the indentations your sit bones leave in the foam once you've stood up. If you've got some thin memory foam type stuff around you can probably DIY that part yourself.

With a saddle that fits me, I can ride wearing pretty much anything for at least an hour. With one that doesn't fit me, even my fanciest bought-discounted padded bike shorts won't help, because the pressure's all in places that aren't supported by bones and everything's horribly squashy.

There is a certain amount of saddle soreness that's inevitable when you're on a bicycle for the first time in a long time, but I seem to remember that it goes away quickly. (I haven't taken winters off in years, so my memories are a bit hazy on that one.)
posted by asperity at 9:47 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Chamois Butt’r!! It works well for your exact situation - for use with the padded cycling shorts (with chamois). Makes such a difference. Apply generously to your “nether regions” under the shorts. And I’m sure you know, but one doesn’t wear underwear under the cycling shorts to eliminate abrasion so this goes directly between you and the shorts.
posted by mayta at 10:05 AM on April 26, 2018

Ten million people condescendingly told me that I'd "get used to" or "learn to love" hard, skinny saddles, and after ten years of riding 25-60 miles per week, I can definitively say that they were all wrong. If you, too, feel like your butt bones are not properly supported by the saddle and that this puts pressure on more sensitive areas, find a bike shop that has one of the measuring cushions for figuring out how wide your sit bones really are. This does not necessarily correlate with your height, weight, or general frame size. I think because I'm short and thin no one ever believed me when I said that I felt like my saddles weren't wide enough, but I finally found a bike shop with one of the measuring cushions, and it turns out my (fairly skinny) butt is pretty huge in terms of sit-bone spacing (170mm). They special ordered me a saddle to fit (wide back, skinny nose) and I've been much more comfortable since then.

I also agree what GregorWill said about changing handlebars to have a more upright riding posture. As an infrequent rider, you will probably be more comfortable with a set-up that allows for a city bike or trekking riding position as shown in these riding posture pictures. Also speaking from personal experience here: If you are the sort of person who needs to move around a lot when sitting in a chair for extended periods, you may need this option on a bike as well, and a different set of handlebars and a wider saddle will give you the ability to change posture/position frequently throughout your ride.
posted by xylothek at 11:00 AM on April 26, 2018 [3 favorites]

What I mean by stool vs lawn chair is less about precisely how you have to perch on any of the tiny seats, and more the fact that there's an art to upright bike seats, and a million careful instructions.

With a recumbent, I have never had to worry about "breaking it in," or where I put my sitbones, or saddle soreness, or soothing it, or how squishy the seat is or isn't, or spending $100 on a pair of shorts. Etc.

I just get on the recumbent bike and go and it works and I'm comfortable riding all day long.
posted by aniola at 11:59 AM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Don't use clips.

The idea of getting 20% more power from pulling up as well as pushing down is seductive, but as you pull the pedal up you're also pulling yourself down into the seat.

Also work independently on strengthening your hands, arms, and chest so they can support your weight without getting numb themselves, and buy a set of gull wing handlebars to move your hands back as you ride to make it easier to put your weight on your hands.
posted by jamjam at 1:17 PM on April 26, 2018

The biggest thing that made a difference for me when I biked a lot was just biking a lot. If I was off my bike for a week or two, I'd feel it for a few days after starting up again but then my body would adjust. I'd suggest just sticking it out for a couple of weeks, and see if yours doesn't adjust too.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 1:47 PM on April 26, 2018

You might also try renting/borrowing a crank-forward beach cruiser for a couple hours, and see if the pain comes back. These bikes let you pedal sitting completely upright which might be more natural. And you won't have to tilt the seat as much. At least it will give you more data.

I have one such bike with this saddle tilted forward about 15 degrees and I never feel the urge to stand up while riding. I ride in everything from jeans to board shorts.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:01 PM on April 26, 2018

I'm not sure where in the US you are, but if you don't have easy access to a place like the Saddle Library, you're likely not too far from a bike shop that has a generous saddle try-out policy. I just had to try a bunch of different things before I found something that worked. I ended up with a Brooks leather saddle, which, counterintuitively, has zero squish and is still ridiculously comfortable--even without padded shorts, which I only wear if I'm riding 12+ miles.

The Saddle Library's site also has a Saddle Fit 101 page that's got some basic info you might find helpful.

A few other things to try:

-If the pain is mostly in the front, or involves numbness in addition to pain, try changing the pitch of your saddle by lowering the nose of it just a tad.

-If the pain is more chafing than pressure, try some chamois cream or silicone lube on the chafey bits, and maybe also my next suggestion

-Try different bike shorts/bottoms. Different brands and even different models within the same brand have different styles, thicknesses, and placements of chamois (the padded bit), and those can make a huge difference in whether the padding helps or hurts you. After some trial and error, I found a couple brands that work perfectly for my body type and riding style. Terry, Pearl Izumi, and Garneau are some good brands, but there are many, many more.

-If you're comfortable with the place you got the saddle height professionally adjusted (like you felt they genuinely cared about getting you the right fit, and like they were cool with you not being a carbon-and-lycra bike person), then go back and tell them, Hey, this is still really unpleasant to ride. They should be able to help you try other adjustments--which might include trying a different handlebar height in addition to adjustments to the saddle height and pitch. If you're not comfortable, find a place you feel comfortable at and ask them for help.

-If you're willing and able, try just toughing it out for a few days. I recently got back on the bike after months away, and the first three days left me super sore. After that, though, I no longer feel the soreness.

Good luck! I wish I could just wave a magic wand and skip this part of learning to love biking for everyone.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:09 PM on April 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just because shorts cost $100 doesn't necessarily mean they are great quality. That's about middle of the road for shorts. The chamois might not be that good for your parts.

Also, your bike is about 16 years old. Is this the original saddle? Saddles aren't designed to last forever. They do break down, dry out, and/or get less pliable.

Please be careful with angling your seat nose downward. That can cause even greater discomfort.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:46 PM on April 26, 2018

Don't use clips.

The idea of getting 20% more power from pulling up as well as pushing down is seductive, but as you pull the pedal up you're also pulling yourself down into the seat.
This is bad advice. Use clips or don't -- most riders find it's worth it if you go longer than a few miles -- but it's not a material factor in your seat comfort.
posted by uberchet at 9:06 AM on April 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

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