It sure is a touchy subject ( so to speak) but ladies we really need to talk about saddle soreness and specifically what’s normal and what’s not. Research through the years has mainly focused on male cyclists with only a few studies on women. But saddle soreness for women can lead to all sorts of troubles with pain and discomfort in the genital region.
Being uncomfortable on the saddle could also be the underlying cause of a cascade of other cycling problems from lower back pain, poor pedalling efficiency , hand numbness, foot numbness, shoulder pain and an overall desire to stop riding because it just hurts too much!!
So I thought I would do a quick post and answer the 4 most common questions I get asked about having a saddle soreness for women after riding from a sports medicine point of view. Language warning people …. we are going to be talking about "girly bits" And before you start laughing too much guys - next week it’s your turn when we talk about “nuggets of truth” for men and their saddle issues!
Isn’t it normal to have saddle soreness and numbness after riding?
Whilst it is common (studies suggest that between 62 and 80% of women cyclist have saddle numbness) it certainly is not good and is not acceptable. Numbness occurs due to compression of the “nervus dorsalis clitoridis” on the saddle: Latin for nerve getting squished resulting in decreased clitoris sensation and genital numbness.
You should be able to ride without saddle numbness and you should never have trouble urinating after riding, regardless of distance, speed or time on the bike. No exceptions. EVER!
And if you can’t then there is something wrong with you bike set up.
But it doesn’t stay numb very long after I stop riding – so that’s ok isn’t it?
Well that depends on your definition of “long”. Chronic traumatisms, calcification of the clitoris and degeneration of clitorial structure have been noted in women who have been riding for more than 2 years. Truth is a once off “numbness episode” is probably not a problem. BUT if you continually squish your clitoris’s nerve on the saddle – and it is constantly going numb - over time you can end up with a condition called “Anorgasmia”. “An” from the Greek meaning without and “orgasmia” – well you can probably work out what that means ; )
Ok, ok – so I admit there is a problem. My friend has bought a “ ( insert name of saddle here)” saddle that has worked for her, should I just go buy that one?
There are so many different saddle choices nowadays - it is not unusual for me to see someone who has tried 10 or more different saddles to try and to find the perfect fit and yet still have a genital numbness. And every woman is built differently down there – some peoples labia minora are more major than minor if you know what I mean….so don’t assume your friend is the same as you!
Contrary to popular opinion, scientific studies have shown that cut out saddles are great for men with bike related erectile dysfunction issues on a road bike, terrible for blokes on a mountain bike and can actually increase pressure on a woman’s labia and clitoris leading to sexual dysfunction for the woman!
Wider saddles may not be the answer for every woman with one study has suggesting that wider saddles can be a cause of dysuria and stranguria (pain and trouble urinating) in women and another study has suggested that cut out saddles cause swelling of the vulva when compared with traditional saddles for women.
So what should I do then?
Pressure mapping of the saddle can help work out where and what saddle you should be riding. It is a fool proof way of deciding what is good and what is not so good. If you don’t have access to that then opt for a safe bet and at least a "ladies" saddle
Changing handlebar height might offer the most immediate source of relief. Handlebars placed above the lowers saddle pressure and protects against reduced genital sensation as compared with riding with hands in a low position. Because women have a lower centre of gravity than men it means we can’t transfer our weight onto our hands as effectively. This equals more pressure on our girly bits than our hands. The way to circumvent this is to get your handlebars up!
Unfortunately, riding in a more upright position does mean you won't be quite as aerodynamic but when choosing between aerodynamics and comfort I know which one I would go for!