What’s the quickest way to ruin a good bike ride? Saddle sores.
They’re an inevitable part of a triathlete’s life, especially when you are new to riding and getting used to being in the saddle.
Learning about saddle sore remedies, treatments, and tips for triathletes is one of the most important things you’ll learn when you start training for a triathlon.
To keep your nether regions free from pain, here’s our best advice.
What Is a Saddle Sore?
Saddle sores are a general description given to painful skin lesions or rashes that form on the parts of your body that come in contact with the bicycle seat.
They can look and feel like a pimple but will be tender to the touch, and it can be painful if you press it. You may also notice that the skin is raised, that there are abrasions, hard painful bumps, or that the sore looks more like a boil.
With the constant pressure from the bicycle seat, even a small saddle sore can begin to feel like it’s the size of a golf ball. That being said, friction caused by your shorts if they bunch up, have an irritating seam, or poor saddle compatibility can be just as painful.
This could cause you to abandon your ride when the pain becomes too much to bear. If left untreated, it can put a stop to your bike riding for weeks.
Types of Saddle Sores
By understanding what type of saddle sore you have, you’ll be able to gauge its severity and learn how to treat it.
The four most common types of saddle sores are:
Chafing may be the least severe type of saddle sore, but it’s also the most common.
This is caused by friction from your inner thigh repeatedly rubbing against the seat during the up-and-down motion of the pedal stroke. But it can also be caused by poorly-fitting shorts that move around while you’re biking.
If the shorts that you’re wearing don’t wick moisture effectively or aren’t breathable, this can make the chafing worse.
As your shorts begin to wear down, they may begin to pill. This can further chafe the skin, leaving your inner thighs red and irritated.
If you leave chafing untreated and continue to bike, this may lead to you developing ulcerations.
Ulcerations are caused by severe chafing, where the top layer of skin has been worn off. This then exposes the deeper layers of skin, which are very susceptible to bacterial infection.
While you’re biking, your shorts then become the perfect warm and humid environment for the bacteria to thrive in.
You need to make sure that you keep the affected area dry and clean, as ulcerations can lead to more serious skin infections, like ulcers.
Furuncles and Folliculitis
Both folliculitis and furuncles are an indication that an infection is present. These types of saddle sores are more severe and can take a few weeks to heal.
Folliculitis is caused when the base of a hair follicle becomes irritated, inflamed, and infected. This often resembles a pimple and can often be pain-free, but they may itch.
A mild case of folliculitis will take about 2 weeks to heal. With that being said, if left untreated, folliculitis can turn into furuncles—also known as boils.
Furuncles will start out as a red, tender lump that forms under the skin, around the base of the hair follicle. It will fill with pus, then rupture and drain.
The bigger the furuncle gets, the more painful it becomes. You may be tempted to pop it to find some relief. But you should never attempt to pop it if it has no discernible head.
To help relieve pain and help the furuncle to drain, you can use a hot compress on the affected area. Once the furuncle has ruptured and drained, it can take anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks to heal.
Who’s Most at Risk?
Anyone can develop saddle sores, as most of them form due to excessive sweating and chafing. But there are some factors that can increase your risk of developing saddle sores.
If you’re overweight, have medical conditions such as diabetes, or have a weakened immune system, then you may be at increased risk.
Taking a long bike ride in which your body position doesn’t change often will increase your risk of developing saddle sores. This is because your skin may not be able to “breathe” when you’re spending extended amounts of time on the saddle without taking a break.
You may be at a higher risk if the bicycle fit for your frame is improper or if your shorts or pants don’t fit properly.
How to Prevent Saddle Sores
Fortunately, there are a few steps that you can take to not only prevent saddle sores but prevent them from ruining your bike ride.
Improve Your Bike Fit
The first step that you want to take is to make sure that your bike fits your frame properly.
The best thing to do is to have your position checked by either a knowledgeable person at a bike shop or an experienced coach.
Different shapes and contours of bike seats are designed to accommodate how different cyclists ride and sit on their bikes.
If your seat is too high, then you could be overstretching, allowing your hips to rock as you pedal.
You could also be leaning too far forward, which will place all your weight and excessive pressure on your soft tissues. This could result in irritated skin and increase the chance of infection.
Standing up for 15 to 20 seconds every few minutes while riding will restore circulation and take the pressure off your nether regions.
Get into the habit of standing for a few seconds when you’re on short hills, accelerating from when you’ve stopped, or when you’re riding over rough surfaces.
If you’re prone to saddle sores, then try standing and stretching once every two minutes.
Move On the Saddle
You want to make sure that your sit bones get enough support so you can reduce the pressure on your nether regions.
To do this, you should sit mostly towards the rear of the seat. If you’re going to do seated climbs, then you should shift further back on the seat. If you’re bending low to make good time, then shift towards the middle of the seat.
Slight changes and each shift will help to relieve pressure points while riding.
Choose a Smooth Chamois
You may have to experiment a bit with different brands of chamois and shorts, as it’s important that your shorts and chamois work well together.
Look for shorts that have a one-piece liner or that have flat seams, as this will help to reduce friction.
Women should look for shorts that are specifically designed for women, and the liner shouldn’t have a center seam.
You’ll need to make sure that you get the right fit without having to add unnecessary layers underneath them.
Look for chamois that are made from quality materials, have antimicrobial properties—to reduce bacteria and odor—and reduce friction and chafing.
The more you can reduce the risk of friction, the better your nether region will do!
Select a Supportive Seat
Finding a supportive saddle is just as important as finding the saddle setup that works for your pelvis.
While wider saddles may be best for an upright riding position, excessively wide saddles will rub against your inner thighs.
But if your seat is too narrow, you may experience unevenness or you may find that it places undue pressure on your sit bones. A seat that’s too narrow can lead to the soft tissue becoming bruised and irritated.
While some padding is most welcome, seats that are too thickly padded can cause uncomfortable, numbing pressure between your sit bones. Using a seat that has more padding doesn’t necessarily mean that your weight is evenly distributed.
Choosing a supportive seat is going to take some trial and error. What may be very comfortable for one rider may end up feeling like a torture device to you.
The right saddle for you should allow you to get the most out of your ride. It should be comfortable enough to ride for long distances or sustain your power efforts while being free from discomfort.
Lube to Reduce Friction
Make sure to use lubrication—Chamois Butt’r Coconut or Mad Alchemy—as this will reduce friction and prevent the chamois from causing skin abrasions.
If you’re going to be going for a long ride or if you’re going to be riding in wet weather, then apply the chamois cream directly to your chamois by mirroring the chafe points of the saddle.
You can also apply the chamois cream to any area where chafing may occur.
After you’ve washed your shorts repeatedly, the chamois can begin to harden. To soften it and prevent chafing, apply chamois cream to it.
After each ride, make sure to wash your shorts and avoid sitting in damp shorts after your ride.
This will reduce your chances of developing saddle sores, especially as the bacteria that causes folliculitis and furuncles thrive in damp, and warm surroundings.
When you wash your shorts, give them an extra rinse cycle. This will make sure that any traces of detergent that may be leftover will be removed. Leftover detergent and sweat will irritate the skin and can cause saddle sores.
If you’re prone to saddle sores, then you may find it helpful to wash your nether regions with warm water and antibacterial soap. Make sure to dry off properly and then apply some lube before you go for your ride.
Take a shower as soon as you can after your ride. This will help prevent bacteria from developing on any skin irritations.
Consider wearing shorts or underwear that will allow your skin to breathe after your shower.
Sleep in the Buff
Sleeping in the buff may take some getting used to, but your nether regions will thank you.
You won’t have to worry about summer evenings where your sweat and clothes come into contact with your skin. Your skin will be able to breathe as much as possible, keeping you dry and free from irritation.
If you do have any skin abrasions, then apply a warm compress or topical ointment to aid with the healing.
While we like to keep ourselves clean and well-groomed, waxing or shaving can increase your risk of developing saddle sores.
Your pubic hair offers a layer of “friction protection” between you and your shorts. It also helps to draw sweat away from the skin, allowing it to evaporate.
Hair removal will also increase your chances of ingrown hairs, which can open you up to bacterial infections.
If You Get a Saddle Sore
Keep It Clean
If you have any irritation, abrasions, or sores, you’ll want to keep everything as clean as possible.
Rinse off throughout the day. When you shower, make sure to use soaps or body washes that aren’t scented. Pat your skin dry, as this will prevent it from becoming more irritated.
It will also reduce the amount of sweat and bacteria, preventing the problem from getting worse.
Swab & Cover
For this, you’ll need both plain tea tree oil—not moisturizing creams that contain tea tree oil as an ingredient—and some Vaseline.
Use a cotton swab to apply tea tree oil to the affected areas of your skin. Make sure that you don’t get tea tree oil on any mucus membranes or broken skin, as this can hurt or cause irritation.
Allow the tea tree oil to dry and then apply a layer of Vaseline to the affected areas. Repeat this every 3 to 4 hours, making sure to wash the affected areas before each re-application until the sores heal.
Only wear underwear that’s made from natural fibers and that allows your skin to breathe.
Wearing boxers will prevent your underwear from suffocating you and prevent the bacteria from multiplying.
Men’s boxer shorts are designed to be loose and allow for good air circulation. Women’s knickers are generally designed to be form-fitting, so they may want to choose women-specific seamless boxer shorts.
These can reduce friction and sweat, which could cause further irritation to the saddle sores.
Women may want to try the following women-specific boxers:
- Reebok Long Leg Seamless Slip Short Boyshort
- Champion Women’s Ribbed Boxer Brief
- Molasus Women’s Cotton Boxer Shorts
- Reebok Women’s Underwear – Seamless Boyshort
While the saddle sores are healing, you’re going to have to rest the affected area.
This may mean you have to stay off the bike, reduce the amount of time spent in the saddle, or change the way in which your nether regions come into contact with the saddle.
But it’s better to lose 2 to 3 days of biking than to lose 2 to 3 weeks if a more severe infection sets in.
Aside from keeping your nether regions squeaky clean, you’re going to have to medicate the affected areas.
Depending on the type of saddle sore that you have, you can treat it like a local skin infection. Look at using gentle antibiotic or antiseptic creams.
If the skin is irritated or you have small firm bumps—folliculitis—then you can treat it with an over-the-counter acne gel containing 10% benzoyl peroxide, like Rugby Acne Medication Benzoyl Peroxide Gel.
If You Can’t Rest
Change Your Shorts or Saddle
To reduce pressure, look at changing your shorts or your saddle.
Choose a pair of shorts that is right for you—density, shape, and size—as this will make riding more comfortable and reduce friction. You may even want to consider wearing bib shorts.
Along with changing your saddle, make sure that the saddle is angled correctly for your pelvis. This will help prevent pressure points on your soft tissues and reduce pain.
Use a Heavier Lube
You can try applying extra lube—a quarter-sized amount—directly to your skin where you have the most friction.
If you’re still having issues with friction and chafing, then you may have to look at changing the type of lube that you’re using. Try switching to a lube that’s more viscous, like DZ Nuts Pro or Bag Balm, which many long-distance riders swear by.
You can look at using an over-the-counter—nonsteroidal—anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, to alleviate the pain.
If you’re racing or taking part in an event, then you can see if one of the team physicians would be able to apply a topical anesthetic so that you can finish the race.
Have a Donut
To help alleviate the pain and reduce the pressure that’s placed on the saddle sore, you can use a donut-shaped pad.
You’ll find these in the foot-care section of drug stores, as they’re commonly used to treat bunions and corns. These foam pads are available in different sizes and all you’d need to do is place the middle of the pad over the saddle sore.
This will help you to ride more comfortably, reduce the pressure, and lower the risk of further injury.