Let’s get real for a minute: nothing can derail a race faster – or be more difficult to explain to friends and family post-race – than chafed, numb or just plain uncomfortable nether-regions. As triathletes we’re even more exposed to potential saddle pain thanks to aggressive riding positions, unforgiving courses, less padding (than most cyclists wear) and the time-trial style of riding that keeps our butt firmly planted on the saddle for hours at a time. And, as triathletes, we often began our careers as runners or swimmers, so we’re often under-informed about cyclist “issues” and have no idea who to ask about them.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We can ease the pain, alleviate discomfort and make sure that our rides are as efficient as humanly possible. Here are a few tips:
1. Choose the Right Saddle
This seems like the most obvious place to start, but so many people ride on the saddle that came with their bikes without ever realizing that it’s the wrong shape or size for their particular anatomy. When choosing a saddle, opt for one that’s sized to fit your sit-bones (most shops can measure this in under 30 seconds) so that the weight of your body isn’t resting on sensitive tissue rather than those bones. Your triathlon bike will have a different saddle than your road bike, since you’re most likely tilted forward more on the triathlon bike to get into a proper aero position. How the nose of the saddle feels when you’re fully tilted forward is worth considering when testing saddles. Don’t be afraid to test a few before settling on the one you prefer: it takes a few rides to really understand how a saddle feels for you.
2. Train in Good Shorts
Triathletes race in skin suits with a thin chamois. We can, though, still train in proper, well-fitting bike shorts. Consider investing in a pair of bib shorts for optimal comfort and fit (and no muffin top) and look for a chamois pad that feels comfortable and provides a bit of padding and has an antimicrobial coating. For a triathlete, consider your position when trying a chamois on: you’re going to want one with more padding towards the front since, again, you’re tilted forward more than a typical roadie. In addition to a good chamois, adding chamois cream for long rides can go a long way towards fighting friction.
3. Acknowledge Problems Early
The worst thing a cyclist or triathlete can do is ignore small, nagging problems and allow them to grow and get progressively worse. So, if you do have a small spot that chafes every ride over two hours, you get numb when you’re riding at threshold pace or you get a saddle sore on long rides, don’t wait for the issue to become a constant problem. Address it now by changing your saddle, shorts, bike fit or riding style.
4. Drop Your Shorts
When you finish a ride, the best thing to do for yourself is to get your shorts off. Do this before you check email, answer a text, update Strava, eat a snack or drink a protein shake. Taking your sweaty shorts off will save you from the “petri dish effect” that’s happening. Hop in the shower or at least use a baby wipe to clean up as soon as possible – especially after a triathlon where you’ve swum in open water with any number of bacteria, then cycled for miles while creating microtears in your skin from saddle-to-chamois friction, then further exacerbated the situation by running and possibly adding some chafing to the mix.
5. Adjust and Experiment
A proper fitting bike cures almost all pain, but just because a bike fitter assessed you a few years ago doesn’t mean you’re good to go. Something as simple as taking a yoga class or even just putting in more hours on the bike can completely change the way you’re riding. If you are having recurring problems, consider tweaking your fit yourself, playing with saddle height and the fore and aft position. The worst thing that could happen is that you have to reset it to where it was and start over, yet so many people are scared to make changes on their own. If the idea of messing with your fit gives you shivers, consider taking it back to your original fitter for a quick tune-up where he or she can re-assess your fit and make small adjustments.
6. Stand Up!
The easiest advice to cure most of your saddle problems is to simply stand up in the saddle more. Triathletes we tend to stay in one spot for our entire race, pressed down on the nose of the saddle. But you can alleviate numbness and chafing – and most saddle sores – by taking a few standing pedal strokes every few minutes, allowing some airflow to hit your nether regions, getting your blood flowing back into your undercarriage and re-adjusting your bits and pieces just enough so that the same square centimetre of soft tissue isn’t handling all of the pressure for the entire ride. Even if you aren’t having saddle problems now, this is a good habit to start to avoid them in the future.
Have a specific problem or question? In Molly Hurford’s book: Saddle, Sore: Ride Comfortable, Ride Happy, every topic from pregnancy to menopause to male-specific issues is discussed, plus tons more on saddle and chamois choice, hygiene and dealing with dozens of skin problems. Buy the book at SaddleSoreBook.com and on Amazon (amzn.to/2eM85a0).