CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS
Last updated: 2/12/2021
Saddle sores result from a combination of 1) local skin injury which is 2) occasionally
aggravated by bacterial superinfection.
Initial tissue injury decreases its resistance to infection and the bacteria
(which are always present on the skin on the buttocks) then take advantage of the
Strategies for decreasing the risk of saddle sores focus on a) decreasing initial tissue
injury as well as b) minimizing the concentration of local skin bacteria.
Saddle sores fall into one of three types.
Let's look at options to decrease the risk of a saddle sore.
- Chafing - the most common. Really a superficial skin rash caused by the constant chaffing of
- Bruising - a more severe injury of the tissue with bleeding into the subcutaneous (below the skin)
- A tender subcutaneous nodule - The result of a deeper infection which results from
bacteria accessing the subcutaneous tissue via the base of a hair follicle or a sebaceous gland. The
pressure injury to the follicle or sebaceous gland allows this to happen.
- Consider a smoother chamois. For recreational riders or mountain bikers,
shorts with a one-piece liner or a liner carefully chosen for flat seams. It
may take experimenting with shorts brands or chamois types to find the model that
works best. Women often do better with shorts designed specifically for their
anatomy and that have a liner with no center seam.
- The saddle. Excessively wide saddles rub your inner thighs. Narrow saddles
don't provide enough support for your sit bones -- your weight is then shifted to
the surrounding soft tissue which can quickly become bruised and irritated. Thickly
padded saddles are another problem as they can press upward between your sit bones,
causing uncomfortable numbing pressure. The best choice for any individual rider
can only be found through trial and error.
- Consider a bike fit. If your seat is too high, as an example, your hips will rock to a
greater degree on each pedal stroke, increasing in the risk of skin abrasion.
Occasionally a rider will complain of unilateral (one side) abrasions or saddle sores. This could
indicate a leg length discrepancy. If it's several millimeters or more,
it could help to use a shim under the short legs cleat). Another solution I have heard (anecdote coming)
is a slight reorientation of the nose of the saddle to one side or another.
These creams and ointments work by decreasing friction, providing a barrier to prevent
maceration (injury to moisture soften skin), and decreasing the bacteria levels on the skin of
those pesky bacteria.
What do I do? First, I spend a bit more on my bike shorts. Riding 4 or 5 times a week
justifies (for me) the cost of a top end product. Prorated per mile, it is just a few pennies more. Having tried
almost every possible combination of butt butters and cremes, I've had the most success applying a base layer
of neosporin to the sit bone (ischial tuberosity) area followed by Bag Balm or Chamois Butter to provide a barrier.
Even riding 4 or 5 times a week, that has kept me saddle sore free for several years.
- Skin barrier/friction reduction. These products prevent
damp shorts from adhering to the skin aggravating any abrading effect. In addition they provide
a moisture barrier. Moisture alone, without the physical pressure injury, decreases the barrier
to a secondary bacterial infection.
All these products have their proponents. For example, Pete Penseyres, the legendary two-time Race
Across America winner and a former world-record holder is a believer in Bag Balm.
If anyone should have the experience to make a recommendation, it would be someone who has spend hundreds of
hours in the saddle and ridden 3,000-plus miles in eight days.
A light coating of inexpensive petroleum jelly will do the job just as well as
a commercial product such as Chamois BUTT'r or Bag Balm. But in the end it comes down to
personal preference. Just apply to the skin before putting on your shorts. This works much better
than trying to smear it directly on the chamois.
- Then there are the antibacterial products which cut down the concentration of skin bacteria.
Less bacteria equal less opportunity for an infection even with skin abrasion. My favorite is OTC Neosporin Ointment.
The product warnings list "possible skin allergy" so if you try it, be
sensitive to the possibility that a rash not responding to simple measures could be from the neosporin.
One friend who races swears by Noxzema. It not provides a lubricant/barrier effect, but also
has a mild anti bacterial benefit.
And I've read recommendations to use Preparation H Medicated Wipes with aloe and witch hazel as soon as you
get off your bike. It cleans the area as well as eliminating a significant number of skin bacteria.
If You Do Get a Saddle Sore
- Medicate it. Besides keeping it clean, treat it with an over-the-counter acne gel
containing 10% benzoyl peroxide. Perhaps even more effective is the topical prescription
product called Emgel (erythromycin). If a sore is getting out of control, ask your doctor
about a course of oral antibiotics.
- Rest it. As you medicate a troublesome sore, take some time off the bike to help it
heal. It's far better to lose three days now than a week or more after infection sets
in. If you continue to ride on an open sore it may eventually form a cyst that
If You Must Continue Riding
Sometimes you can't take time off. For instance, you may be on a tour or at a
- Change your shorts or saddle. Your problems are probably isolated in one small
area -- a boil or abrasion. Changing your saddle and/or shorts can reduce pressure
on the sore and lessen pain.
- Use a heavier lube. If you're getting irritated, apply extra lube or switch to a
more viscous one. Many long-distance riders swear by Bag Balm, which was originally
made for sore cow udders but is now available in most pharmacies.
- Numb it. OTC pain reducers and anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen,
can help. In extreme cases, pro team physicians will use a topical anesthetic on riders
so they can finish a stage race. It's not recommended for recreational riders because
when you're numb, you can ride yourself into greater damage.
- Try Preparation H ointment. No, not for that reason. Prep H works on saddle sores
because it shrinks swollen tissue and soothes pain. Apply it five minutes before
slathering on your chamois cream and putting on your shorts. Also try a dab on sores
after rides to dull discomfort.
- Get a donut. In the foot-care section of drug stores, you'll find donut-shaped foam
pads in several diameters. They're made for corns but can help you ride more
comfortably with a saddle sore, too. Simply place it with the sore in the center of
the cutout to relieve direct pressure. The adhesive backing will keep it in
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