Cycling – a pain in the neck, back and bottom – Part Two

Cycling – a pain in the neck, back and bottom – Part Two

In part one, John Phelan covered the common reasons for neck, knee and low back issues on the bike. In the second part of his blog he devotes an entire article on how to achieve the holy grail of saddle comfort!

Where to start? This can be a difficult nut to crack due to lots of variables involved:

Poor bike fit/bike set-up
Incorrect saddle to suit the rider type
Excessive tilt in pelvic position with increasing cycling intensity
Excessive tilting of saddle nose in either direction
Poor hygiene
Poorly fitted bib shorts
Let’s start with this lot.

Poor bike set-up The aim of the bike fit is to obtain comfort but not sacrifice performance. A balance must be found between the height of the saddle and the height of the handlebars. i.e the difference in height between the two. E.g. Too low a saddle can cause a rounding of the back by tilting the pelvis backward and be a risk factor for low back pain, as discussed in part one of this blog.

Figure 1. Backward tilting pelvis

Too high a saddle can cause excessive forward tilting of the pelvis in an attempt to self-select the lowest part of the saddle. This will greatly increase the chances of saddle soreness and numbness due to increased pressure exerted on sensitive soft tissue and nerves.

Figure 2. Forward tilting pelvis

Incorrect saddle A high tec piece of kit from a German company called GebioMized has made this aspect of bikefitting a lot more transparent. The saddle is covered by a sleeve with hundreds of pressure sensors in it. Once the rider starts to cycle, the pressure distribution across the saddle is recorded and can be analysed.

Excessive pressure at the nose of the saddle can lead to numbness and discomfort in the perineal area and so a saddle that is too high can throw the rider forward, causing an increase in pressure in this area. The saddle map technology also shows how much the rider’s centre of pressure moves on the saddle when cycling. Fourteen years of research by the GebioMized team have given rise to optimal ranges of movement by the centre of pressure. We know that <30mm of lateral movement on the saddle is optimal and values greater than this can lead to discomfort due to excess movement/friction.

The saddle mapping is also great for showing if one saddle is more suitable for a rider over another, by comparing the two separate saddle maps. There are cases when a saddle just doesn’t provide enough support for a cyclist and this will typically cause the cyclist to lean more through one side of the saddle – very easy to see this on the saddle map.

Figure 3. Replacing with a more suitable saddle without changing the location can show great improvements in the map reading.

Another cause of saddle discomfort, especially in females, is due to excessive forward tilting of the pelvic position on increasing intensity when cycling.

The pelvis rolls forward and this places more pressure on the sensitive soft tissue areas causing pain/numbness. If the cyclist can be more aware of their pelvic position and work on ways to strengthen and condition the muscles responsible for holding the optimal pelvic position, then this is the direction to go in and not necessarily a different saddle. This again can be seen on saddle mapping during a bikefit by asking the cyclist to increase the pedalling intensity and power output and observe the pressure distribution on the map.

Saddle tilt General rule of thumb, your saddle nose is excessively tilted downwards if it is more than four degrees. You can easily measure the tilt by lying a book across your saddle and measure it using an app on your phone. Start with a level saddle and then tilt it by one or two degrees to see if it helps with comfort.

Poor hygiene Try to not stay in your bib shorts for too long after the cycle. Prepare by having a change of clothes with you.

Poorly fitted bib shorts What lies beneath! A vital factor in achieving saddle comfort. Be sure and go for quality when buying cycling shorts. A nice thing to check is whether they adopt an anatomical pose when you hold them up by the ear!

Figure 4. Anatomical shape

This means that some thought was given when designing the gear. Also, the pad inside should look like it stands a chance of protecting your tush. Play by the rules here folks, don’t wear underwear when cycling! The pad is designed to do its job when operating solo.

That’s as good a place as any to finish this blog on helping you out with your saddle issues. Get in touch if you are still struggling to find that sweet spot.

John Phelan runs a clinic in Cork by the name of Life Fit Physio. He also goes under the alias of The BikeFit Physio, specialising in physio-led bike fitting.

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