Why Are Bike Seats so Uncomfortable?

When I got my first bike, I couldn’t understand why the seats were so hard and skinny. They were uncomfortable and were really difficult to sit on for a long time. I kept thinking, why on earth can’t they make a more comfortable bike seat? Well, there’s a lot of good reasons why bike seats are shaped the way they are. Let’s take a look…

Why are bike seats so uncomfortable? There are multiple reasons why bike seats might be uncomfortable. Bicycle seats aren’t meant to carry the riders full weight, but only their sit bones. Their unusual shape allows thighs to move freely when cycling. Proper rider form and seat adjustment can also make a big difference in comfort.

A Saddle, Not a Seat

For a new rider, it makes sense to call what you sit on a seat. In the cycling world, however, the seat is actually called a saddle. This might seem like a matter of semantics, but there are important differences.

The main difference between a seat and a saddle is that a seat is meant to carry your full weight, while a saddle is not. If a saddle is meant to carry only some of your weight, where is the rest of your weight carried? The majority of your weight should be on the pedals.

Knowing this important difference between a seat and a saddle will help a lot with comfort. What makes a typical seat comfortable is a bad idea for a bike.

Why Are Bike Seats so Small and Skinny?

When you first get a bike, you might be looking at the seat thinking, “I have to sit on that??”. While bike saddles are shaped weird, they are good reasons why they are shaped the way they are.

Although there have been many attempts to completely redesign the bike seat, none have changed the bike seat in a notable way. Some new materials have become mainstays and there are some variations of shape, but with the seats often still being uncomfortable. So what are the reasons that these hard and skinny designs continue to be the most popular today?

As strange as it seems, in most cases, the harder, narrower seats actually are the most comfortable. But before we completely rule out any wide, padded model, let’s look a little deeper at what the seat is being used for.

What is comfortable to sit on whilst relaxing isn’t necessarily what’s comfortable for doing something that involves some strenuous physical exercise

The idea of a soft leather sofa might be appealing for watching TV, but that softness and warmth is actually going to make things very uncomfortable for riding. In fact, soft material that retains heat and which moves every time you press against it is exactly what you don’t want.

The most important contact point on a bike seat is your sit bones (also known as your Ischial Tuberosity). These two bones are the best supports you have for keeping you in position. If you think of your sit bones as mini pillars supporting your position on the bike and because they are bone (all be it with some padding outside) they don’t move around too much.

The rest of your butt and other parts that make contact with the seat are likely to rub, over-heat, and chafe as they make too much contact. Those softer bits are likely to move more and ache more easily. So it’s usually best to be sitting on the seat, rather than in the seat, and to do that, you need a harder seat.

You definitely don’t just want something that only supports your sit bones as some of the pressure needs distributing. Wider seats though can have too much surface area and can cause a lot of discomfort, especially if they are soft.

The nose at the front of the seat is also narrow for a reason. A wider nose often doesn’t give enough clearance for the rider’s thighs so you can find yourself rubbing against the front of the seat on every rotation.

While to show the concept here we are comparing the extremes of very soft seats, the reality is that there are many models on the market that combine support for the sit bones and a little padded softness and width. However, it is important not to associate wide and soft seats with the ultimate in comfort, as it’s definitely not the case.

If you picture a soft gym mat and a hard gym floor, the soft mat might be appealing to sit on at first. But if you were doing an exercise like a plank, the firm and level floor would most likely be your preferred choice.

Not One Size Fits All

Back in 1898 authors Alexader Schwalbach and Julius Wilcox wrote in their book on ‘The Modern Bicycle and Its Accessories’:

The perfect saddle, as the public looks at it, is the saddle that fits everybody. It will never be made, for people are different. The true wisdom of saddle buying is to get one that will fit you.

The Modern Bicycle and Its Accessories

This still holds true today. Just like shoes, there isn’t a single saddle size that fits everyone. To get the right fit, you might need to try a few different saddles until you find one that you like. Bicycle saddles definitely aren’t one size fits all.

In the same way that people get measured for a bike, they would also get measured for a seat. The vast majority of people can find a saddle that is the right shape for them. It’s not a bad idea to get fitted for a bike seat at your local bike shop or dealer.

Proper Form and Endurance

Woman riding bicycle with proper form

When you first start riding, you most likely won’t have the stamina to hold proper form for long rides. Inexperienced riders often lack the endurance to have their legs carry most of the weight, so they tend to sit further into the seat, which can cause soreness.

If you are brand new to bike riding, experiencing some soreness is common for the first few weeks while your body adjusts. This soreness should go away as your body adjusts to riding.

If you still experience the same soreness after a few weeks of riding, it’s possible you have the wrong seat or aren’t adjusted or fitted properly.

As one rider points out:

What I thought was an impossibly uncomfortable bike seat was a combination of bike fit, my newbie riding position, and ill-fitting bike shorts.

Different Seats for Different Riding

Bike seats do come in different shapes for different types of riding. Generally, the faster you ride, the skinnier the seat will be. This is because the faster you go, the more your body weight is supported by your legs and handlebars instead of the seat.

Typically, people racing will have a riding position closer to the front of the bike and will lean further forward. This will often favor a more minimalist seat with a more angular, aerodynamic design.

Less aggressive riders may choose seats that have a slight curve in the design which can relive pressure on parts of the body that make contact with the seat. They are also more likely to sit further upright so a slightly wider seat can often be more comfortable.

Different Seats for Different Terrain

There is also a difference between seats for different terrain. Road cyclists and leisure cyclists will often sit still in seats for relatively long periods. The uneven terrain for mounting bikers means they will likely be in different positions on the bike and need both durability and a streamlined shape.

Cut-out seats have a section in the middle removed which reduces weight and also reduces pressure on the body. Pressing down for long periods can affect the nerves and reduce blood flow and cut-outs go some way to reducing this.

This can help for both male and female riders and cut-outs are offered by all the major brands. Another very useful step to help with this is having a very short break every 20-25 minutes. Even 20 seconds out of the seat can relieve pressure and make a big difference.

Importance of Proper Fit, Form, and Height

As we will discuss, there are many complaints leveled at the bike seat that may, in fact, be caused by other issues such as handlebar position. The interlinking of different pressure points on a bike can be quite complex.

While the bike seat can often be the symptom, it’s not always the cause. So, with bodies naturally coming in all shapes and sizes how should you get fitted for a seat?

The first measurement to take is the sit bone distance as discussed above. Usually, people will add an additional 30cm to this measurement as a gauge as to where about you would sit on a seat (the seat will have some give as will your body).

Once you know your sit bone measurements and riding style, we would recommend you visit your local bike shop. While there are many different ways you can calculate the height and adjustments for a new saddle including the K.O.P.S. method and the Holmes method, there are many variables to consider.

You really want to be trying new seats whilst on your bike and seeing and feeling how they adjust your riding position.

Small changes can have quite a dramatic impact on your riding position and weight and pressure can be redistributed to positions that might cause issues. Still there are a few things to consider and look out for if you’re doing it yourself.

In most cases the seat should be horizontally level and this is best tested with a small builders level or in a pinch with an app on your phone. While occasionally riders in races might have a slightly forward incline as it helps engage the gluteus which are a powerful muscle group, there isn’t any reason to tilt backward which would only add pressure to an area where you least want it.

As well as the level, both the height and distance from bars are crucially important. If you find yourself slipping forward on the seat, it’s natural to label this as a seat issue position issue.

However, it’s often a case of the barns being too far forward. Equally, if the seat is too low, there is a tendency for the pressure that should be allocated to the feet to be distributed elsewhere. You can find tension in your hips, shoulders and your butt appearing with no real reason.

Each of the bike’s measurements links and influences others, so the goal is to find a seat that measures up to your sit bones, is suitable for your riding style and compliments your shape and positioning on your bike. In most cases, this means a visit to a bike store where you can try different models whilst on your bike.

Making Small Adjustments

If you’re looking to reposition your seat rather than buying a new one, there are a few things we would recommend. Adjusting your seat is key to make small, gradual adjustments.

While you may feel a high level of discomfort, small changes can often make a big difference. You can also find that the adjustment is making things worse and if your last adjustment was a small one, it’s easier to move back.

We would also recommend keeping a note of your adjustments so you’re able to look back and see what you changed. If the change had a negative impact you can quickly move it back.

Seat Covers – Do They Make a Difference?

Brooks seat saddle

The cover of seats has a noticeable impact on comfort and one of the main choices is synthetic or leather. Leather seats take a lot longer to wear in and mold to your body and are often a popular choice for riders.

While leather seats are hard initially, after the breaking in period, they become softer and show character not seen in the synthetic seats. Brooks, the famous English brand, are well known for their hand-crafted leather seats. As the seat ages, they take on the unique markings from weather and rider use that makes them unique.

Leather seats do need extra care and maintenance that synthetic seats don’t. Brooks also offers a rubber seat called the Cambium which is popular too.

What about Cushioned Seats?

Cushioning comes in mainly in two forms, gel or foam. Both of these offer cushion which might not be ideal in abundance, but can offer some initial comfort.

Some riders will choose a softer seat initially, and then as they build up toughness in their muscles and develop a tolerance to discomfort, they will move to something harder. 

Lots of brands create a good balance and there are lots of models with a small amount of cushioning that work well in the long term. Gel, in particular, is a popular choice and not just for leisure riders, as there are lots of models designed specifically for racing that have gel inserts.

Some small level of padding can work well or will at least be a useful stepping stone for riders building up to something harder. We would recommend avoiding anything which feels very soft or wide as that initial comfort might well be replaced by aches and chafing quickly.

It’s worth noting as well that gel can deform under pressure which can create uneven sections that can be very uncomfortable. For this reason, riders will often look for ‘some’ padding rather than the maximum padding.

Another interesting development in comfort comes from a company called Fabric who has used aero-bus technology to create springs within the rail design. This design is specific for racers. It allows the seat to stay minimal and light by having the flexibility and comfort built into the design. It avoids the extra weight and issues that can come from gel or foam padding.

Seats can often be branded as men’s or women’s, but in reality, it doesn’t matter at all. There are many male riders who have found their perfect style in a women’s model and vice versa.

Cushioned Bike Shorts

Bike shorts with cushioning aren’t just for the elite riders. Even if you’re spending a few hours a week on your bike seat they are still recommended. The key support is the cushioning which is called the chamois, which is basically the padded crotch area. This can help reduce road vibrations, elevate pressure points and prevent nasty chaffing.

The shorts are often made of Lycra, which is an elastic polyurethane fiber. If you’re a casual cyclist, don’t let this put you off. Lycra sits close to the skin which helps prevent rubbing. It’s key to have shorts that fit tightly as it avoids fabric rolling up, creasing and wearing against the skin. For the same reason, most riders don’t wear anything underneath their shorts.

Bibbed shorts are a popular choice as it reduces pressure on the waistband and puts it on the shoulders. This makes wearing the shorts less restrictive and eliminates the chances of them sliding down.

Padded shorts definitely add some comfort, but riders often replace them fairly regularly as the chamois can become compressed which makes them less useful for protection.

A well as padding, it’s also worth looking for shorts that come with as few seams as possible. Sewn seams offer more potential for irritation against the skin, which nobody wants.

The Right Seat

While riders will move their hands and feet on their bike to relieve pressure and discomfort, it isn’t quite so easy to move in the seat. It’s no surprise that so many riders complain about bike seats.

It is possible to eliminate a lot of the irritation by first making sure the fit of both the seat and the bike matches your body shape, riding style, and terrain. This will likely involve a trip to the bike shop where different seats can be tested. Riders willing to commit to a slightly harder and narrower design and resist the temptation to go for the largest, softest seat are likely to feel the benefits in the long run. 

There are good compromises with gel but the fitting is the most important element. After that, micro-adjustments, fine-tuning, and padded shorts are the key to a more comfortable ride.

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