"It's not suppose to hurt." That is the mantra I speak to every woman who enters the fit studio right along with: "There's no such thing as normal pain" and "It's okay to complain." For those women who've been fit by us, much of what follows will sound familiar, though there's plenty new here to make it a worthwhile read. If you're here looking for our philosophy on women's fit, or to understand why we've experienced unprecedented success fitting women to bikes, then please read on.
When it comes to the difference between men and women fitting to bikes...we men are fools. Trust me when I tell you, men have no idea what women feel on bikes because, if we felt what women do, we wouldn't ride them. Not long ago, I read an article by a very intelligent man in the bike industry who wrote "...women feel at least as much pain as men on bikes." It made me laugh. No seriously, I laughed out loud with my laptop bouncing on my knees. Clueless. That's what we men are when it comes to what women feel on bikes. Truth be told, women feel far greater pain then men do; they just handle pain better, or simply believe, "Of course it hurts, I'm riding a bike!" Well, ladies, in case you didn't know, please allow me to be the first to set you free:
It's not suppose to hurt to ride a bicycle. Not you feet, not your knees, not your back, your hands shouldn't go numb, your shoulders and neck should not get stiff and sore, AND...your saddle should be, gasp!! comfortable!
No, really, believe it or not, it should actually feel good to ride a bike. You saddle does not have to be a torture device; you can actually feel good when you get off your bike at the end of a long ride. Really - it's possible and, not only that, pretty easy to attain once you understand that you're not supposed to feel those pains, your body is simply telling you something is wrong. Don't get used to it...fix it.
It's when I came to understand that, as a man, I don't understand what women feel on bikes, that I was able to find success fitting women. That understanding, coupled with the realization that allowing a woman to comfortably communicate what she's physically feeling is the other key to a great fit, is what sets us apart. I'll be the first to admit I don't know what women feel while riding, but I do understand my lack of understanding. I do know that women handle pain better than men. I know women believe these pains are normal and just come with the territory. I know that women have all too often been told, "You'll get used to it" after complaining about pain to a man. I know, and I'm here to tell you again - it's not suppose to hurt.
Okay, so let's get down to it. Why do you feel the pain, and what can we do to fix it? No need to be shy here, let's get straight to many women's number one enemy - the saddle. Saddle pain is not an easy topic to discuss. We're talking about areas where men and women don't often tread in light conversation, at least not without some pretty significant alcohol on board, and even woman to woman, this is not the easiest of topics. So let me get you started, as I do during a fit session. You see, men believe your saddle hurts you in one spot, and one spot only - right down the center of the saddle. In fact, some times it does hurt there, or perhaps you go numb. But I've found there's another area women often hurt when it comes to saddle pain. It's an area just inside either thigh between your leg and the "soft tissue" (always a nice, gentle, way to describe that area) that can really cause you pain. Men don't, or I should say, rarely, feel this type of pain, and it's excruciating. There's no getting used to it, it won't go away...it only gets worse as the miles pass by. What you're feeling in that spot is your Ischium bone(s), and there's just not a lot between the bone and your saddle. Too much pressure there and...Ouch!
Wherever the pain comes from, if a women feels uncomfortable on her saddle, nothing about the rest of her bike is likely to feel all the great either. That's because she'll move in any direction to get rid of the pain - most often to the back of the saddle. Sitting all the way to the back relieves pressure from the front, but it also destroys her position on the bike. Oh, but that's not all! Not only will she tend to shift to the back of the saddle, but she'll also rotate her pelvis posteriorly to aid in the relief of pressure. Now she has real problems. She's too far back on the saddle, her pelvic rotation is stretching the muscles in her back, and her reach to the bars is exaggerated. All of these "adaptations" and more can cause her a host of pain and discomfort. So, long story short, if you're not comfortable on your saddle, the rest of your bike fit just isn't going to work. You need a saddle that fits you.
I wish there were a magic saddle that fit everyone, but there isn't. Truth be told, saddle comfort is a combination of the saddle and your bike fit. There are a few saddles I have more luck with than others. For road bikes, the Specialized Ruby seems to work for many women. For tri bikes, we get a little closer to utopia: about 9 out of 10 women will choose the Cobb VFlow Plus. That saddle just works (for men too). Otherwise, it's trial and error. We simply try as many saddles as possible until you find one you like. We must, because your fit will be compromised until we find one that works.
Beyond saddle comfort, the other issue we deal with most often is actually several areas of discomfort that are all typically related to one another...you just don't know it. It all stems from an improper fore/aft position on the bike (we're talking road bikes here, by the way), and it's almost always due to the client sitting too far forward. It all starts innocently enough. You feel as though your reach is too long, so you or someone else moves the seat forward to reduce how far you reach to the handlebar. Problem solved? Negative - problems created! You may experience one, or all, of the following: numb or sore hands, shoulder pain or tension, sore or tense neck, lower back pain. All of these are typically related to one another, and usually stem from being too far forward on the bike. Oh, and you remember that uncomfortable saddle? Well, the typical solution I see there is to tilt the saddle down. Wrong! That's a no-no because it either causes, or exacerbates, the problems I'm detailing here. The solution? A well balanced, proper fore/aft position. We move your position back, and suddenly it removes pressure from your hands which, in turn, relieves tension in your shoulders and neck. This also helps create proper pelvic tilt (assuming we've found a comfortable saddle) and, voila, lower back pain disappears, too!
Now, I'll be honest...I'm making this all sound much easier than it sometimes is. And, quite frankly, it would take many articles to discuss all the pains women feel and their causes (perhaps I'll begin a series). My point is this: it's not suppose to hurt, it doesn't have to hurt, and you can be comfortable on your bike!