Saddle Choice affects Comfort, Power
By Joe Hydrick, PCG Associate Coach
See also on our web site: Combating Saddle Sores
As a bike fitter, I work with cyclists who vary wildly in experience and ambitions, but the objective goal of fitting is the same for each and every client: a position that balances comfort, power, and control. And no other single component has as much effect on each of these factors as the saddle. In fact, I prefer to start every fit by making certain that the client is on the correct saddle before making any assumptions or adjustments.
The saddle’s job description
The saddle’s job is to provide stability and support for our pelvis in its natural orientation, without causing contact-point discomfort. Each of us will naturally orient our pelvis as a product of our own functionality, flexibility, body structure, and preference. All in all, it’s a very individual interface. The good news is that there is no shortage of saddle designs, shapes, and configurations on the market. A good fitter will place high priority on helping you find the correct saddle first.
We've come a long way since the riveted leather saddles of Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi.
The most obvious impact of saddle choice is the resulting comfort, and it’s important to realize that incorrect saddle choice can result in direct discomfort and/or indirect discomfort. Direct discomfort, as the name implies, refers to the contact interface between your body and the saddle. If the saddle width, shape, or density is not optimal for you, you may experience mild to severe discomfort (chafing, soreness, numbness) at the contact points.
If the saddle is fundamentally incorrect for your pelvic orientation, it may lead to indirect discomfort, or issues that crop up as byproducts. As an example, consider the common scenario of a rider who is functionally optimal when riding with a high degree of anterior (forward) pelvic rotation and a long, neutral spine. If this rider’s bike is fitted with a saddle that doesn’t permit his pelvic orientation, he may experience increased saddle pressure and perineum discomfort. As a result, he may train himself to sit with more posterior (rearward) pelvic tilt to alleviate the pressure/discomfort, and this often leads to more spinal flexion (rounding of the back) and increased tension through the shoulders, neck, and arms. Furthermore, this adopted posterior pelvic rotation may cause an overuse of his hip flexors instead of his powerful gluteal muscles, leading to chronic frontal-chain soreness. As you can gather, full body comfort stems from the correct saddle choice.
As cyclists, we’re often training to get stronger and more powerful on our bikes. Power production is the product of metabolic and biomechanical processes. Metabolic efficiency increases through aerobic training, and while your position does indirectly impact this process, it’s largely a separate topic. Saddle choice does, however, have a direct impact on biomechanical efficiency (the way your body moves and performs). Maximized biomechanical efficiency comes as a product of operating in the unique position that’s best for you; this is different for everyone based on each rider’s skeletal and muscular anatomy and each rider’s neuromuscular recruitment patterns (how many muscle fibers your brain can recruit in action). It’s crucial for power and efficiency to select a saddle that allows you to sit in your natural, preferred orientation. Finding a saddle that supports and provides stability in your preferred orientation will take the load off of your musculature and other resources that would be utilized to “hold” your preferred position on a less supportive, non-optimal saddle. If a saddle is too incorrect, you may not be able to achieve your preferred pelvic rotation at all, significantly reducing your efficiency and power production potential.
There is a lot of research, opinion, and data regarding what pelvic orientation is the most powerful, but at the end of the day, remember that the most powerful orientation is the one where you are most functional. Your orientation may change as you do targeted training, focused work on balancing muscle group strength, and pedaling-efficiency drills, but the concept remains the same.
Modern riders have a good choice of well-designed and comfortable saddles
Your saddle is one of only three contact points on our bikes, and as such, saddle selection has a tremendous impact on our control over our bikes. I like to think of control as a balance of stability and agility, and the main factor that contributes to this balance is your weight distribution relative to the bike’s geometry. How you distribute your weight among your saddle, pedals, and handlebars, and where these loads are applied relative to your bike’s wheels and bottom bracket, will govern the amount of control you have over your machine. Determining your pelvic orientation and selecting a correspondingly correct saddle will allow you to naturally distribute your weight on the bike. Pelvic orientation has a significant impact on weight distribution; if you make a significant change in your posture at the pelvis, you may notice a dramatic impact on the handling of your bike. This may require a change in cockpit length or even frame size to regain the proper balance of stability and agility.
It’s common for riders to be between off-the-rack frame sizes. If this is you, visit a proper bike fitter for a saddle evaluation when shopping for a new bike. Taking into account pelvic orientation, effective torso length, and weight distribution will often help with making the final decision in frame size. Don’t end up with a sluggish or twitchy new bike as a result of a fit based around the wrong saddle choice!
Take the first step first
Few things impact a rider’s experience as much as saddle choice. Since it affects power, comfort, and control, the perch you select should be nothing less than optimal. As a bike fitter, I truly emphasize the importance of setting the saddle first, as it is a primary driver of the rest of the bike fitting process. And there’s no excuse to compromise on seat choice; there are hundreds of shapes, styles, and variations on the market today. Find a fitter who respects the impact of the saddle, and you’ll be rewarded with miles of smiles.