I’ve been fit to my triathlon bike and I feel like my position is pretty comfortable and efficient. However, despite trying a number of different saddles and shorts, I still have nagging problems with saddle discomfort. Do you have any other suggestions that might help?
Susan , TX
It sounds like you have explored potential fit related issues, ranging from weight distribution to leg length differences, that might be contributing to your saddle comfort. You have also tried a variety of saddle and short designs, so I am not going to comment further on these important pieces of equipment. Outside of proper positioning and product selection, what is left that could be contributing to saddle issues? In short, pedaling technique.
In my experience, riders who have smoother and more circular pedal strokes at a relatively rapid cadence (80-100) have lower incidences of comfort related issues than riders with less balanced and slower strokes. Why? Riders who pedal efficient circles have more balanced muscle groups (thus reducing strain) and are more balanced in the saddle. So, what constitutes a balanced and efficient stroke and how do you develop one? A balanced stroke means that you are recruiting a variety of muscles throughout the entire range of the pedal circle. An outline of one revolution of the pedals on the drivetrain side of the bike demonstrates what muscles can be used, when you can use them, and how is below.
Through the front of the stroke (centering at 3 o’clock on the drivetrain side of the bike) the primary muscles being used are the quadriceps. The front of the stroke is an area that most riders do not need to focus much attention on as the quadriceps tend to work by default when riding a bike. It is through the bottom, back and top of the stroke where optimal muscle recruitment requires a more active technique, so these are the areas of the stroke where I am going to focus.
Once you are through the front of the stroke and heading into the bottom of the stroke (about 5 o’clock), you want to start transferring muscle engagement in the upper leg from the quadriceps to the hamstrings. Entering the bottom of the stroke, focus on keeping your heel level (not heel down or toe down) and pulling your foot through and back (as if you were wiping mud off the bottom of your foot in a barrel). If done properly, you will feel the muscles around your shin engage as the transfer from the quadriceps to the hamstrings (pushing to pulling muscles) takes place. As you come around to the back of the stroke (from about 7 o’clock on) focus on unweighting the foot by pulling your instep up against the top of your shoe with your calf and hamstrings. Many riders will lift their heel some at this point (ankling) to assist with fluidity of the stroke and active muscle engagement.
To complete the transition to the hamstrings successfully, you want to tilt (rolled) your pelvis forward on the saddle (sitting on your pelvic platform) and support and stabilize your pelvis and upper body weight with your core muscles. The easiest way I’ve found to describe this position is to have you think about your pelvic position when you are getting out of a chair. The hamstrings need to be at nearly a 90 degree angle to the pelvis to fire effectively and lift us from the chair. To get up from a chair, we neutralize our backs, tilt the pelvis forward (lifting the sit bones), engage the hamstrings, quads and abdominals, and stand. Try it and think about how the muscles are working and you’ll understand how this can work on a bike. From a positioning perspective, this same pelvic tilt that allows you to stand from the chair needs to happen on the bike if you want to engage your hamstrings optimally. Once you are past the back of the stroke (around 9 o’clock), the hamstrings are assisted by the glutes before the stroke enters another potential “flat spot” at the top (11 to 1 o’clock) of the stroke. All this being said, be careful not to over-rotate your pelvis as this will hyper-extend the back and potentially lead to saddle issues up-front.
The top of the stroke is arguably the most difficult to maintain active muscle recruitment because it requires use of the hard to activate hip flexor and psoas (core abdominal) muscles. To engage these muscles around the top of the stroke, push the instep of your foot into the tongue of the shoe, driving and pushing the pedal across the top of the stroke, and helping you keep momentum. Once through the top of the stroke, bring the foot back towards horizontal to the ground as you head back into the quadriceps based pushing muscles through the front of the stroke again.
From a training perspective, focus on one portion of your pedal stroke at a time. Once you master sections independently, it will be easier to integrate them. Also, expect it to feel like additional work at first and to require practice. You are asking muscles to fire in patterns they are not used to and they need to gain strength and familiarity with those demands before they will work optimally. An experienced cycling coach can also be a valuable resource in regards to helping you develop an optimal pedaling technique.
A rider who pedals efficient circles will have more balanced muscles groups (thus reducing strain on everything from the neck and shoulders to the lower back) and will sit on the bike more evenly, thus minimizing uneven saddle pressure and the likelihood of discomfort. Proper pedaling technique can also allow you to ride significantly faster with the same amount of energy expenditure. Remember that the impending winter is a great time to focus on details, like pedal stroke, that can make 2005 your most comfortable and efficient season ever.