The title is provocative on purpose. Anyone could legitimately argue that there are plenty of other offenders – cheap cycling shorts, incorrect cleat alignment, too much padding on the saddle, there are plenty. Take cycling shorts as an example… Try a century on a $30 pair of cycling shorts and you will know the meaning of pain. It’s like riding on barbed wire after 30 miles. That notwithstanding, when we get into the serious mileage (150+ miles a week), a saddle at the wrong height can do structural damage. Hips, hamstrings, knees, heels, feet – the weakest link will be hit. It can be as simple as not putting the saddle back down to the correct spot if the shop raises it to put it on a stand… Two weeks later your hamstring is tight as hell and you’re wondering what’s going on – and I’ve had this happen because of 1-2 millimeters.
The trick with saddle height is not writing the pain off to too many miles or too hard an effort, especially if you run as well… We’re programmed, as runners, to know that when we push harder or longer something will hurt afterwards and it’s rarely just muscles. Cycling is a bit of a different animal though. As runners, when we tire out, our form suffers. We slouch and plod rather than glide. Cycling is a little bit different though. Slouching hurts the arms, shoulders and neck. If your butt is in the right place on your saddle, the only major soreness after a long ride should be muscular in nature because with your feet locked on the pedals and your butt in the proper place, your form can’t change all that much.
Now, this statement may be different for racers – I’m not a racer so I can’t or won’t speak to that, the workout is different and let’s face it, they’re usually adept enough to know if their saddle is a bit too high. I’m writing this for your average sportive rider, with averages from 15-23 mph over 100 miles.
In my case, my left (dominant) leg is just a little bit shorter than my right (or so I’ve been told), so I have to set my saddle to my left leg. Getting it in the ball park is easy enough: Heels over the center of the spindles and pedal backwards – your leg should just barely straighten out without rocking your hips. If you have even a little bend left at the knee, raise it. If your leg straightens and your hip rocks, lower it. I have to make sure my left hip isn’t rocking while my right leg straightens though – and 1-2 millimeters too high will do just that (and this can be fixed with a shim under my cleat but I haven’t found that to be necessary). What ends up happening is that I put too much pressure on my left sit bone which becomes sore and that pain radiates down and inflames the hamstring. From there, I’m hobbled and before long I can’t even run. I covered this once before, here. The funny thing was the few posts before that, I’d thought it was a running form problem. This one really crept up on me. Then last night I read another post written by a woman who may very well have the same problem and this morning I had another fellow link my post – could be the same thing for him as well.
In any event, the point I really want to get at here is that, at least in my case, saddle height is a very finicky thing. Partly because of my left leg being just a touch shorter, but also because I ride a lot of miles. If I get it right, within a 1-2 mm butter zone, I can go as far as my muscles will take me. It’s in that light that I thought I’d offer some fine tuning tips that I’ve used over the past couple of years. Now, these assume a few things: It’s not a clothing related skin irritation (hot spot) and that you’ve got the proper saddle and had your sit bones measured (there are different widths, I’m a 143mm – my saddle comes in 143, 155 and 168mm and the thickness varies by riding style too – I ride low/aero… If I rode more upright I’d be a 155).
1. If the front of the knees hurt, raise the saddle. If the back of the knee hurts, lower it. A millimeter or two until the pain doesn’t get worse.
2. If one of the sit bones hurts, lower the saddle by just one millimeter every few days until the pain doesn’t get worse.
3. If one or both of your hamstrings hurt, see #2.
4. If your Achilles is hurting I’m going to go out on a limb here, it’s probably related to 1-3… If your heel(s) are raised on the down stroke or if your heel(s) dip on the down stroke, this can also be a problem.
Now, what I mean by, “until the pain doesn’t get worse” is this: The tendency will be to lower or raise the saddle too much which can cause other problems. Say one of your sit bones hurts so you lower it 2mm. The pain won’t just stop – you’ve been hurting yourself for a while, it might take a week or two to go completely away, but it will subside, and that’s what you’re looking for. When you get it right, you should be able to tell right away that it feels a lot better.
After 2-1/2 years of serious cycling and working to make sure my saddle is absolutely as perfectly placed as is possible, I can tell you that the effort makes a difference. Now under three years in the saddle, admittedly, is not much in terms of experience but I’m highly analytical about everything that goes on with my body while I’m cycling and running… Mainly because when it comes to pain, I’m a bit of a lazy sissy – I’ll ride my ass (or yours) into the ground just for laughs, but afterwards I will not accept being too sore to go for a ride or run around the yard with my girls. They’re only young once and this is the only shot I’ve got at ruining it for every punk kid who will ever attempt to date my girls. No way I’m screwing that up.
Weronika (pronounced Veronika) asked a question about whether or not I’ve had my bikes fitted – I skipped over this in haste. Yes, absolutely, all of my road bikes have been fitted by a pro whom I trust implicitly and ride with on a regular basis.
UPDATE: I came across a new way to measure for saddle height: place a hard cover book between your legs, tight to your crotch and measure from the floor to the top (spine) of the book and multiply that by 109%. For me, that’s within less than a millimeter of perfect. I use this on all of my bikes now and my keister is much happier for it.