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One of the most common problems you may experience as a cyclist is saddle sores, especially if you are getting serious about riding longer distances. Chafing and skin ailments are common among cyclists of all abilities, and if left untreated can cause serious injury and affect your performance, according to medical studies.
There are many solutions on the market claiming to solve discomfort during riding, from padded cycling shorts to a padded saddle. But which one is better at preventing injury to your soft tissues?
Padded Bike Shorts vs. Padded Seat
When it comes to the padded bike shorts vs. padded seat debate, the answer really depends on your cycling distances and style. While a gel seat may seem easier, most experienced cyclists and professional cyclists recommend padded shorts.
Before you go out and buy a high-end pair of shorts or a cycling seat, here are some of the benefits and drawbacks of both that you need to know….
Riding with Padded Bike Shorts
If you’ve ever watched the Tour de France or seen a group of road cyclists peddling away, chances are that most of them were wearing a padded pair of shorts. Padded bike shorts are sometimes called chamois because of the material that makes up the padding. They have extra material in the seat and sometimes in the crotch to cushion your body, while the fabric wicks sweat away from your skin.
These tight shorts with padding in the seat are often mocked by observers but can be the key to making your ride much more comfortable.
Why Padded Cycling Shorts Work
Padded bike shorts are usually made out of spandex and have padding on the rear. The material clings to your skin, which can feel strange at first, but the aerodynamic fit prevents saddle sores. Sores are caused by the chafing of your soft tissues against the seat of your bike as you move your legs. The snug fit and padded protection of these shorts prevent chafing.
Padded shorts also have other benefits when it comes to improving your cycling experience. Besides saddle sores, many cyclists experience pain in their rear and legs from the pressure of the seat bumping against their bodies—particularly after an offseason when they aren’t yet used to their bike seats. Regular shorts have seams right at the points of contact between your body and the cycle, which increases pain and chafing.
The padding on bike shorts is distributed to absorb the shocks, particularly around constant points of contact between your body and the bicycle. Padded bike shorts can also absorb vibration from the road, which decreases road shock and associated pain.
Padded bike shorts can do more than improve your comfort levels as you are cycling: they can also improve your performance. If you are serious about road cycling—for instance, if you are training for a triathlon—then bike shorts can improve your speed thanks to their aerodynamic fit. Baggier clothing provides wind resistance, which slows you down.
When To Wear Padded Shorts
If you are training to be a serious road cyclist, padded cycling shorts are going to be an important part of your uniform. Padded bike shorts are essential for longer cycling journeys as they limit chafing and pain at your body’s points of contact with the bike.
Padded bike shorts are also important if you are entering competitions or training in any sort of timed format. The aerodynamic nature of this uniform helps increase your speed and decrease your wind resistance.
Triathletes also wear padded cycling shorts, but shorts for a triathlon are different from shorts for regular road cycling, as the padding has to be thinner for a triathlon. The thinner material still offers protection from saddle sores but makes it easier to run and swim.
Even if your primary cycling discipline is mountain biking, you may need padded bike shorts. Most mountain bike riders wear baggier pants and baggy shorts as protection against falling on the trail. But buying a baggy, padded pair of shorts or wearing a padded liner under your regular mountain biking uniform can improve your comfort.
Whenever you wear padded bike shorts, skip wearing underwear. The shorts are breathable enough that they will feel comfortable right against the skin. Underwear increases friction due to the extra fabric and seams, which will be uncomfortable on longer rides.
Potential Drawbacks of Padded Shorts
One of the major drawbacks of padded bike shorts is their appearance. You can hardly roll up to the office after your morning commute in a pair of spandex shorts that leave nothing to the imagination. The price can also be prohibitive to amateur cyclists who were never planning on spending that much money for a specialist item of clothing.
If you are just looking for a way to increase your comfort on casual rides or your commute, then a better seat may be a better investment.
Some cyclists report feeling uncomfortable in padded cycling shorts. The shorts are supposed to wick away moisture from your skin, but the sweat still clings to the fabric and you may feel damp after several hours.
How To Choose the Right Shorts
If you decide to invest in proper cycling shorts, there are a few considerations when finding the right pair.
The first is fit. Your shorts should be tight but not restrictive—you still have to move your legs to cycle, after all! Try on several pairs to find ones that you feel comfortable in.
The second is style. Cycling shorts require a bit of an adjustment period because chances are that you are not used to wearing something so tight. If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of wearing bike shorts, there are looser models that are a bit more modest, so try to track down one of those.
The third factor that you should consider is padding placement. Due to anatomical factors, men’s and women’s bike shorts have padding in different locations, so make sure that you are choosing the right ones for your body.
You should also choose shorts with a padding placement that conforms to your riding style. If you tend to lean forward as you ride, make sure the padding is toward the front.
Finally, pricing is an important consideration. When it comes to cycling shorts, you get what you pay for. Expensive shorts tend to have a better fit and be more durable. But if you are just getting started and want to try out padded cycling shorts without spending a lot of money, even a cheap pair can protect your soft tissues.
Riding with Padded Bike Seats
When looking for improved comfort, many amateur cyclists opt for a padded saddle. Padded bike seats are usually made with gel. A gel seat has padding typically where your seat bone might meet the seat to relieve the pressure your body feels.
Padded seats sound good on paper, but the reality is a bit more complicated.
Benefits of a Padded Saddle
A padded seat is an easier adjustment if you feel self-conscious about wearing cycling shorts. While tight shorts make you stand out even when you get off your bike, nobody needs to know that you have a padded seat.
Padded seats also help relieve pain and pressure on your sit bones. If your bottom hurts after riding, then a bit of padding in the seat can help provide relief.
The Bikeroo oversized bike seat is an example of a great padded bicycle seat:
A padded saddle is a good choice for shorter rides, such as casual cycling or commuting. Casual cyclists tend to ride more upright, so more of their body weight is distributed toward the rear. A wide, padded seat can properly support those styles of riders.
Drawbacks of a Gel Seat
While padded bike seats may help improve your commute, they are not the best choice for more intense cycling sports and can actually be more uncomfortable.
One of the biggest drawbacks when it comes to gel seats is chafing. The extra padding on the seat actually increases friction between your soft tissues and the bike, particularly while riding long distances or bike touring. If the main problem you are looking to solve by adjusting your bike setup is saddle sores, then padded shorts are a better choice than a padded seat.
Gel seats do not hold up to wear and tear as well as a good pair of cycling shorts. With time, the gel compresses and moves around, which can put added constrictions on your pressure points. This movement increases friction and undermines the original purpose of the seat, which is to make riding more comfortable on your sit bones and other pressure points. A good pair of shorts, however, can last for years without becoming less effective as long as you take care of them properly.
Finally, padded saddles are not optimized for different riding styles. Riders with a more aggressive style tend to lean forward, where the saddle is narrower, and it would be impossible to pad it properly. You can buy shorts that adjust to forward-leaning riding styles, but not saddles.
Padded Bike Shorts vs. Padded Seats: The Final Word
Most serious road cyclists, including experienced cyclists and the professionals, wear padded cycle shorts. These shorts are best over long distances because they reduce friction that leads to chafing and help your body adjust to cycling.
For casual riders, including commuters, a padded saddle is more comfortable because it decreases pressure on the sit bone and can be less embarrassing than cycling shorts.