The first and most important question people ask when thinking about riding a bicycle is “Will I be comfortable?” Comfort is the key to unlocking all the joys that can start with a good bike ride, as well as the key to avoiding the pain and health problems that can start with a bad one. The physical, mental, and emotional benefits of regular bicycle riding are enormous, but despite this many people, particularly as they age, doubt that it is the right activity for them.
The Right Seat is the Key to Comfort and Joy on the Road
Bike seats are coming in a variety of sizes and shapes, and I will talk about the size in a bit, but for now, let’s talk about seat shapes. Because an image is worth a thousand words, let me give you a general idea about how the shape of the seat is related to the type of biking you usually do.
Choosing a comfortable bike seat is the single most important thing you can do to improve your cycling experience. A good seat will decrease both your anxiety and your pain while you ride, allowing you to be more alert and in control, making cycling more relaxing and enjoyable overall.
Older bicyclists come in many different flavors. There are cyclists in their forties and fifties just entering the category and there are cyclists regularly riding in their eighties and beyond. There are senior cyclists who after riding often for years, need to adapt their riding style, bicycle, and gear to accommodate their changing body, health, and lifestyle. There are senior cyclists who haven’t been on a bicycle in years or decades or ever at all, and still commit themselves to embark on the journey of becoming active riders in their later years. No matter what your relationship is to cycling, your riding ability and confidence will be improved by making the right choice about your seat.
The Right Bike Seat for Seniors
What is the right bike seat for senior riders? The answer is surprisingly simple: The seat that is the most comfortable. The devil is in the details, though, and it can be difficult for cyclists to understand how comfort and riding are related; what makes one seat more comfortable than another; how to know what kind of seat works best for a certain body type; and even when it is best to assess whether a seat is comfortable (At the beginning of a ride? At the end? A few hours later? The next day?).
The right seat is a very personal choice, and there is no precise formula for determining which specific make and model of bike seat will be the most comfortable for you. However, with a basic understanding of cycling and the role played by a bicycle seat, awareness of your health status, knowledge of general guidelines about fit, and a little help from experts, you can make a well-informed selection and set yourself up for success. Bicycle seats are sometimes called saddles, and as a saddle on a horse, it is literally the primary connective surface between you and your mount. Here are five critical aspects of cycling and bike seats you should understand before you make a purchase.
1. The Seat Size
No matter what shape you choose for your seat, the most important factor is the seat size, more exactly the width of it. There is an easy way to determine the right size for you. Again let’s start with an image.
There are three easy steps for determining the right bike seat size for you:
- Measure the distance between your sitting bones (preferably in milimeters)
- Add about 25 to 30 milimeters to that number
- Sitting bone distance + 30 milimeters is the right width of your next bike seat.
If you don’t know your sitting bones distance, finding it it’s simple:
- Find a piece of corrugated cardboard big enough so your bottom can sit on it.
- You need a piece of chalk or crayons
- You need something to measure
- Put the cardboard on a low bench and sit on it for 10 seconds. You need to fill your bones pressing on the cardboard.
- Go ahead and stend up.
- Take the chalk and run it lightly over the cardboard you sat on untill you can clearly see the two depresions created by your sitting bones.
- Last step, measure the distance between the centers of the two depressions and that’s it.
2. Bicycles and Bicycle Seats
There are many different styles of bicycles today. They include road bikes with skinny tires and drop handlebars for long-distance rides and races; mountain bikes with beefy tires and suspension for backcountry rides on dirt roads and trails; cruiser bikes with few gears, a more upright seating position, and additions like fenders and baskets for rides around town, on a boardwalk or bike path, or to the store.
E-bikes with a motorized drive system have become an increasingly popular style of bike for many kinds of riding and can lower the barrier of entry for seniors coping with endurance and strength challenges. Other possibilities include step-through bicycles (sometimes classified as comfort bicycles) with a low top bar allowing riders to easily mount; foldable bikes, many of which are also e-bikes; adult three-wheelers or trikes built for stability; and even recumbent bikes with an entirely different approach to seating and rider movement.
Different styles of bikes are typically sold with different styles of seats, but for the most part, the seat is one of the easiest parts of a bicycle to replace or upgrade if you are not satisfied with the standard seat that is equipped. While more basic bicycle seats can cost as little as $25, you should expect to spend between $50 and $150 for a better seat optimized for your comfort. High-performance seats for endurance or racing can cost significantly more. Some riders choose to own more than one seat for the same bicycle and swap out the saddle depending on their riding conditions and plans.
While less expensive bikes will come with less expensive saddles, if you don’t cycle often or for long distances a budget bicycle and seat may provide all the comfort you require. If you are upgrading a bike you already own to make it more comfortable, one of the quickest ways to improve the feel of the ride is by adding a new saddle. This is particularly true for older bikes whose original saddles, even if they were high quality, didn’t incorporate the advantages of today’s modern materials and engineering.
Road bikes and other bikes designed for long-distance riding work best with saddles that allow you to stay in the same riding position for as long as possible while resting your hands on extended aero handlebars. In contrast, mountain bikes work best with saddles that allow you to handle the bumps, boggy surfaces, and sudden slopes of off-road riding by switching your body position quickly and frequently. All the different kinds of comfort bikes and cruisers work best with saddles that put a premium on comfort for new riders, riders overcoming injuries or health challenges, and riders who more than anything want a pleasant riding experience — including rides where the best part is just sitting on your bike seat without moving while having a great conversation or watching a sunset.
3. Bicycle Seat Styles
Bike seats come in many different styles and their comfort will vary depending on your bike, your body, your riding style, and your riding conditions. The size of the seat is the most important variable — both length and width. Seats are designed to provide the right balance between too much material and not enough, by giving you enough surface to support the soft tissue around your sitting bones without generating excessive contact and friction as you move.
Bike seats today — on comfortable cruisers, performance racers, and everything in between — are increasingly designed with a focus on comfort and alleviating the predictable pain and soreness that are common for regular cyclists. In general, seats now have shorter noses and include central recesses (also called relief channels or cut-outs) to prevent pressure spots.
Seats for road bikes tend to have more of a triangle shape so that they maximize support on long rides. Seats for mountain bikes by comparison tend towards a T-shape so that riders can more easily stand up and peddle when climbing hills or traversing a stretch of bumpy washboard trail. Some higher-end seats now include innovative design features that can make for a space-age look — such as noseless saddles with left and right front arms instead of a single longer front section, to enhance blood flow in the groin.
4. Bicycle Seat Construction and Materials
Since bicycling is an activity enjoyed by people of such a wide range of abilities and means, there are bicycles and bicycle accessories available at a wide range of prices. High-performance riders can certainly benefit from new innovations in design and materials if they are willing to pay a higher price. New features and improvements from the leading manufacturers often first appear on exclusive racing bicycles before trickling down to universally available premium and mid-range product lines.
Seats are mostly made from a combination of foam padding in layers with differing compositions and density; seat rails and components made from materials like metal, alloy, or carbon fiber; and abrasion-resistant plastic fabrics, many engineered to include advanced properties like superior wicking of moisture. While they are rare today, it is also still possible to find quality leather bike seats. As with all leather products, these are less comfortable at first and are intended to form to the shape of your body over time. Leather seats can also crack and harden over time if not properly treated.
High-performance bikes typically come with sleeker seats. This is because competitive cyclists need to save weight and have the freedom of movement to adapt their riding position. Bikes designed for general cycling, as well as those designed for extra comfort, use additional layers of padding and may include gel and other supporting structures like internal springs so they can weigh much more. But while extra padding can mean less bruising on a rider’s sitting bones, too much padding can lead to circulation problems.
This might seem counterintuitive, but more padding doesn’t necessarily mean a seat will be more comfortable. What matters is your body type and shape, your riding style, and where padding is placed. The best seats feature precision shapes for different anatomical requirements and incorporate cutting-edge materials such as memory foams. They are intended to provide you with full support just where your bones and soft tissue most need it without any unnecessary chafing bulk.
5. Bicycle Seat Accessories
While modern bike seats are intended to be comfortable for riding just as they are, other accessories are available that may be right for achieving the feel you need. Accessories come in as many varieties as bikes and seats, so they are another area where it is important to do your homework before spending money on equipment that is either unnecessary or even makes for a worse fit and more painful ride.
For your bike, one potential accessory is a gel seat pad. These soft covers typically Velcro or cinch around your saddle, providing an extra layer of secure padding. Another option for your bike is a suspension seat post, a kind of shock absorber between the saddle and the frame that can help take the sting out of sudden impacts.
For yourself, you may want to consider padded bike shorts and other kinds of supportive clothing. Some bicyclists prefer to wear padded undergarments specifically made for riding because they can be worn under loose-fitting shorts or skirts. Your comfort may also be improved as much by decreased friction as by increased padding. Lycra and other form-fitting materials are popular for cycling garments because they reduce air resistance and heat from the friction of moving your legs while in the saddle.
Getting Help From a Bicycle Shop
It is possible to do all the research you need to pick a comfortable bicycle seat on your own, especially for experienced riders, by reading articles and expert product reviews before making a purchase. However, there is great value in getting help from an expert at a local shop.
At a dedicated bicycle shop with a good selection, you can expect to find qualified bicycle service technicians and other trained staff who can walk you through the decision and even give you the opportunity to try out a variety of different bikes and seats. You can also often find the same level of expertise and service in the cycling section of large general sporting goods retailers.
Another reason to buy your bike and accessories from a quality bike retailer is that representatives from bicycle seat manufacturers frequently provide bike store technicians with training on how best to match riders and saddles. Some even provide special measuring tools to help technicians custom-fit bike seats. This kind of specialized service can leave you a lot more confident about your choice than the do-it-yourself route, while also helping you deepen your relationship with your local biking community.
Pain, Injury, and Older Riders
There are several reasons why senior riders need to be especially careful that their bicycle seat is comfortable. Bicycling is an excellent preventative health practice because the loss of muscle mass and weakness are common health concerns for people as they age. However, these same health concerns mean that older cyclists are more at risk of injury from falls. A comfortable and well-fitting bike seat will not only result in a ride that is more pain-free — it will also greatly increase the control you have over your bicycle and your ability to avoid accidents or crashes.
Your bike seat is the contact surface between you and your bike with the most area and because of all of the soft tissue surrounding our sitting bones this area is also much more sensitive and prone to injury than hands and feet. An uncomfortable seat can lead to numbness, pain, and can even create scar tissue that can constrict veins. Problems related to sexual and reproductive health are one of the first things people worry about when it comes to bicycling, and for good reason. Studies have shown that problems can be caused for both men and women by riding on the wrong bike seat. While rubbing from bicycle seats on the groin increases the risk of sexual dysfunction in men, the same studies have found that the effects can be greatly alleviated by using a seat without a traditional protruding nose (a noseless saddle) because of reduced perineal pressure. While ill-fitting bike seats can cause men to suffer from erectile dysfunction, they can also cause women to suffer from a loss of genital sensation.
Health and Lifestyle Circumstances
Once you’ve given some thought to the kinds of bicycles and seats, the styles of riding, and the health benefits and risks, you can home in on how this general information fits with your own unique health and lifestyle circumstances. Along with a bicycle technician, the other expert to have a conversation with about biking as you age is your doctor or health care provider. Consulting with both can ensure that you make an informed choice about your bicycle and seat, and both can provide critical advice and feedback along the way if you begin experiencing pain. Here are some questions to ask.
What is best for someone in my age group?
Riders in their forties and fifties may just be learning to take their age and changing bodies into account when thinking about bicycling and can avoid future problems by acting early. Riders in their seventies may have to change their riding because of age-based limitations and can require additional hands-on help to select and install suitable equipment.
What is best for my gender?
Men and women of all ages have different needs when it comes to comfortable bicycling and bike seats because of differences in their body types, hip width, and pelvic angle. In particular, the V-shape of the sitting bones of men and the U-shape of the sitting bones of women results in women typically benefitting from a wider saddle. However, because everyone’s body is unique it is common for riders to use a seat that is often associated with a rider of a different gender. Proper fit is paramount.
What are my risks?
Honestly assessing your health risks can help you pick the safest and most comfortable gear. For example, you may need to choose a saddle that is very wide and deeply padded because of challenges posed by existing injuries, even though the saddle forces you to ride more slowly. Additional cushioning can also make cycling more comfortable if you suffer from digestive issues. Weak eyesight or poor endurance can mean that you will need to stop more frequently when riding, meaning that a key part of the fit of your bike seat will be how comfortable it is when getting on and off it frequently.
What are my goals?
Because of how easy it is to begin a regular cycling routine most riders can continue to set ambitious yet achievable goals around their riding no matter their age. Since bicycling is such an accessible and adaptable activity it is easy to create a plan to ride more frequently, for longer periods, or on more challenging routes. If you are expecting to ride often, you’ll want to invest in a higher-quality seat, to ensure that it will always be comfortable and won’t cause long-term problems. Or maybe your goals are to just cycle occasionally to stay active and have fun, or you are cycling to help you recover from a health challenge. This may mean you need a softer seat that feels safe to sit in, but the seat doesn’t need to be constructed with race-quality materials. Seat suspension may be perfect too.
When you’re deciding on the right bike seat for seniors, you need to consider your riding conditions along with your health needs and goals. This means thinking about where you live and where you ride. Riding a couple of miles along a county bike trail in New England during the autumn leaf-changing season is a vastly different activity from riding 30 miles along remote mountain roads in the Rockies on a sunny summer day.
The biggest impact of where you live on your bicycling is climate and weather. The comfort of your bike seat will change depending on factors like temperature, humidity, precipitation, and wind. Some seat materials are more water-resistant than others; some are more resistant to overheating; some are more able to effectively wick sweat away from your body.
While some riders only ride seasonally because of excessively harsh winter or summer conditions where they live, some riders live in climates appropriate for riding any time of the year. Then there are riders who enjoy changing up their gear and riding in winter cold or summer heat despite the challenges. Local and state bicycling organizations can be a great source for tips, tricks, and gear recommendations specific to your region.
The best bike seat for you will not only depend on where you live but also on where exactly you ride. As bicycling has exploded in popularity over the past decades there has been a large increase in both the number and diversity of locations safe for cycling. While it might mean having to transport your bike from home to the starting point for your ride, no matter where you live in the United States you will have access to locations like:
- Designated urban bike routes and bike lanes
- City parks and public spaces where cars are restricted
- Greenways and rail trails
- Beaches and boardwalks
- Trails and dirt roads in state parks, national forests, and other public wildlands
- Long-distance guided bike tours
Depending on your riding conditions you may want to consider having more than one seat for your bike. You can swap out your bike seat on your own if you are able, and if not, you can ask your local bike shop technician to change the seat as part of a seasonal tune-up. If you become an especially dedicated rider you may even choose to own multiple bikes for different needs and occasions.
One last riding condition you may want to consider is whether you ride in a group or plan to. While it’s not essential, one of the fun side benefits of being an active senior cyclist is that it gives you a chance to meet other riders, ride together, and become part of a larger community. There are cycling groups for different ages and abilities organized and promoted through bike shops and recreation programs, and often these groups have memorable names and look just like any club. Maybe you’ll want to join a cycling club where everyone is riding a bike that is the same color, or maybe you’ll get a recommendation on just the right kind of gear!
The Benefits of Comfortable Cycling for Seniors
While many people believe that seniors are at special risk if they ride bicycles, the evidence tells a different story. Cycling is an increasingly popular activity overall, and seniors make up a large portion of new riders. This is because of a combination of older riders having more time for cycling after retirement, being more eager to enjoy outdoor activity, and wanting to engage in low-impact exercise that will have enduring health and longevity benefits. While seniors need to be attentive and careful riders, they are not more likely to be hurt when riding, and there are unexpected benefits to it as well.
Feeling confident that riding will be comfortable and enjoyable instead of painful and stressful is the key to embracing cycling as part of your lifestyle. Being able to saddle up and take to the road breeds a sense of freedom — and the right saddle fit well is where it starts. The benefits of a comfortable and regular riding practice are manifold and begin to show themselves quickly.
Seniors are at an increased risk of health conditions that can be alleviated by cycling. One of the most significant facts about cycling is that it is an excellent part of a weight loss program, and many older Americans suffer from diabetes, obesity, and other weight-related health issues. Cycling is also a low-impact cardiovascular exercise that improves heart health, and is an excellent way to improve muscle mass and overall strength — often the cause of balance problems that can lead to falls. Riding also is a good way for seniors with eyesight problems to strengthen their vision through focused use in different lighting conditions. The extra time in the sun is also a reliable source of vitamin D and benefits bone health.
Of equal importance with the physical benefits, cycling can lead to enormous improvements in mental clarity and mood. Many seniors suffer from a decline in cognitive ability and can find great reward in activities that enable them to practice good judgment, quick decision-making, and spatial awareness. The relaxed attentiveness encouraged by riding — How is my breathing? Is that someone on the path ahead? Do I need a break for some water? Can I see the lake from the next bend? — not only improves thinking but mood as well. This means that riding is especially therapeutic for people struggling with anxiety, depression, and loneliness.
The Well-Prepared Senior Cyclist
For people wanting to stay active as they age, bicycling is here to stay. As the popularity of cycling among seniors grows, more are becoming active members of groups, such as the League of American Bicyclists, that advocate for the interests of riders by building better infrastructure for riding and coordinating the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians, and automobiles. Cycling is not only a benefit to individuals — it helps create better communities.
One last thing to remember is that the most comfortable bicycle seat is the one you’re able to continue to sit in and ride without incident, so make sure that whenever you ride you put safety first. This means having all the other accessories critical for safe riding, along with a comfortable seat.
First and foremost, get a good helmet and wear it every time you cycle — and replace it if there is any chance it has been damaged. Your outfit will likely also require clothes tailored for riding, shoes appropriate for your pedals, padded gloves, and sunglasses. Always hydrate before riding and bring water along. Talking with a technician at your local bike shop is a great way to think through other gear you’ll want for safety and comfort. Getting on the road mounted on a well-fitted saddle is the beginning of the senior cycling journey. As you deepen your relationship with your bicycle and your fellow riders you’ll want to continue learning.