One of the most pervasive issues for cyclists everywhere is the prevalence of excessive seat (saddle) height. In other words, your saddle is probably too high.
Having a tall saddle is a trend that has been around for what seems like time immortal and likely the result of a number of factors. We can all recognize that little voice in the back of our heads that says “just put it up a little more”. Maybe it was getting that pro looking saddle to bar drop, or some Italian bike fitting folk lore, or it could just be some well intentioned fit advice from friends run amuck, however we got here, excessive saddle height typically causes far more issues than it purports to solve.
In this article we’re going to break saddle height down into a few parts to help dispel the myth around tall saddles, and how to go about fixing it (it may be harder than it seems). This will be covered in three parts:
- Saddle height basics
- Issues with saddle height
- Adapting to new positions
Saddle Height Basics
At some point in your cycling life you have likely heard any number of “rules” for how to set saddle height. For many, this starts right when you first learn to ride and our parents may insist that both feet should be flat on the ground when stopped. Perhaps the trend to tall saddles is just a continued rebellion from this childhood advice, but the reality is that no one simple rule captures what is needed for a good saddle position. So perhaps we start with what a good saddle position seeks to achieve:
- A stable platform for pedalling
- At its foundation, your saddle must provide a stable platform for pedalling. If your sit bones aren’t well supported, it’s very difficult to efficiently produce power through your legs over time.
- Injury Prevention
- Like many aspects of bike fit, preventing injury is a priority for saddle height. Avoiding end ranges of motion is at the core of this goal. Cycling’s extreme levels of repetitive motion mean that functioning close to your end ranges of motion can quickly become problematic.
- Balanced Muscle Recruitment
- In simple terms, there are a number of muscles in your legs all working in slightly different ways. A good saddle height should allow you to recruit each of these muscles properly, and place the bulk of the load on the biggest ones and target specific muscles depending on your event. If you’d like to understand more about which muscles are working through which part of the pedal stroke check out this article .
Though this is only a simplified overview of what contributes to a good saddle height, it provides a good baseline for understanding the issues we find with excessive saddle heights.
If you’d like to check your saddle height, our Free Fit Analysis will let you know how you’re doing.
Issues with Saddle Height
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the key issues we see with saddle height tend to break one or more of the principles above that contribute to a good saddle height. With excessively high saddle positions, this generally shows up in the following ways.
- A saddle height that is too high often results in riders hips needing to rock side-to-side through the pedal stroke .While some lateral movement on the bike is completely normal, the lack of a firm equally supported position as a platform for power production can reduce performance, and also lend itself to discomfort due to unequal pressure on the saddle.
- When we say over-extension, this does not mean hyper-flexion or even end range of movement. What we’re referring to is movements approaching your functional mobility limits. Every rider's flexibility and mobility at a given time will help establish their functional range of motion. Excessive saddle height will often place riders in a position that encroaches on these end ranges of motion (especially knee extension), which result in a lack of control through the pedal stroke and increased chances of repetitive strain injuries. This is often exacerbated by any lateral imbalances or asymmetries that many people have in their bodies.
- Inefficient Muscle Recruitment
- This is perhaps the most personal part of saddle height and is quite complex. It’s arguable that the pursuit of “perfect” muscle recruitment has driven many changes in saddle height selection over the years. What we do know is that the efficiency of muscle power production reduces approaching an athlete's functional end range of motion, so saddle positions that stray too far to either extreme are leaving something on the table.
Though these issues might sound a little difficult to grapple with when thinking about your fit, they show up in a wide range of very common issues on the bike, including, but not limited to:
- Saddle related pain & chafing
- Genital Numbness
- Knee pain
- Lower back pain
- Foot numbness
- Hamstring pain
In short, if you have some form of discomfort from waist down, there’s a very good chance saddle height is a contributing factor. Though upper body, especially back pain can also be a result of poor saddle height. Perhaps most importantly in this regard, finding an appropriate handlebar stack and reach cannot be done well if a proper saddle height is not established first.
Adapting to New Positions
As the bike fit industry increasingly shifts towards more moderate saddle heights (compared to the past) one of the biggest challenges riders experience is adapting from their previously over-extended position. One of the human body’s greatest strengths, and in this case challenges, is its ability to adapt. The longer a rider puts themselves in a given position, the more challenging it becomes to change it. This challenge is particularly present when addressing saddle height changes.
A tall saddle position has one key impact that the body seems to hang on to, knee extension angle. As saddle height is increased, the knee angle becomes more open throughout the pedal stroke. In extreme situations (which are more common than one might think) excessive saddle height also requires the rider to point their toe at the bottom of the pedal stroke, resulting in both an open knee angle and ankle angle.
Lowering the saddle often prompts a response from the body which seeks to preserve the open knee angle that it has grown accustomed to. It accomplishes this by continuing to drop the rider's heel, particularly at the bottom of the pedal stroke.
When trying to establish an appropriate saddle height for a rider, this compensation poses an issue, as knee angle is a helpful tool to identify saddle height range. In these situations, even though the saddle is being dropped and the knee angle should be closing, the body is instead maintaining the knee angle by compensating at the ankle (often well below where the heel would naturally sit). This form of ankling, or heel dropping, can result in what seems to be a never ending cycle of saddle height reductions, as the fitter waits for the knee angle to respond to the adjustments.
It is often better for riders to start from a lower saddle position and raise it to the appropriate height, rather than starting from a higher saddle position and lowering it. Through experience, this approach has shown to be much easier for riders to adapt both mentally and physically.
Perhaps more importantly, taking time to adapt to a new position in increments is often the best way to counteract this type of compensation. For some riders, who have spent years in an overextended position, may need to spend time (3-4 rides) riding in 1-2 intermediate positions before they can settle in to a final position that is more biomechanically sound. This process can often result in some muscular discomfort, as the new positions alter deeply ingrained muscle recruitment patterns. A loss of power and even cramping can be experienced through this process as the body adapts. This is often a challenging and counterintuitive process for the rider, as bike fit should improve your experience on the bike.
Our Pro Plan was designed specifically to give you the time needed to adapt to new positions. Changing your fit can be a slow process and taking that time to settle into a new position is an important part of improving your outcomes. Start your fit journey here!