I have found that discussing saddle height with triathletes is like discussing politics or religion. It can be a controversial subject with many diverse opinions! It seems everyone agrees that saddle height is important, not only for performance gains, but for injury prevention. Too low will not generate full power and too high can lead to knee and back strain.
There are several schools of thought on how to determine saddle height. The first, and probably the simplest, is to get your bike on a trainer, get on and place your heel (without shoes) onto the pedal. Adjust your saddle height until your leg is fully extended while the heel is on the pedal. This is a good way to get a general measurement of your saddle height. Some recommend you do this with bike shoes on, some recommend without. I’m sure that without bike shoes it is more accurate since the heel thickness varies with cycling shoes. While this measurement is widely used by recreational athletes, serious cyclists rarely use this method exclusively.
Another popular method is based on a ratio of your inseam length. In 1978, Claude Genzling measured cyclist’s height and saddle height in the Tour de France and concluded that a saddle height should be .885 of your inseam length. Don’t use your pant size inseam to determine your inseam length. Stand barefoot up against a wall, take a book and place it snugly under your crotch, and mark the top of the book with a pencil on the wall. Measure this mark to the floor, and multiply it by .885. For example, if your measured inseam was exactly 32 inches, your saddle height should be 28.33 inches. Now, from which points on the bike do you determine what that 28.33 inches is? Well it’s from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of the saddle where your crotch will be resting on the saddle. By the way, the bottom bracket is the axis on which your cranks rotate. This is a popular method, but there are 3 potential drawbacks. First, is that this method does not consider your crank length. Longer cranks would obviously more fully extend your leg at the bottom of the stroke. Second, this method does not factor in shoe thickness or even cleat thickness. I suppose you could measure your inseam while wearing your shoes and cleats, but this would probably negate the accuracy of the measurement.
A third method is to base saddle height on the angle at which the knee is bent when fully extended in the stroke. This angle should be between 25 and 30 degrees. This has become more and more popular as the best method to determine saddle height, but it can also be hard to measure without a set of complex tools that include a giant protractor to measure knee angle.
Finally, what I consider to be the best method is to get professionally fitted. It does cost some money (around $100) but it is well worth it. I specifically endorse the FIST system developed by Dan Empfield of Slowtwitch.com. There are many FIST certified bike fitters around the country and you can go to slowtwitch.com to find one in your area. In addition to many other points of measurement, the FIST system uses the knee angle method to determine saddle height.
A couple of other points on saddle height, you can also use the method of trial and error. It’s too high if you’re rocking at high cadence. It’s also too high if you can’t catch the stroke in single leg drill. Saddle height is definitely something you should give some thought to as it can greatly impact your performance in practice and race situations.
David Warden is a 3-time USAT All American and Elite Coach with Joe Friel's TrainingBible coaching. His work has been published in Triathlete and USA Triathlon Life magazines. He is the former Vice-Chair of the USAT Rocky Mountain Region, and the host and producer of the #1 triathlon podcast, Tri Talk and part owner of www.powertri.com.
Knee pain is no stranger to athletes of all kinds. Running, in particular, often gets a bad rap for creating knee pain. However, knee pain isn’t created from running, it ‘s more about the biomechanics while running, cycling, hiking, skiing, and even sitting.
What you do in your daily life makes up your biomechanics. So if you have a desk job, most likely you are stiff and tight in your hips and hamstrings from the continuous habit of sitting. After a long day of sitting, it is challenging to immediately open the hips and lengthen the hamstrings. So if you head out for a run right after a day at work, you will most likely lean your upper body slightly forward to compensate. You may not even feel it until reading this article and begin to notice. You may even simply jet your head out slightly which will have the same affect. Such a slight bend forward will allow the hips and hamstrings to remain tight which then pulls on the knees. It is utterly impossible to lengthen your leg behind oneself with tight hips. So the tight hips and hamstrings, keep the knees slightly bent which increases direct pressure through the knees. So is it really the running, or sitting at the desk all day that brings pressure and pain to the knees? The same goes for avid cyclists and skiers. Both of these activities tighten the hips due to the incredible demand on quadriceps and hamstrings. In fact, cycling can be the worst because you never get to fully extend the leg while spinning. Many specialists suggest cycling will help prevent knee problems. I heartily disagree if you don’t properly stretch after a ride or spin class. In fact, sitting on a bike with the hip area closed for long periods of time not only tightens the hips tremendously but tightens the hamstrings, which directly adds pressure to the knee joint.
Over a period of time, without proper stretching, the knees can begin to feel stiff and painful when you have lost the ability to fully extend your leg. I know, how many times have you been told to stretch? Many. So stretch. It is critical to stretch all the muscles deep in the pelvic area to avoid knee pain. In addition, as I mentioned earlier, it is critical to open up the mid-back, thoracic spine area to keep the knees pain free. Think of the entire body. To notice, feel and become aware of how you feel in your upper body as well as your lower body. Are your shoulders rounded? Does your head feel forward? Are you able to extend your leg fully behind yourself?
There are several ways to stretch effectively. One is to go to a stretch class, or a yoga class. Secondly, you can stretch on your own. To do so, you must make the time; go slow, and be consistent. What is most important is to stretch after the activity whether it's running, skiing, cycling, or just a long day at the office. Here are a few simple “active” stretches you can do at home: