Blisters on the palms of hands of mountain bikers are a very common occurrence. Often the weight distribution is towards the handlebars. Especially when riding downhill sections when the butt comes off the saddle. But even with long, and heavy impacts on your hands, blisters can be avoided altogether.
To prevent blisters when mountain biking, loosen your grip on the handlebars. Be sure that your body position is good and that the grips and brake levers are set up well for you. Additionally, palm protectors and form-fitting gloves help to reduce blisters and to build calluses on your palms.
Your hands and feet are the only contact points with the bike, getting rattled along the way. They’re also what’s helping you control your bike. And if your hands can’t grip the handlebar well anymore because of pain, the ride comes to a sudden stop. Or at least the joy does.
By the way, I will not be going into how to prevent hand fatigue from mountain biking. That’s a separate issue with different (and some overlapping) reasons than blisters and calluses.
The causes of blisters and calluses on the mountain bikers’ palms
Pretty much any mountain biker, who has ridden for extended periods of time or multiple days in a row has experienced either calluses or blisters on their hands. Both are caused by friction between hands and grips. They’re your body’s method of protecting the skin beneath.
When mountain biking, this constant friction is a normal part of the sport but is aggravated by wet, loose-fitting gloves, wrong grips, wrong body and hand position, bad suspension settings or too much force on the grip. The likelihood of developing blisters is generally higher on rainy or humid days. That’s why you’ll notice blisters forming after particularly long races or on hot and humid days.
That being said, blisters aren’t an entirely bad sign. In fact, blisters and especially calluses are your body’s way of protection. In the areas of the skin exposed to friction – on the palm of your hand that’s the folds in the skin – skin layers start to separate from each other. The gap is filled with fluid which acts as a buffer.
And that stuff hurts and leads to hand injuries. That’s the big difference between blisters and calluses – two very different issues. Calluses are formed for similar reasons, but on hands more used to abuse. They make the skin harder and tougher, rather than softer and squishy. Calluses are a good sign, and something most mountain bikers have when riding regularly.
With that difference clarified, let’s get into how to avoid blisters.
Fork suspension setup
Nothing in this article is going to help if your bike doesn’t work as it should. It leads to many more problems like increased feedback and rattle through the handlebar to hand fatigue, arm pump and of course too tight of a grip with your hands – a cause for blisters in itself.
One common issue here is slow rebound. The reason for the worst blisters I ever had. They were the size of a Dollar or Euro coin in the middle of my palm. Those blisters were nasty and painful and kept me off the bike for weeks.
Similarly, too harsh of a suspension setting (too much compression or not enough sag), leads to basically the same issue. Here the fork doesn’t even get to its mid-stroke, staying up in the suspension travel only utilizing little of its capability.
The reason for hand injuries is that the fork keeps getting pushed down into its suspension travel without rebounding. Or it stays in the beginning of the stroke. Either way, there’s no chance to actually absorb impacts anymore and everything is directly transferred to your hands.
Body position on the bike
With the hands being one of the few body parts actually in contact with the bike, how they are positioned translates to the rest of the body position while riding. This is exaggerated when standing up and even more so when riding downhill when more load is put through arms and hands.
One very quick and easy way to help with blistering and hand pain, in general, is adjusting the brake lever angle. This actually dictates the hand and arm position to a large degree. If you have them rotated down or up too much, you end up with a weaker hand position overall and all the weight going through vulnerable parts of your hand. Look to have your hand, wrist and arm in line for a powerful position.
Another one is the handlebar position or bar-roll as it’s called. A mountain bike handlebar is never a straight pipe but angled and bent in very specific ways. Similar to brake lever angle, when viewed from the side, the handlebar should point in the same direction as your hands and arms when in riding position.
Handlebar width also plays a role here. Too wide means uneven weight distribution and leads to more pressure on the outside of the palms. Too narrow handlebars are a rare thing now, but are equally bad for ergonomics and handling.
And then there’s the saddle position. Sometimes if the saddle nose is tipped down, your weight gets distributed towards the front and you place too much weight on your hands. You should be able to take your hands off the bars and support yourself with your core and legs only. If you take your hands off and feel like you’re going to fall forward, adjust your tilt until you’re stable on the saddle.
But don’t take only my words for it. Here’s downhill world cup legend Aaron Gwin explaining handlebar setup for mountain biking and how it translates to body position and power transfer:
Softer, less abrasive grips
Of course, the bike part actually in touch with both hands is worth a closer look. Like tire compounds, rubber grips can be had in various shapes and levels of firmness. And like tire sizes, the right grip diameter is a big part of the interaction with your hands. Another key feature is the grip pattern. Like the tread pattern of an MTB tire, it’s designed to provide certain traction characteristics. I found having no waffle patterns or ridges in the palm area helps tremendously with sore hands, blisters, and calluses.
Ideally, it should be sized so that the skin on the palm of your hand doesn’t create more folds than necessary but is also easy and energy-saving enough to hold.
The harder, thinner grips are usually great for rider feedback, but also hard on hands – like the Raceface Half Nelson grips I had for a short time. Now run the ODI grip models AG1 on my enduro and the slightly thicker, softer AG2 on my downhill bike.
As a side note, I heard from some riders that ergonomic grips lead to more sore hands and hot spots that get blisters. I’m one of them, having used Ergon ones. So for some hands or riding positions or riding styles, ergonomic grips may do more harm than good. Try before you buy.
The right gloves
If you decide to ride with gloves (which I personally recommend for safety reasons if nothing else), make sure they are of the well-fitting category. Too loose ones lead to your hands sliding around in them creating unnecessary friction.
So, if in doubt, go for the smaller glove size. A tighter fit means less movement and wiggle room. They eventually will wear out a little anyway, but an overall good fit helps with reduced hot spots and blisters from the glove rubbing on the hand.
That’s how I decided on my now favorite gloves for downhill mountain biking, with a very tough palm material and padding on the thumb. To be honest, they are not the thinnest I ever had, but in combination with thicker, softer grips I’ve never had fewer hand issues.
I would stay away from fingerless gloves entirely. They may not be as hot, sure, but also don’t fit as well as a regular glove can. Meaning fingerless ones move around more leading to unnecessary abrasion.
Also, dry gloves are preferable to wet ones. But sometimes you can’t decide here with weather and sweat part of the equation. So, if you can, hang them out to dry during your breaks throughout the day.
Palm protectors or glove liners
A piece of thin foam is actually a great preventative measure against roughed-up hands. It may not look like much, but palm protectors significantly reduce the feedback through your hands. Especially the vibration through the handlebars.
There are a couple of brands offering them. I got a pair from O’Neal but other brands like Risk Racing have pretty much the same thing: thing foam with holes to keep it in place. Nothing fancy, but it works like a charm!
Palm protectors will affect the perceived grip diameter since another 1 mm layer between grip and hand. So it will most likely fit within any glove, but change the feeling you get. That’s why I don’t ride with a glove liner all the time, only when I need to.
And if that isn’t enough, or if you rather not have a protective layer covering your entire hand but only the affected parts, there are blister plasters. The ones usually used on feet and heels.
I like to cut them into the desired shape like strips to cover the affected areas on your hands. This works both as a preventative measure and reactive measure, if you’re already developing blisters.
I’ve used “Compeed” blister bandaids a number of times now by just cutting a regular heel plaster in half to distribute between my upper palms. But there are lots of other good brands, some even having slimmer ones included. No cutting required.
And for the true hacks among us: just use a bit of duct tape. It does a similar job – namely, rub against the grip so your skin doesn’t – but is not as comfy and also sticks way better. So have fun getting it off again.
I know, weight training in a gym may not be that sexy. And besides, cycling is a form of exercise anyway.
Lifting weights or doing bodyweight exercises regularly may not be that fun.
But you know what’s even less fun? Ending a mountain bike ride early because of weak hands.
That’s my motto, especially as preparation during the winter months. Particularly for grip strength, my favorite exercises are kettlebell swings, deadlifts, pull-ups, power cleans, farmers walks, and inverted rows. Or dead hangs if you’re a masochist.
As an added bonus for toughening up hands, barbel use curled grips, similar to MTB grips, but – you know – out of steel.
For anyone interested in improving their fitness, I even created a mountain biker’s training guide for gym muffs and gym rats where I share the exercises and routines I myself do to prepare for the MTB season as an amateur rider.
Time on the bike
This is probably the most underrated tip of them all. Assuming you have your bike setup and body position in order. Blisters on the thumb are a common indication of a grip too tight, resulting from a tense rider or wrong bike setup.
Even experienced riders like myself have to contend with unusually many and big blisters at the start of every season. Especially when you’re really completely off any bike for a couple of months. Or even just weeks for that matter!
One reason is because the hands actually get softer, not used to the abuse anymore.
But even more so is the comfort on the bike. Knowing when to grip hard and when to let loose a bit more. Uncomfortable or inexperienced riders tense up for the entire time, instead of for the few times a tight grip is actually worth it.
The tension of your body should come from your core and legs, not your arms and hands. But keeping your arms and hands light and loose is easier said than done. There is no way around actual time in the saddle and getting familiar with your equipment and the trails.
It’s not fast, but the best long-term solution against blisters.