Technical FAQ: Cleat position and shoe science

Lennard Zinn addresses several questions about cycling shoes and cleats in this week's column.

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More on cleat position

Dear Lennard,
I have an extremely high arch and instep. My cleat lies directly below the joint between my big toe and my second toe.

I ride a long time for an older man. But crikey, my feet ache where the cleat sits.
— James

Dear James,
It sounds to me like you would benefit from moving your cleats back. I too have a super high arch and instep (getting into cowboy boots is out of the question, and I almost cannot get my feet into or out of cold ski boots). Moving my cleats back 15mm alleviated most of my pain between my metatarsals.
— Lennard

The science behind shoes

Dear Lennard,
I was just reading your response to a question about moving cleats farther rearward and found your response interesting. I’ve been making my own shoes for several years now (the amateur version of Simmons Racing) and find there is very little out there about the “why” of the mass market shoe.

On to my questions. First, do you know the real why as to why almost all cycling shoes are toed-up? I’ve heard it has to do with old leather shoes that were not nearly as stiff and flattened out when power was transferred to the pedal. Is there a benefit to this foot position? In the very small world of custom shoes, there is a trend (or at least an option) toward a more natural, flat foot position. Do you know if there is a benefit either way? Either in terms of foot health or power production/transfer?

Second, what’s the real deal with stack height? Again, there is very little on the subject other than less is better. The basic principal of adding another axis of movement and power loss for higher stack height makes sense in a theoretical world, but how much is the real impact with high-end products? Let’s say the lowest stack height for a road setup would be Bonts on Speedplays: 11.4mm for the pedal plus adapter and 3.6mm for the shoe; total would be 15mm. Versus a Shimano R550 at ~17mm for pedal plus cleat and then maybe 7-8mm for a lower-end shoe would get you to 25mm. So we’re talking a 10mm difference. Obviously, there is a gain at lowering your whole center of gravity 10mm going with a shorter stack, but what about the actual forces between foot and pedal? And for what it’s worth, I find it interesting that this isn’t a common statistic published with many shoes.

Thanks for any thoughts you may have on either subject and all the responses you put out. Coming from an engineering background, I always enjoy learning the why.
— Dan

Dear Dan,
I don’t know the answer to your questions regarding toed-up cycling shoes.

When it comes to stack height, I find it interesting that few people pay attention to the spindle-to-foot distance anymore. This has at times been a very hotly debated issue, but it’s not currently discussed in cycling circles. When Shimano made Dyna-Drive pedals, it spent considerable advertising money pointing out to people the benefit of the ball of their foot tracing a perfect circle, rather than the odd shape it traces when perched above the pedal spindle.

Being an engineer, you can appreciate evaluating a problem at its limits in order to get some insight into the issue. I did that myself with this just to see what would happen. I attached a piece of a 2X4 atop each of my pedals and tried riding that way, with my feet 3.5 inches higher off the pedals. You should try it. It is very difficult to ride that way and illustrates how much extra work your leg must do to keep your foot atop the pedal, the greater the foot-pedal-spindle distance is. After doing it, I think you will share my opinion that the closer your foot can be to the pedal spindle, the more efficient you will be.
— Lennard

Cleats and shoes

Dear Lennard,
Referencing the cleat position to Thom, I use Crank Brothers road shoe adapters on my road shoes and they work fine. They allow me a great choice of shoe tops while still having only one type of pedals across my bikes.
— Bob

Dear Lennard,
Just a word of caution on moving cleats too far back toward the mid-foot. If you are just spinning, it is not a problem. Standing and climbing could put too much stress on the plantar fascial ligament, causing heel and arch pain. This would be similar to seeing patients that work construction and standing on a ladder all day. They stand with the rung through the midfoot and produce the same symptoms.

Consider yourself lucky that you can pedal hard without problems with your cleats as far back toward the midfoot as you can. Just as many runners who run in barefoot-style sneakers never have symptoms, or construction people that stand on ladders that never have foot problems; not everyone has problems.

The shoe sole may be rigid, i.e. carbon fiber — as is the floor; it’s the weight of the foot on whatever surface it encounters. Even in a rigid-soled shoe for work or cycling, standing with the pedal in the arch can produce symptoms in some. There are predisposed foot types in play here. And everyone has a different style to their cycling: high-cadence spinners, those who stand and mash the big gears, flat terrain, hills, the rider’s weight, etc. I am trying to give a generic warning to those that set their cleats mid-foot that if their foot starts to ache, then the change is not for them.

But in the practice, I do support the notion that recreational cyclists do need to move their cleats back slightly farther than originally thought: possibly 4mm behind the head of the first metatarsal. It works for forefoot problems and it takes tension off the Achilles tendon and posterior muscles of the leg. I have the luxury here in the office to take an x-ray of my foot in my cycling shoes so I can see exactly where all the bones fall over the center marker on the cleats; it makes micro-adjusting the cleats almost perfect.

— Alan G. Shier, D.P.M.
Foot Care & Surgery Center

Dear Lennard,
Regarding rider Justin’s issue with numbness or tingling in the big toe, he might have issues that should be addressed with a podiatrist or orthopedist.

My personal experience with this brought me to an orthopedist specializing in athletic injuries who diagnosed hallux rigidus, an atrophy of the joint at the base of the big toe. In my case, it was caused by walking and exercising with too much pressure over the outside of my foot. It may have been complicated by wearing Specialized shoes with their built-in varus wedge. Treatment involved foot exercises, orthotic footbeds, and making a conscientious effort to stand, walk, and pedal, making the line from the big toe to the heel the primary axis of support and power.

Anyone experiencing foot pain that doesn’t disappear with moderate remediations should see a doctor.
— Eric

Dear Lennard,
This is not a question at all, but a little report for those who may be in the same condition I found myself in. I was diagnosed with bilateral femoroacetabular impingement a little more than a year ago. I used to have a very low handlebar position (18cm drop from saddle to bars), 175cm cranks, all-ahead saddle, and really weak glutes and hamstrings — something I didn’t notice at the time.

I stopped riding as soon as the symptoms appeared. An MRI showed only very light cartilage damage, and I was able to get back to cycling after just two and a half months, with a lot of strength work and a massive change of habits in life in general: get rid of office chairs (stand-up desk is a norm now), large pillow between legs while sleeping, gluteus and hamstring work, supplementation with glucosamine, deep tissue release around iliopsoas, etc. But in order to ride again, I had to make great changes to my bike fit. I’m 183cm and now I ride a 165cm crankset — now I’m a short-crank advocate — and a much taller frame (2018 56cm Allez with 590mm stack and a few spacers with a 130 mm stem). Also, I moved to angled-sole Specialized shoes that help keep my knees from adduction.

I think the most bizarre change was saddle height. Almost 4cm! Then I realized how imbalanced my leg muscles were and how I kept reverberating it by assuming a more aggressive position, using my strong quads and alleviating my (at the time) weak hamstrings.

I’m better than ever now. I’m able to ride a lot, train almost without pain or without pain at all, and I even upgraded my racing license to an upper level. The big problem is my upright position. I can’t ride a lot in the drops or in any aggressive position, so I will never break away alone in a crit or do well in a TT.
— Gabriel

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