Feet in Cycling
Updated: Jul 8, 2021
Our feet are made up of a total of 52 bones – 26 in each foot – and that is one quarter of the total number of bones in the entire human body. It is no wonder that there is a profession, i.e. podiatry, in charge of looking after our feet.
The biomechanics (or mechanical structure and function) of the foot is complex due to the number of joints involved, and our feet function quite differently in a weight-bearing versus a non-weight-bearing setting. In a weight-bearing activity such as walking or running, there are three phases completing the cycle of the foot going from heel to toe. During a non-weight-bearing activity such as cycling, the foot does not go through these three phases of a gait cycle.
In cycling, the foot is often in a horizontal or plantarflexed position (toes pointing down). Quite commonly, cycling shoes come with soles allowing for cleats to be attached and clipped in to bike pedals. These pedal systems allow the shoe to be firmly held onto the pedal, with the forefoot (or “ball of the foot”) as the main contact point between the foot and the shoe during cycling. Let’s hold that thought there for now and talk about cycling shoes for a moment.
The anatomy of a cycling shoe includes three important components: the sole, closure mechanism and heel counter.
Quite different to a walking and/or running shoe, it would be recommended that a cycling shoe has a stiff sole throughout the length of the shoe to minimise flexing, which is mostly beneficial for power transfer, but also helpful in preventing unwanted foot movement WITH the shoe. The lesser flex the shoe allows, the lesser flex the foot has to undergo.
A good closure mechanism enables the foot to be securely fixed inside the shoe. It would be disadvantageous to have any unwanted foot movement INSIDE the shoe. Similar to a walking shoe, any extra movement within a shoe can fatigue the intrinsic muscles of our feet. Lace-ups are the recommended choice due to an evenly-spread pressure over the top of the foot. BOA cord fastenings, ratchet buckles and Velcro straps are other available types of closure mechanisms.
My favourite line for all my patients who I give footwear advice to is this, “make sure the heel counter is firm”. Place two fingers on the back of the heel counter and push down – does the heel counter flex easily or do you have to apply a lot of force in order for it to flex only a little? The reason for a firm heel counter is so that your heel does not move from side to side or slip up and down FROM the shoe. A highly mobile heel not only increases your chance of developing blisters, but also increases the chance of fatiguing your leg muscles and intrinsic foot muscles.
Let’s go back now to the main contact point of the foot on the shoe – the forefoot. The forefoot takes on a large amount of pressure from the downward force applied in each pedal stroke. Due to prolonged increased pressure, the nerves become compressed and especially on a long ride, the cyclist may experience burning sensation and/or numbness on the forefoot, and sometimes having the sensation radiating to the toes. A proper shoe fit can alleviate the symptoms in some cases, however, if the problem is unresolved or returns, the underlying cause needs to be addressed.
(Photo credit: Dr Howard Green)
Other lower limb problems that a cyclist can experience is pain in the arch, ankle pain and knee pain. These foot problems may be contributed by the fatiguing of small foot muscles frequently caused by “rolling in” of the foot within a shoe. It is more formally termed as pronation. Rolling out of the foot is termed as supination. Sometimes, these movements can be more pronounced with pre-existing foot deformities, previous structural foot injury and/or poor foot biomechanics including knee alignment problems. You may also experience pain from rubbing of toes and/or feet on the top of the shoe (or shoe upper). Look out for potential pressure areas from your cycling shoes that could be causing the problem.
Cycling foot problems are not uncommon to podiatrists as they can also occur in the non-cycling patient. Due to the foot essentially engaging in only one phase of the gait cycle in cycling, the redistribution of pressure, realignment of the foot and/or foot strengthening exercises can help prevent and treat these common foot problems. If you experience any foot pain or problem, cross-check the three important components of your cycling shoes to the above. In some cases, however, even with the best fitting shoes, the foot still manages to suffer an injury. As with a non-cycling patient, foot orthoses may be required to treat the problem, even if you do not normally use foot orthoses for walking or running activities. A foot assessment and full biomechanical examination, sometimes including a trainer set-up, would be necessary to assess the problem for the appropriate treatment.
Remember that our feet are made up of quite a number of bones and therefore many different nerves, ligaments and muscles, all in a very tight space. In order to have pain-free feet in cycling, make sure you look after them, starting first with good-fitting shoes (on- AND off-cycling).