When talking about cleat position, several things need to be kept in mind.
No. 1 is that most of the advice you will see in print recommends that the cleat be positioned so that the ball of the foot is over the pedal axle. More specifically, this means that the cleat should be placed so that the centre of the 1st MTP joint (base knuckle of the big toe) is positioned over the centre of the pedal axle with crank arm forward and horizontal and shoe in pedal level, as this is the convention for measuring cleat position. This is arguable advice at best and I will explain why below.
No. 2 is that while the foot is a lever, it is not an inherently efficient lever because the fulcrum or pivot of the lever is back at the ankle. That means the longer the effective lever length, or in other words the further forward the cleat position relative to foot in shoe, the greater the effort required of the lower leg muscles (mainly gastrocs and soleus; ie, calves) to stabilise foot (and ankle) while pedaling. Bear in mind that much of this effort is not contributing directly to propelling the bike but merely to stabilising foot and ankle. Conversely, the further rearward the cleat position, or in effect the shorter the foot as a lever, the less work the muscles of the lower leg are required to do to maintain stability of foot on pedal.
No. 3 is that under significant loads per pedal stroke (forcing a gear a bit) , all but a tiny fraction of riders drop their heels more relative to their individual pedaling technique (heel dropping; run of the mill; toe down etc) than they do at lesser loads.
And lastly, No. 4. When deciding on a cleat position you need to know what type of riding is intended and for what duration and at what intensity. Below are three views about how to determine cleat position. Each are effective and which one you should choose depends on on what your priorities are on the bike. A t the end of this post will be advice to help you determine which method is best for you.
Firstly, an explanatory note: Method 1 and Method 2 I would group as “Modified Forefoot” cleat positioning. Method 3 came to my attention after many email conversations with and a subsequent visit by Gotz Heine.
METHOD NO. 1
So what is wrong with ball of the foot over the pedal axle (hereafter referred to as BOFOPA)?
Here’s a simple thought experiment. Firstly, I assume that no one reading this would advocate placing the cleat so that it is further forward than BOFOPA?
Proceeding on that assumption, lets position the cleat at BOFOPA and ask the rider to perform some efforts with significant loads per pedal stroke. Like riding up a hill forcing the gear a bit or accelerating a big gear while staying seated. All riders do these things from time to time. Under these and similar conditions, the rider will drop their heel more than they do at lighter loads.
Where now is the ball of the foot?
It is not centred over the pedal axle. It has rotated back somewhat because of the increased drop of the heel. This means that BOFOPA is not attainable under significant load when the rider most needs it. To maintain BOFOPA with the heel drop that occurs under any real load, the ball of the foot needs to be in front of the pedal axle as usually measured to be over it when pushing really hard. I would go further and say for best sustainable performance, the centre of the ball of the foot (1st MTP joint) should be in front of the pedal axle even with a significant heel drop. (Note: a more detailed explanation of why can be found under the heading Cleat Position in this post) How far in front depends on the size of the shoe and the degree of heel drop. Some general recommendations follow below. These are based on trial and error testing on thousands of subjects over many years. They are general recommendations for those that want simple answers to a complex question, but are not to be considered specific to any individual. Long experience has shown me that they will work for some level of benefit for the vast majority of performance oriented riders.
GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ACHIEVING BETTER THAN BOFOPA UNDER SIGNIFICANT LOAD.
Shoe size 36 – 38: Centre of ball of foot 7 – 9 mm in front of the centre of the pedal axle
Shoe sizes 39 – 41: 8 – 10 mm in front
Shoe sizes 42 – 43: 9 – 11 mm in front
Shoe sizes 44 – 45: 10 – 12 mm in front
Shoe sizes 46 – 47: 11 – 14 mm front
Shoe sizes 48 – 50: 12 – 16 mm in front
All measured with the shoe leveled from where the sole joins the upper under mid heel to where the sole joins the upper at the area of cleat attachment. One caveat –
- The above table is for road and mtb riders of average technique. Exceptional heel droppers will need their cleats further back again. Exceptional toe droppers will not need their cleats quite as far back. Crit riders and those who need to optimise their sprinting abilities should use the lower end of the scale. Eg. size 42/43 shoe recommendation of BOF 9 – 11 mm in front of pedal axle, use 9mm. And riders who want to optimise their ability to sustain an effort (riders who do the occasional TT but don’t want to give up their sprinting ability) should opt for the higher end of the scale of recommendation. Eg, for the same example of shoe size 42/43, use 11mm.
If you choose to apply the recommendations above, you need to be able to find out exactly where the centre of the ball of the foot is and then mark that point on the shoe. This link will give you most of the information that you will need to do that.
METHOD NO. 2
Here’s another thought experiment. Most (I hope all) would agree that it is a good idea to spread the pedaling pressure on the foot over the largest area to lessen the likelihood of hotspots or pain developing. If you agree with that, why is the focus of the literature on BOFOPA?
Why pick the 1st MTP joint (ball of foot)?
Why not pick the 3rd or the 5th or whichever other one you choose?
I think that somewhere along the way, the mechanics of walking and running were mistakenly applied to cycling. When we walk, we strike the ground with the outside of the rear foot (which is why the outside rear of the heels of your work shoes show more wear than the the rest of the shoe heel) and progressively roll in until we toe off on the inside edge of the forefoot. Do this as a species for several million years and evolution dictates that the ball of the foot becomes the largest of the MTP joints because it is the most heavily loaded on the toe off part of the stride. The problem here is that we have evolved to walk and run, not to cycle and cycling foot mechanics differ from walking foot mechanics substantially. As measured from the heel, the MTP joints are all at different distances from the heel with huge individual variation as to the relative placement of the 5 joints. So to spread the load would it not be better to try and find a mid point amongst the MTP joints?
I find this a persuasive argument and think it reasonable to answer yes. If you agree, then the best way to determine where to place the foot over the pedal is as follows.
- Mark the joint space of the Ist and 5th MTP joinst as described here
- Find a hard surface and stand with your heels hard back against the base of a wall.
- Place a 300 ml steel rule against the wall between your feet so that the long axis of the rule faces away from the wall.
- Have a helper record the distance from wall to the centre of the Ist MTP joint on each foot using the rule as a reference .
- Have a helper record the distance from the wall for the 5th MTP joint. for each foot.
- Deduct the distance from the wall of the 5th MTP joint from the distance from the wall of the 1st MTP joint. An example might be 182mm minus 154mm = 28mm.
- Halve that number (in the example above; 14mm)
- Set the cleat position so that the centre of the 1st MTP joint is 14mm (or whatever number you calculate as being appropriate to you) in front of the pedal axle as measured in the usual manner described near the start of this post.
- Don’t be surprised if you get a slightly different number for each foot.
In most cases, this will result in a more rearward cleat position than Method 1. In a minority it will be a more forward cleat position. What result you get will be determined by your foot proportions rather than a more generic approach as used in Method 1. What is also clear using this method is that 2 riders with similar sized feet can come up with quite different numbers because of individual differences as to where the 1st and 5th MTP joints are placed relative to the heel. More advice on the pros and cons of each approach later.
If using Method 2 , don’t necessarily expect the numbers to be the same for each foot. Most people have feet with some variance in length and often in proportions as well. If you have any doubt about the result of this exercise, check and recheck your joint centre markings and calculations until you have certainty. The (philosophical) benefit of Method 2 is that it is a more individual approach than Method 1 because it takes into account individual differences in foot proportions.
METHOD No. 3
Here we enter a whole new world, that of Midfoot cleat position. Midfoot cleat position is when the cleat is positioned so that the Tarsometatarsal (TMT) joints are over the centre of the pedal axle. The TMT joints are the joints between the two rows of bones drawn on the foot below.
Don’t think of this as being like Method 1 or 2 but more so, because it is not. As an example a rider with average foot proportions in say size 44 would have to move the cleat back 40 – 50mm further on the shoe than would be the case with Method 1.
I first heard about Midfoot cleat position from the gent who is most responsible for developing it and popularising it in the Western world, Gotz Heine (pronouned Gertz Hy neh). Gotz is an ex pro, chiropractor, naturopath, ex team director and currently a shoe maker. The idea behind midfoot cleat position is to take the idea of an inherently stable foot on pedal to the nth degree. When the cleat is positioned this way, ankle movement is reduced substantially but not eliminated, and the load on the calves is reduced enormously. This means that the lower leg becomes more of a connecting rod than a stabilising mechanism which in turn frees up blood flow and oxygen to be used elsewhere.
What is also clear using torque analysis is that for a given power output at a given rpm, the torque peak for each pedal stroke is lower but torque is applied for more degrees of crank arc than is possible with forefoot cleat position. So in essence, for a given power output and cadence the rider is able to apply force for longer per pedal stroke but does not have to contract muscles as hard. Typically the difference in torque peak is 10%. So if looking at a torque line graph, the peak is lower but the trough is higher for the same total torque applied per stroke as would be the case with forefoot cleat position.
Torque = pressure applied to the pedal x crank arm length
Power = torque x rpm
So what happens with riders who try Midfoot cleat position?
My experience is that the large majority of experimenters stick with it.
The effect on performance varies from rider to rider. I know one rider (multiple elite State and National TT Championship winner) who improved his PB on the State Championship TT course (43kms) by 3 minutes with no other change but moving to Midfoot cleat position and making the positional changes necessary to do that. Unfortunately that is exceptional and atypical. What is more common is that Midfoot riders find that they recover more quickly from hard rides and from hard efforts within rides. Another typical comment is that when a rider feels they are riding right at their limit, they take noticeably longer to crack. Many also find that they can both push a harder gear or maintain a higher cadence when necessary with ease.
There is a down side though. I’ve tried to summarise the pros and cons below.
1. Better ability to sustain an effort. The longer and harder the effort, the more apparent this becomes for most.
2. Quicker recovery
3. Much better ability for triathletes to run off the bike.
4. Heart rate will end up at what would be expected for a given power output but takes longer to rise at the start of a ride.
5. The calves, the smallest muscle in the pedaling kinetic chain and the furthest from the torso and thus, the most affected by vascular compression, are largely taken out of the picture. The glutes, hamstrings and quads are more heavily loaded but are the largest and most powerful muscle groups we have and cope easily.
1. Biomac (Gotz Heine) is the only one making production Midfoot compatible shoes. Biomac also offer a custom option. I believe some other custom shoe makers also offer it as an option. No large manufacturer makes a midfoot compatible shoe. Until that happens, shoes need to be modifed and new eyelets fitted which is not possible on most road production shoes unless you use a 2 bolt mtb pedal. It is possible with ease on Shimano’s current road shoes with a Speedplay cleat.
2. Seat needs to drop by 25 – 40mm depending on the effect on the riders ankle movement. Bars will need to drop as well.
3. Huge toe overlap, though not an issue unless track standing or performing walking pace U turns.
4. Off the seat climbing initially feels strange (it is this which will make the rider realise how much they are used to using ankle movement with forefoot cleat position) and ability to jump in a sprint will suffer (though not top speed). Both of these issues can be eliminated or near eliminated by using Rotor Q rings on Position 4 or 5.
5. While 50kms on midfoot is enough to convince most to continue with it, it does take a week or 3 to fine tune matters like seat and bar height because of ongoing adaptations occurring in the riders pedalling technique.
Lastly, if Midfoot works well, why not move the cleat back even further?
Because for able bodied riders, ankle movement is reduced to the point where the pedaling action becomes more like a step machine than cycling, and fluency of technique is hard to achieve.
WHICH METHOD TO USE?
Firstly, my experience is that the great majority of riders have no accurate idea of what their cleat position is. If you are serious about your cycling, it is a good idea to find out. This post explains how to determine where the centre of the 1st mtp joint is and mark it on the shoe to use as a reference point. The explanatory note at the end of this post will give you the rest of the info that you need.
As to the answer to the heading question above, that lies in the relative priority that an individual places on sprinting off the seat vs riding on the seat.
When sprinting off the seat, a rider moves forward over the bottom bracket and can apply more force than in seated riding because body weight is being added to the muscular force generated by the legs. Being closer to the axis of rotation of the cranks, there is potentially a much larger low leverage ‘ dead zone’ either side of top dead centre (TDC) and bottom dead centre (BDC) in the pedal stroke than there is on a UCI legal bike when seated. The solution to this ‘dead zone’ problem that all sprinters autonomically adopt is to yank the bottom heel upward forcefully at or just after BDC which in turns helps the top foot over TDC. The further forward the cleat position relative to foot in shoe (up to a point), the easier this process is and the better the individual can sprint off the seat – all other things being equal.
However, if you try sustaining an effort with BOFOPA or further forward, particularly on a climb or in a big gear with the extra heel drop that generally occurs when with those activities , the cleat position that maximises your sprint will likely disappoint for reasons outlined at the start of this post.
Method 1 is tried and true and I have applied it to thousands of riders as the best compromise for all round performance riding. That is good ability to get the rider to the end of a race over varied terrain and still effectively sprint at the end. This is for the person who rides local crits, some road racing or mtb racing, maybe a few TT’s or triathlons and so on. In other words someone who has a varied riding ‘profile’ and wants to be effective at most things that can be done on a bike. It is also a much better introduction to an effective cleat position than BOFOPA for those who don’t want the bother with the ‘complication’ of Method 2 or Method 3.
Method 2 is a refinement of Method 1 but is not without ‘traps’. One of the traps is that depending on foot proportions, more often than not (there are exceptions) Method 2 will yield a more rearward cleat position again than Method1. If it does in your case, it is an ideal method for what I term ‘serious social riders’; TT riders, Audax riders, touring riders, or endurance riders. If following Method 2 gives a result of less foot over the pedal than Method 1, give it a try, but depending on what you are doing on a bike, your calves might be a limiting factor and Method 1 a better solution for this minority.
Method 3, midfoot is where a bit of commitment is needed in either buying custom shoes or in modifying existing ones, in toe overlap and other matters. It is also the cleat position that is far and away the best if the rider’s requirement is long, sustained performance at high or low intensity. It is no accident that a disproportionate number of successful RAAM riders use a midfoot cleat position. It is also the position I would advise as being the best for triathlon (a study confirming this will be made public soon) because the much lower loading on the calves leads to increased performance when running off the bike. Specialist TT riders should investigate it too. This is not the best cleat position if you are a specialist crit rider who needs to sprint frequently to close gaps etc.
A lot of people roll their eyes or shake their heads when the subject of Midfoot cleat position comes up. All I will say is that if you have tried it, your opinion is valid whether you enjoyed or disliked the experience. If you haven’t tried it, you don’t have an informed opinion. You are speculating.
Why the focus on reducing load on the calves?
When we push on the pedals the common simple view is that the gluteals extend the hip and the quadriceps extend the knee. That is not quite accurate. The hamstrings play a role in assisting the glutes and in controlling the rate of contraction of the quads. All you have to do is place a hand in the belly of your hamstrings while pedaling to feel that the hamstrings are contracting on the down stroke even though the muscle group is extending as a whole. The hamstring tendons cross the knee joint attaching to both the tibia and fibula . Below the knee the gastrocnemius (major bulk of the calves) tendons cross the knee and attach to the femur. Because both the hamstrings and gastrocs work across the knee, the net effect of contraction in both is help the quads extend the knee. But the further forward the cleats relative to foot in shoe, the harder the calves (gastrocs and soleus) have to also work to help stablilise ankle and foot. My working theory, (I call it this because it seems to hold up empirically) is that when the calves are loaded heavily enough for long enough, they are the first muscle group involved in the pedaling action to ‘give up’ which affects pedaling action in a variety of ways. One of them being the ‘dead’ quads feeling familiar to many who have their cleats too far forward.
All the cleat positioning methods above have a positive effect on reducing the load on the calves and giving a much more solid feel to foot on pedal than BOFOPA.. Which one you choose will depend on your interest in the subject and what kind of riding you prioritise. Which one I choose for a client depends on what their needs are, what type of riding profile they have and how interested they are in experimenting. Some general guidance:
Method 1 is ideal for road, criterium and mtb racing.
Method 2 is ideal for TT, Triathlon, Audax, serious social riding, recreational riding or any event where there tends not be sudden changes of pace.
Method 3 is ideal for any event requiring sustained effort, whether of high or low intensity. TT, Triathlon, Audax, long road races and serious social riding.
There are exceptions but which one you choose is up to you.
Thank you for reading.
Explanatory note: If you have read “Why Bikefitters Shouldn’t Chew Their Nails” and determined a reference mark for the centre of the ball of the foot on your shoes using the method outlined in that post; the rest of the procedure for placing your cleats (once you’ve determined where you want them) is as follows.
1. Place your bike on an indoor trainer and pedal for 10 minutes, warming up until you are riding with reasonable load. The load needs to be heavy enough for you to be working hard but without sacrificing technique. Observe the angle of your feet on the pedals. It may be toe in, toe out or straight ahead. It may vary between feet. Make a mental note of that angle.
2. Remove your shoes and place one of them in the pedal. Make sure that crank arm is forward and horizontal. Viewing from the opposite side of the bike (so that you can see the pen mark on the shoe and its’ relationship to the pedal axle), make sure that the shoe is leveled between where the sole joins the upper at mid heel, and where the sole joins the upper underneath the ball of the foot. With many shoes this will give the appearance of being heel down but what we are trying to achieve is leveling the foot inside the shoe. Most shoes have a ‘heel lift’ in the shoe last shape and a sole that is thickens underneath the cleat mounting area, so the heel will appear to be down when the foot is level.
3. Again viewing from the opposite side of the bike, use a T square or rule held vertically, to determine where the pen mark indicating the centre of the ball of the foot is in relation to the centre of the pedal axle. Make sure that the shoe is being held in the pedal at the approximate rotational angle that you observed from above when pedaling under load. Measure the axle centre to pen mark distance and adjust forwards or backwards as necessary until you achieve the desired placement.
4. Repeats steps 2 and 3with the other shoe.
5. Now go for a ride and find a clear stretch of road without traffic or obstacles, accelerate to at least 30 – 35 km/h and stop pedaling with the right foot forward. Take care to keep your foot from swiveling as you stop pedaling. With the foot forward, attempt to turn the heel inwards. Is there available free play?
If not, stop and adjust the angle of the cleat. Remember: if you want your heel to move in, the nose of the cleat needs to point in towards the centre line of the bike.
If there was inward movement, continue again, accelerate to 30 – 35 km/h, stop pedaling again and attempt to move your heel outwards. Is there available freeplay?
If not, stop and adjust the angle of the cleat. Remember: if you want to move your heel outward, the nose of the cleat needs to point more outwards from the centre line of the bike.
Keep repeating this until under load, you foot position angle on the cleat allows you free movement either side of where your foot naturally wants to sit under load.
6. Repeat step 5 on the left side.
Further Explanatory note: Some pedal systems, notably Shimano SPD – SL with yellow tipped cleat and Look Keo with grey cleat have so little rotational adjustment range that the above process can be frustrating and time consuming. With Look Keo’s, if this is a problem, it is cheap insurance to use the red cleats instead of the grey cleats as the red version have double the rotational movement. With the SPD –SL’s, there is no extra free play option. The bottom line is that you need to be patient to get the best result possible.
7. Ideally, the centre of the midfoot should be below the centre of the knee as the knee extends. If your hips are noticeably naturally externally or internally rotated (that is toes pointing out or toes pointing in) to a large degree while pedaling, this can be hard to achieve with most three bolt pedal systems, particularly the 2 mentioned above as angling the cleat also uses up the potential to move the cleat across the shoe. If you develop problems because of this, I would suggest Speedplay pedals because they are the only road pedal that separates the rotational and lateral cleat adjustment functions. Additonally, Speedplay make 5 different axle lengths which between them will accommodate most riders needs.
COMFORT + EFFICIENCY = PERFORMANCE
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