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Where your cleats sit on the bottom of your shoe is a topic of bike fitting that is widely debated with a large array of opinions about the various ways in which they can be aligned to reduce the risk of injury and maxmise power transfer.
When having your bike fitted, it is important to remember that you only touch the bike in three locations and these 3 contact points are designed to put your body in a position in space which should maximise your goals, whatever they may be. The cleats as one of these 3 points is arguably the most important contact point, with every watt you produce, being transferred through what is ultimately a very small surface area. With this in mind, the most important factor in setting up a cleat, is to promote stability through the lower limbs. Without this stability, your body will have to compensate and this will ultimately lead to a greater risk of injury in the feet, ankles, knees, hips or lower back.
So how do we get this stability? Understanding the basic physiology of the foot and the pedal stroke is paramount to this process. There are three basic ways you can adjust a cleat and then some alternative measures beyond that.
The effects of cleat for/aft is based on Archimedes “Law of Levers”. The primary muscle involved in this process is the calf. Simply put, the calf provides a very small portion of our overall propulsion on the bike and largely keeps our foot stable and allows us to transfer power produced in gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps. If you were to have your cleat positioned on the very toe of your shoe, the calf activation is increased. If you had the cleat positioned on your heel, you would no longer require the calf muscle.
Applying this practically will depend on your event. If you’re a track sprinter where your event is over in a matter of seconds and maximal muscle activation is paramount, pushing the cleat forwards will enable this. If you’re a triathlete who needs to sit in an aero-tuck position for 180km and then run a marathon off the bike, then preservation of your calf muscles is crucial so pulling the cleats rearwards can help. Similarly, if you have ever had calf or achilles injuries then having your cleats rearwards on your shoe can help to minimise calf activation and prevent a recurrence of your injury. (Case in point: note Daniella Ryf's mid-foot cleat position that she used to ride her way to an Ironman World Championship in 2015)
The angle with which your cleat faces in relation to the shoe is the most important factor in creating stability. One common theme in cycling is the need to create a perfect linear motion of the knee in order to maximise power transfer. This approach can have dire effects on your knee should your biomechanics not be suited to that perfect linear motion. The first aim of cleat angle should be to align the cleat in a position that allows your biomechanics to operate in a movement pattern that produces no additional torque on the knee joint. Forcing the knee into a position that is not sustainable is asking for injury. In this step we want to promote stability so allowing for a natural foot angle when applying force should be our goal. If you find you don’t have that perfect linear knee tracking on your bike after setting up your cleat to promote maximum stability then there is a good chance you may have tightness or imbalance in your muscles that are causing this and this is where you need to focus your efforts, alternatively, your biomechanics may not be suited to that perfectly linear tracking pattern and there is nothing wrong with that.
Foot Support, Cleat Wedges and Shims?
Starting with shims, these are designed to negate leg length differences and should only be used when it is a “known” leg length difference. That means a leg that has been x-rayed and measured by a trained professional. Use shims in your shoes with extreme caution. If your leg length difference is due to a muscle imbalance (which is more often the case) then you’re applying a band-aid fix to a bigger problem which needs to be properly addressed.
Another common tool that is used in bike fitting is a varus or valgus cleat wedge. These plastic wedges sit between the shoe and cleat and are often used to create the linear knee tracking pattern and provide support to pronators. As far as I’m concerned, these are an absolute waste of time and pose more potential damage to you as a rider than they could possibly ever fix.
Now to illustrate this - imagine doing a 1-repetition maximum squat while barefoot (don’t actually try to do this) and you will be able to lift ‘X’ kg. Now exaggerate the effects of a cleat wedge and try to repeat a squat of the same weight, however doing this while standing on an angled surface. My guess is your ability to produce power will not be that great. So what is the solution? If you need foot support, then customised inner soles and footbeds within the shoe can be a good solution, but make sure all support being provided is within the shoe. Anything outside of the shoe is just going to place the shoe in an unnatural angle that will create pressure on your ankles and knees that doesn’t need to be there.
In summary - cleat position on the bike is absolutely paramount to injury prevention and it’s very easy to get wrong, however follow a few basic rules, keep it simple and always aim for creating a natural and stable platform for you to transfer power and you’re well on your way to the foundations of injury free cycling.