What I’ve learned about feet as a bike fitter, or, The Joys of Proprioception!
Studies and my own experience show that 96% off all cyclists feet are improperly aligned with their bikes, decreasing their comfort, efficiency and performance.
A biological concept called PROPRIOCEPTION is the name given to the brain’s awareness of where various parts of the body are in space. Every watt of power that a rider produces is transmitted to the bike via their feet. Unfortunately, less than 1% of riders have clear awareness of what their feet are doing while applying force, unless some form of correction is added inside or outside their cycling shoe. This means that when we ride a bike, our central nervous system is, to varying degrees, ‘guessing’ what out feet are doing. This lack of clarity of neural feedback is a major reason for many negative patterns of compensation that develop in riders, such as pelvic asymmetries, power imbalances between one leg and the other, leg length discrepancies and a host of other issues. Many cycling related issues disappear or significantly moderate once the clarity of feedback from the feet is restored. The more accurately force feedback from the feet is received, the better we perform and reduce the chances for injury.
There are three major forms of correction that can be offered by a qualified and experienced bike fitter:
1) Arch support: every cycling shoe comes with an insole, however, only a tiny fraction of these insoles offer any type of correction….most simply offer a small bit of paddling between the foot and sole of the shoe. The primary means of providing proper Proprioception between foot and brain is the installation of a cycling-specific insole that has significant arch support (even for those with low arches). There are a variety of custom and off-the-shelf options available for cyclists. One of the best that I use frequently are Specialized insoles, particularly the Green (highest arch support) insoles. For $30, these are one of the great bargains in cycling.
2) Wedging: On a bike, every watt of power you produce has to be transmitted to the bike via your feet. You absolutely want the proprioceptive feedback from your feet to be getting through loudly and clearly rather than as background noise in order to perform optimally. This is analogous to being in the center of a sports arena and trying to hear a single voice over the noise of a shouting crowd of 50,000. In addition to proper arch support, the only way the feedback from the feet can be ‘heard’ clearly is if the alignment of foot and ankle is correct. The best way to do this is by using cleat wedges to allow optimal foot cant on the pedal.
3) Shimming: A common issue that I see in the fit room are Leg Length Discrepancies (LLD), meaning one leg performs as if it were shorter than the other. This is a significant imbalance that can cause discomfort or injury if not treated in a timely manner. There are two types of LLD’s: functional and structural. Structural LLD’s (very rare) are the direct result of different length leg bones or significantly asymmetric pelvic structures. Functional LLD’s (dramatically more common) are often related to pelvic rotation along the frontal plane, and are generally the result of inadequate Proprioception between foot and brain. Fortunately, there is a simple way (after careful assessment is done) to treat this via the installation of a Leg Length Shim, which is placed between the sole of the shoe and the cleat. I have been amazed how people “straighten” out once their LLD is correctly addressed.
Final thoughts: Many of the athletes I work with come into the fit studio with a pre-existing after-market insole and/or cleat wedges. Unfortunately, it is the rare cyclist who has these products correctly chosen or properly installed. There are MANY additional factors (beyond the scope of this article) that need to be considered before wedges or shims are used. The good news? It is the rare cyclist that will not benefit from purchasing a good pair of high arch cycling insoles, such as the ones from Specialized. If you wish to begin improving your proprioception, and thus your bike fit, a pair of insoles is a good place to start. If you wish to fully address your fit, beginning with your feet (!), I encourage you to consider a complete bike fit, which will address your feet and all other aspects of your placement, comfort and performance on your bike.
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