Five Tips for Managing Foot Pain or Discomfort When Cycling

Graeme Hadlow is a past age group national duathlon champion, time trialist and third cat road racer. He has a special interest in cycling biomechanics and is currently working as a Podiatrist and Extended Scope Practitioner (Foot & Ankle) for Sussex MSK Partnership East.

He advises the following tips to optimise cycling biomechanics. Always stop if changes are painful and see an expert if you are concerned.

1. Check your shoes
We all know our foot size, but our feet often become wider as we age owing to changes in the joints, such as bunions.

If we use shoes that are too narrow, compressive forces during the cycling downward or main power phase, from the shoe upper may rub against our toes causing blistering, inflammation or potentially ingrown toenails.

It may also result in poor ability of the toes to firmly plant upon the base of the shoe to offer optimal stability and force during the down stroke.
Over time small muscles in the foot can become weak leading to clawed toes, which can lead to overloading the ball of the foot and pain.
Self-check:
Take the insole liner out of your shoe and stand on it, raising your heel slightly off the ground. Does your foot have sufficient space around it? If your foot overlaps the insole the shoe may be too tight. A larger size could solve a lot of foot related cycling discomfort.
Is the liner of good quality? The shoe outer may be in good condition but often the insoles are poor. Consider using an aftermarket insole and make sure you take your shoe with you when buying to ensure fit is not compromised.

2. Mobilise
If your ankle joint is stiff or your calf muscles are short, your foot may function differently from its optimal movement pattern. Depending on your foot type, i.e. high or low arched, the foot may load more to the outside (supinate) or inside (pronate).

You may feel excessive pressure to the outside or inside of your foot during a ride. This may render your down stroke less efficient than it could be and may be a source of discomfort.

Self-check:

Sit on a chair with your foot flat on the floor and knee positioned over your heel, then shift your knee forwards towards your toes. Ideally you should aim to get your knee cap over the ends of your toes, centrally over your middle second and third toes and without the arch collapsing or the foot shifting weight to the outer side.

If the knee fails to do this easily, perform daily calf stretches and use a foam roller after a ride.

If stiffness is felt at the front of the ankle, self-joint mobilisation can be performed by repeating the movement 10 times in a gentle rhythmic fashion, counting to two going forwards and two going backwards.

Remember, if the exercises are painful, stop and see a health professional.

3. Cleat position

Optimal cleat position is often not considered.

Although the stated ball over spindle advice is usually given, bike fitters and those that understand foot biomechanics may suggest alternatives.

If you suffer with Achilles or heel pain, or simply have an inability for the ball of the foot to be comfortable, reassess your cleat position.

Consider getting advice from a bike fitting service or health professional that understands cycling.

Self-check:

Whilst barefoot, use your fingers to feel for where your big and little toe joints bend or articulate.

Repeat this whilst in your cycling shoe and mark the positions on your shoe. Ideally this will be performed on a static trainer, with your shoe at the 12 o’clock position. Make note the spindle axis relative to the two marks.

Consider moving your shoe forwards so that the spindle is close to the little toe joint mark rather than through the big toe joint mark. This may allow your foot to reduce the load upon your calf muscles and ball of foot.

An analogy to consider is a similar effect that when squatting we aim to push through our heels and reduce force through the ball of the foot. This could be interpreted as optimally more stable, and biomechanically more comfortable.

4. Toe in or toe out?

Clinicians use a variety of assessment methods to determine the foot angle relative to the lower limb, which aids optimal cleat toe in/out angle.

Rather than use observation of your walking foot angle, which has a high degree of error due to anatomic structures influencing foot position, use the table method.

Self-check:

Sit on a workbench or kitchen countertop with your leg at an angle of 90 degrees relative to your thigh.

Bend your foot upwards at the ankle to approximately a similar 90 degree angle relative the shin.

Now look down at the angle of your foot. Is it pointing straight ahead or to the outside or inside?

Think of the angle like a clock face i.e. 11:30, 12:00, 12:30 or 13:00. Aim to replicate the cleat position to reflect this when on the bike.

Remember, try some gentle static bike rides when changing your position. If it feels uncomfortable, go back to your original setting or reduce the changes slightly.

5. Core work for your feet

To help feet function well when cycling consider some strengthening exercises which are important to maintain ideal toe position and force production.

The short foot exercise

With your foot evenly planted upon the ground (can be done seated or standing) spread your toes down into the ground. Now maintain this position whilst attempting to raise your arch upwards. Avoid the tendency to curl the toes, this is important!
Hold this position for 15 seconds and repeat 10 times.

Toe presses

Encourage the big toe to play its role in generating optimal force production during a pedal stroke and aid foot stability.

In the same start position as above, aim to push the big toe into ground and hold for 15 seconds. Repeat 10 times, avoiding the temptation to curl it.

Perform these exercises daily – don’t give up if they are difficult, work on your weaknesses.

These tips are advised to optimise cycling biomechanics. Always stop if changes are painful and see an expert if you are concerned.