In this series of columns over the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing various aches and pains (other than tired legs!) that we roadies suffer from, what causes them and what you can do to avoid them. Previous columns have covered: cramping; nausea; saddle discomfort / saddle sores; upper back, shoulder, neck pain / discomfort; numb / painful hands, and lower back pain and discomfort. (See links to individual articles below.)
Today we'll focus on hot / painful feet. And, as with the other cycling maladies, we'll devote some time to discussing how you can avoid it.
Let's Start With An Example
My buddy Roger got me started riding in California in the '70s. One of our favorite double centuries was the Mt. Lassen DC – the slogan was "Where a Sag’s a Drag." We rode 200 miles, including Lassen National Park, and subsisted on what we could buy at mini-marts.
After they stopped running the DC, Roger and I decided to ride it on our own. Lassen is an active volcano, and the pass on the shoulder of the mountain is half-way through the ride. We continued north and descended through the devastated area (which features lava fields resulting from multiple eruptions between 1914 and 1917).
We stopped at Old Station, about 135 miles into our adventure, to refuel. The next store was 42 miles away through remote country, so I ordered a large pizza and a pitcher of Coke. Roger had very hot feet, so he soaked his feet in the stream while we waited for the pizza. I didn’t know much about riding nutrition or physiology back then!
Although it was only around 70F that day, half an hour down the road Roger had hot feet again.
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Causes of Hot Foot
Numb toes and pain under the ball of the foot generally results from squeezing of the nerves between the foot bones in the ball of the foot just behind the toes. This can result from:
Swollen feet: On longer rides, most riders develop peripheral edema, which is nothing to worry about as long as it goes away after the ride. How long a ride before it develops depends on the individual.
Poor technique: If a rider "pedals squares," then the pressure on the sole of the foot is constant. If a rider pedals with a round stroke, then at the back of the stroke the rider is lifting the foot to unweight the pedal (thus relieving the pressure a bit on every stroke).
Foot shape: Forefoot varus is when the ball of the foot is elevated relative to the outside of the foot when not bearing weight. As many as 87% of us are built this way. If the foot is not supported properly, then pressure on the nerves may result. Narrow, bony feet lack padding, while wide feet may be crammed into too-narrow shoes. Any of these anatomical issues in the feet could result in hot foot.
Pedal size: Since road shoes are made with stiff soles, the size the pedal isn’t an issue.
Solutions: Some Options, Starting with the Easiest
1. Improve technique: Learn to pedal with a round stroke, which will also increase your power as you call on different muscle groups to move you down the road. If you develop hot feet while riding, try exaggerating a round stroke with less pressure on the downward part of the stroke.
2. Don’t stand: When standing, you are only applying downward force, which increases pressure on the balls of your feet, and all of your body weight is on the pedals.
3. Loosen shoes: If your feet swell when you ride, then loosen your shoes and/or wear looser socks to allow for the swelling. Prevention is best: I start with shoes that are slightly loose.
4. Take shoes off: If you stop at an aid station or mini-mart, park your shoes with your bike and walk around in your socks – they’re washable!
5. Move cleats back: If possible, slide your cleats back so that the ball of your foot is in front of the center of the cleat. I’ve custom-drilled holes in my shoes to move the cleats 1 cm back. This costs me a fraction of a percent of efficiency and power, but greatly increases how long I can ride. Remember when moving the cleats back to also lower your seat a bit to compensate for the effective change in leg length.
6. Orthotics: Orthotics, especially those with a metatarsal bump, often distribute the load more evenly. A metatarsal bump is a slightly raised spot just behind the ball of the foot. I have forefoot varus and for years used custom orthotics; however, now I use a Specialized footbed. These come in a wide range of sizes. Each model is customizable for different longitudinal arches and metatarsal support. Most riders don’t need custom orthotics.
7. Podiatrist: If the problem persists, see a podiatrist.
8. Larger shoes: Twenty years ago, I wore size 45 shoes; however, on long rides my feet would swell so I also got a pair of size 46 shoes. For RAAM, I also took sizes 47 and 48. As we age, our feet get larger – and I now wear size 49. When I bought the shoes, the sales person told me they were too loose. Not for my kind of riding, I explained.
Follow-up on a Reader Comment on Lower Back Pain
Rando Richard commented: I completed a 600 K brevet, 375 miles with 32,000 feet of climbing in about 45.5 hours. It had six continuous climbs (2,000 - 4,500 ft. each). Despite putting on 10,000 miles on my road bike last year, this one really threw me for a loop. My lower back was killing me on the last two climbs, a new problem for me. I stopped to stretch 6 or 8 times on the last climb. As I neared the top of this 4,500-foot climb (6-9%), the grade angled back a little and my cadence increased and my back pain immediately vanished. As I remember, my heart rate was unchanged as the angle decreased, so I was still pushing as hard. Was the back pain due to too slow of a cadence (due to fatigue)? Or was it due to just total exertion, without regard to cadence? Despite installing a cassette that yielded lower gearing before that ride, it was not enough. If I ever do another, I plan to put on an even bigger cassette.
My Reply: Your legs are levers, and the pelvis is the fulcrum. The more force you exert per stroke, the more other muscles work to stabilize the pelvis so that all the force goes into the pedals rather than moving your pelvis. The muscles that stabilize your pelvis are either in your lower back or your core.
The amount of force on the pedals is a function of gear selection and cadence together. If you were in your lowest gear and just pedaling slower because you were fatigued, then the force was the same as riding with a higher cadence. In your case, because the grade eased the force per stroke was less.
Lower gears and a higher cadence definitely will help – as well as a stronger core. On brevets, there are periodic controls, at which stretching for a few minutes at each stop will also help.
To catch up on the entire Aches and Pains series from Coach Hughes, here are quick links to the individual articles:
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.