By Jim Langley

In the messenger bag this week was an email from Tom Dorigatti, who brought up a perfect topic for this week’s Tech Talk. He wrote,

“It’s likely that you’ve already done something with this, but even if you have, perhaps with it being the start of the cycling season, you could explain how to position cleats on your shoes? For example, I wonder if good riders position cleats differently for speed, for time trials, and for long-distance riding. I've already learned that for me, there is a different cleat position for riding my recumbent trike than for my upright. I’d appreciate some tips on cleat positioning and think it would help others, too.”

Great question, Tom. This is the time of year we ramp up our mileage to get ready for the big rides to come later in the season. It’s also a common time to buy new equipment for the season, such as new shoes or new clipless pedal systems. If our cleats aren’t positioned correctly on the shoes, it can cause inefficient pedaling, pain or, worse, even knee injuries.

To help, I’ll first explain an easy way to position your cleats in a safe neutral position that I developed from using the first bike fitting system, the Fit Kit (it’s still popular today http://bikefitkit.com/). Then I’ll get into reasons some riders position cleats differently.

Finding an efficient, safe neutral cleat position

A good neutral starting cleat position that works for most riders is to place the cleats so that when the shoes are clicked into the pedals, the balls of the feet are directly over the center of the pedal axles (also sometimes called the pedal "spindles").

It can be tricky to locate the exact ball of your foot and place the cleats so that the balls are directly over the pedal axles. Note that the ball of the foot is defined by Biology-Online.org as “the padded portion of the sole, at the anterior extremity of the heads of the metatarsals, upon which the weight rests when the heel is raised.”

If you stand with your bare feet fully on the ground, they touch at the heels, the balls of the feet and the toes (assuming you're not completely flat-footed). And if you stand on tip-toes, you are standing mostly on the balls of your feet.

A low-tech 4-step method to get the cleats under the balls of your feet:

1.  With your shoe nearby, and with bare feet, place a dot of paint or a drop of Wite-Out (correction fluid) on the center of the ball of one foot. If you can't see the bottom of your foot well enough to do this accurately, have someone help you.

2.  Immediately, so that the paint or Wite-Out doesn't dry first, slip on your shoe, close the straps and stand to put pressure on your foot.

3.  Remove the shoe, and you should find the paint dot transferred to the inside of the shoe, clearly marking the ball of your foot. Repeat steps 1, 2 and 3 with your other foot.

4.  You can't see the dots on the insides of your shoes from the outside when you're positioning the cleats so use this workaround: simply stick a straight pin through the side of each shoe (the inside, next to the crankarm). Make sure the pin exactly bisects the mark inside the shoe and sticks straight out of the shoe, not at an angle. Now, when you flip the shoes over to position the cleats you will have a pin in each as an indicator telling you exactly where the cleats need to be positioned to put the balls of your feet directly over the pedal axles (note that you could also look at the pins and paint a line on the shoe soles if you prefer). Usually, centering the cleats over the pins will be the right spots to center the balls of your feet where they should be -- directly over the pedal axles.

Different cleat positions for different types of riders/riding

Try the balls of the feet over the pedal axle position first and give it a chance to see if it feels right, because it works for most riders. If it doesn't feel right, the most common adjustment to make it feel better is to move the cleats back slightly, perhaps as much as 1/2 inch (13mm). This puts a little more of your foot over the pedal and is often preferred by larger riders with longer legs, people who push bigger gears, climbers and time trialists, riders using long crankarms, and slower pedalers.

Conversely, if you tend to ride at a high cadence, spin smaller gears, like sprinting, ride shorter crankarms and are a toes-down pedaler, you might move the cleats forward slightly, but don't overdo it. Maybe about 1/4 to 1/2 inch (about 6 - 13 mm). If you get too far out on your toes, you increase the risk of "hot foot" and even Achilles injuries, so experiment, but only a little at a time.

Lastly, if you're an ultra-distance rider, you may want to push the cleats all the way back. Coach Fred Matheny explains, “For long distance riding that causes hot foot, the standard remedy is to move the cleats to the rear of the shoe sole. Lon Haldeman routinely re-drills riders' shoes to move the cleats farther back when they're having trouble in Murdo, South Dakota, on their PAC Tour transcontinental rides http://www.pactour.com/.

“And there has been a move to rearward cleats among mountain bikers and time trialists. The thinking is that taking the calf out of the equation increases power output. A German did some studies and they were influential a few years ago but I don't hear as much about it now.”

The only negative side effects for this cleat position (because, by moving the cleat way back, you’re effectively moving the foot forward when it’s on the pedal) is a slight increase in the possibility of toe overlap with the front wheel if you're riding a bicycle with aggressive front-end geometry.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll finish up with a look at cleat positioning for recumbents, cleat angle adjustment, ankle clearance, marking your cleat position, and a few additional bonus tips.

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