Is there such a thing as the right time to get a bike fit? When can you justify paying the price for such a ‘luxury’? Realistically speaking the answer here is ‘as soon as possible’. Too many people think that they don’t need a bike fit on the basis that they are ‘not a good enough cyclist’, whatever that actually means. Let’s think for a moment about buying a pair of trainers; you wouldn’t knowingly opt for the wrong sized trainer on the basis that you don’t go running very often. Thankfully this attitude is gradually shifting but even today the majority of riders that obtain a bike fit are dedicated cyclists and/or racers. Using my own experience as a reference, I hope article will provide a step in the right direction in demonstrating the importance of a accurate fit for all cyclists.
It’s a long way between the Feet and the Brain
… And messages can get lost. As non-symmetrical beings, we have chosen a very symmetrical sport and as a result we are trying to force our bodies to suit but adopting an incorrect foot position may result in knee problems and lower back pain or potentially worse. With this in mind, and arguably the most important element of the bike fit, the aim is to position the feet inside the shoes in a manner that the brain is completely aware of their location at any given moment and thus avoid any confusing messages between the two, or worse still no message at all.
Starting with some basic measurements, Stefanie sat me down with my feet positioned directly under my knees, then made a note of the length of my foot (from the heel to the tip of the toe), the width of my foot and the metatarsal position on an A4 sheet of paper that had been pre-marked with centimeter markings in a cross format. Then, having also measured the arch of my foot whilst seated, she asked me to stand so that she could take this measurement both with and without load.
As a rule of thumb, anything above a 35mm arch height is considered high; perhaps a result of years of ballet dancing, at 40mm (both loaded and unloaded) I definitely meet this criteria. Up until now my arch support had offered nothing more than a mere 23mm support and so was forcing my body to work extremely hard to stabilize through each pedal stroke, which in turn, was interfering with my power transfer.
With the left done, Stefanie repeated the process on my right foot and was somewhat surprised to find the length and arch height are IDENTICAL for each. It is very rare to have complete symmetry on each side, thankfully however a slight difference in the length of the arch and the measurement between the 1st and 5th metatarsal means I’m not a complete weirdo and almost undoubtedly leads to a slightly different cleat position for each side.
Finding the correct cleat position
Cleats are adjustable on a multi-directional basis; backwards and forwards, medially and laterally, and rotationally. The former is adjusted in accordance to the length of the toes, whilst the medial lateral movement allows the foot to be positioned closer to or further away from the cranks. Lastly, the rotational adjustment compensates for any directional change and is particularly important if a rider turns their feet out when pedaling as difficulties here may significantly affect other areas of the body such as the knees or shoulders.
With the shoes back on my feet Stefanie located my 1st and 5th metatarsal and drew a line to indicate their position in relation to the shoe. Don’t panic; she applied tape beforehand so that the marks could temporarily serve as visual references to tweak the cleat position without permanently marking the shoes.
There are four main indicators that help decide the optimum cleat position; the first two refer to the cyclists riding style and their natural tendency to adopt a toe down or heel down position, the remaining two lean towards the riding discipline and the cyclists relative focus on endurance or acceleration. As an endurance cyclist my cleat should be positioned at least 11mm behind the center metatarsal. Currently set just 2mm back, the position is forcing me to ride in a toe-down position which, given that this is not my natural stance brings it’s own set of problems and increases my work load in terms of finding a stable platform.
Until now, I have only ever considered that the height of the saddle would alter the angle of the feet but it makes perfect sense that the cleat position would too. My current riding position favours the quads over the glutes and hamstrings, over-fatiguing one set of muscles as a result and so these simple adjustments will help maximise the power obtained from the effort applied.
Let’s jump for a moment, and I mean that in a literal sense … If we lift off from our toes we don’t obtain the same power, acceleration and/or stability than if we had started with our entire foot on the floor. Back on the bike, the change in position might be the difference of an additional 3 watts; maybe even more – and who among us is going to turn that down?
Finding the right shoes
Yep OK, I’ve got long toes, there I said it and unfortunately my current shoes don’t allow for the cleats to be pushed back far enough accommodate an optimal position. Keeping the medial/lateral movement at a constant for now, the maximum distance obtained was a disappointing 6mm behind the 1st metatarsal, just over half the distance we were aiming for.
“This is a generic shoe for a generic person” Stefanie highlights “they drill 3 holes underneath on a one size fits all basis and then it’s down to the bike fitter to advise each cyclist and set up the cleats according to their individual needs … I’m 95% sure that when I try to place the cleats in reference to your 1st and 5th metatarsal and work back from that, that I can’t position the cleats far back enough”.
Of course, this is said specifically in reference to Stefanie’s bike fitting technique and it should be noted that some bike fitters will follow a different school of thought. Exactly which is best is yet to be determined as to date there are no governing bodies or best practice guidelines when it comes to the various fit techniques used.
So far bike-fitters and podiatrists haven’t been communicating effectively with cycling shoe brands so the resulting challenges aren’t surprising. Outperforming one another on weight, rigidity and breathability they aren’t accounting for or highlighting the needs of individual riders from a fit perspective. They are not the only ones to blame of course, as good looks and brand loyalty tend to be the main driving force behind shoe purchases for cyclists, with the exception of seeking a wide or narrow fit. I myself am guilty of this and have worn a particular brand for years. Of course it’s worth noting that someone with the same shoe size might have a different foot to toe ratio and not suffer with the same issue, but thankfully I hadn’t recently replaced my ancient but extremely trustworthy shoes with a brand spanking £300 new pair, without knowing this in advance.
So that’s the shoes, now lets move our thoughts back to the cleats themselves. I currently ride with a 4.5 degree float on my cleat outside of the lab and a 6 degree float in the lab. The reason for this is no more scientific than those were what were available to me at the time. Now, thinking about it more specifically, and taking my recent injury and resulting biomechanics into consideration, Stefanie suggests that the 4.5 degree float is the minimum I should be using to avoid complete restriction of movement and the associated strain on the joints.
Onto closures; from ratchets to laces, each claims to facilitate the ideal pressure distribution, comfort and associated performance gains. No matter the method, it is the center closure takes the stage as it is important that this area remains secure to further facilitate the arch support. The closures either side of this may be adjusted in response to swelling and comfort; more on this in part two.
Finding the right insoles
Thinking back to the messages that run between the feet and the brain, the aim is to find a support that it feels mildly invasive to maintain a constant and clear signal and ensure the brain is aware of the sensation of the shoes and location of the foot at all times.
Take a moment to think about getting dressed this morning; No doubt you could feel the sensation of your freshly washed jumper against your skin to start, but in as little as 5 minutes of wearing it you would have desensitized. The brain is very skilled at ruling out constants and thus, unless something tugs on your jumper or perhaps a scratchy label irritates your skin you won’t even notice you are wearing it. Keeping this in mind let’s bring our thoughts back to the bike; whilst the brain is relatively good at maintaining it’s engagement with the knees, hips and even ankles, the underside of the feet rapidly tend to become background noise in comparison. The arch support is designed to highlight the nerves in the underside of the feet and increase the volume of the messages to the brain.
Brands are starting to catch on and a number of shoes offer adjustable arches for the rider to select from. Just how many riders know which to select or even notice they are in the box is a different question but it’s a step in the right direction – pardon the pun.
Stefanie’s preferred brand is the G8-2620, “Beeeeeautful aren’t they?!” she exclaims. Never before have I seen a person so enthusiastic about insoles, but with a selection of 5 adjustable arch sizes inside the rather flash box in addition to a number of corrective features you can understand why these are her ‘go to’ brand. As suggested previously, most people do not have identical measurements for each foot and may require different sized insoles to reflect this, so offering a greater choice from the offset eases the selection process and reduces the expense too.
In addition to the arch support, the small panel on the underside of the G8-2620 insoles that is positioned across the balls of the feet further increases the volume of the signal between the brain and the foot and can be customized and trimmed in areas or even removed completely depending on the rider and fitters preferences. Again this is a common feature for most insoles, albeit that the size and position can vary between brands.
Testing the insoles
We spend 90% of our time cycling in a seated position so our primary concern is where we are positioned with an unloaded arch; that said, any potential difference once standing remains of interest and cannot be ignored. The initial fitting is preliminary therefore and despite the unloaded measurement being of most interest, it is vital that the arch support is assessed under a consistent load, ideally at a minimum of 80 rpm and 80% FTP. (We will move on to this stage once the cleats are in place).
Finding the correct insole in terms of the level of support it provides and the optimum position within the shoe is largely a process of trial and error based on the evidence provided, e.g. the foot measurements taken, the wear and tear of old shoes and recent niggles and pains. Stefanie selected one of the five insoles on this basis and placing it under my foot without the shoe on she ran her finger between my foot and the insole to check for any gaps and further confirm her selection. Repeating this process on each side, she then popped the insoles inside the shoes, cutting away any excess as she went to ensure a snug fit. Once in situ, Stefanie asked me to stand up and comment on how they feel. Definitely there, but not painful, I think we have hit “mildly invasive” on the nose.
Pins and Needles
“Do you ever get numb feet?” Stefanie asks me.
“Which is worse? … And how quickly do they go numb?”
Numbness in the hands suggests that there is an excessive amount of pressure applied through the upper body. Any asymmetries that present at a spinal and/or pelvic level and run through the kinetic chain will affect the upper body and naturally lead to a tendency to over compensate here in the fight against gravity. Given my history and associated injuries it is highly likely that I will be making positional compensations on a subconscious level.
With the intention of addressing them as we move through the bike fitting procedure Stefanie made a note of my neck pain and a few inconsistent complaints of numbness at the contact points, all of which appeared to correlate with a recent saddle swap.
Refining the fit
The bike fit does not simply account for the rider’s position, the riders activities are also considered as some discomfort may correlate with a particular activity in terms of its presentation. A detailed explanation of any discomfort helped Stefanie pinpoint the affected areas on the body. As you might imagine most of my afflictions are concentrated to my left side as a result of my accident however, sticking to the facts only and avoiding any assumptions Stefanie and I go through any niggles in a step by step process to ensure nothing goes unnoticed.
“So here?” Stefanie asks tapping the inside of my left knee. “We have said left a couple of times now so we are starting to see a pattern. You are helping me map it”
It is highly likely that my knee pain is a direct consequence of an insufficient arch support as the gap under the arch encourages the foot to pronate whilst searching for a more stable platform which in turn, causes the knee to drop in. Securing the foot will stabilise the knee and increase the control provided by the big power muscles, the glutes and the quads. It’s starting to add up right
On closer inspection Stefanie questions the rationalisation behind the shim that is currently on my left cleat and given the knowledge that this has been in situ since my first bike fit 3 years ago, she advises that we remove it and reassess. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the subject of shims and more specifically the materials that some brands use to produce them; research would suggest that some contain a particular plastic that have a negative effect of pelvic asymmetry.
“Is this affecting you?” Stefanie questions rhetorically “Maybe not, but it has been known to do so and it (potentially) adds to an asymmetry which we are trying to correct.”
As a precaution, Stefanie ensures all her riders are gadget free for the duration of their bike fit and plans to gradually phase out particular brands in an attempt to minimise the risk of any negative effects.
Looking forward, Stefanie suggests that once we have selected the right shoes we can consider adjusting the rotation of the foot with the use of specific wedges. Anatomically split into two parts, back and front, the foot rotates accordingly and so, once on the bike, the wedges can be positioned under the heel and/or towards the front of the foot to achieve the optimum rotational position.
We are just warming up
As suggested, we are just warming up and there is a lot more to do yet. When you consider that my last bike fit was 1.5 hrs in total it is clear to see that this process is as important to Stefanie as it is to me; already we have spent more than 1.5 hrs on my foot correction alone and I am more than impressed with Stefanie’s thorough and passionate approach. Once we have selected some shoes (between you and me I already have some in mind) phase two will involve popping these on my feet and testing them in line with the conditions set above to determine their comfort and efficiency knowing that the important underlying foundations have been set.