The Best Position For Your Cleats
Optimal cleat set-up is a complex process that depends on multiple factors. The different ways that a cleat can be moved are:
- Fore/aft (how far along the shoe’s length the cleat is placed)
- Rotation (whether the cleat rotates the foot inward (pigeon-toed) or outward (duck-footed)
- Varus/valgus correction (if the foot is tilted outward or inward)
The further forward the cleat moves towards the end of the toe, the longer the distance between the ankle joint and the pedal surface, creating a longer lever that increases the torque produced by the calf muscle, but also increasing the work done by the calves. The advantage? The calf muscles contribute extra power during short, intense efforts.
However, the force exerted by the calves is not direct to the crank arm. This means that some force is lost in trying to lengthen or shorten the solid crank arm during work done by the calves. This makes them inherently less efficient.
In addition, the power produced by the thigh and quads has to be transferred to the pedals through the ankle joint. A longer lever – produced by a forward cleat position – requires the calves to do more work, and fatigues them more rapidly. So in theory, despite the shortcomings, this kind of cleat positioning suits disciplines that require a burst of speed – such as track cycling, cross-country mountain biking and road sprinting. However, marathon MTBers and Tour de France GC contenders – who require maximum efficiency – would be better off with the cleat moved further towards the rear of the foot. It must be noted that the only research study conducted to investigate cleat fore/aft position has found no difference in cycling economy for cleat positions anywhere between the ball of the foot and the arch of the foot (a difference of approximately 5cm). Go figure.
This is essential for people who are pigeon-toed or have out-toeing. Ideally, the angle of the cleat, with respect to the long axis of the leg, should always be in line with the foot’s natural anatomical position. An externally or internally rotated foot will therefore require a cleat rotation to keep the foot in that natural position, allowing the hip and knee to work in their normal joint range. Most pedal systems incorporate at least five degrees of rotational float, which allows some degree of correction.
Cleat Varus/Valgus Correction
For an effective pedal stroke, the front of the foot must apply pedalling forces to the inside of the shoe. If the front of the foot is not correctly aligned, the foot will first have to adjust to the correct angle to ensure good power production. Most peoples’ feet are positioned in a varus position, i.e. the ball of the foot is raised, with the pressure leaning towards the outer edge of the foot. To apply maximum force on the crank arm, the foot must first re-align. This realignment takes place just below the ankle, which rotates the foot to adust the angle of the forefoot. The foot rotates with every pedal stroke, resulting in a subjective feeling that the cleat is not correctly adjusted. To correct the problem, either the cleat or the inner sole of the shoe requires an angled wedge to produce the correct angle. This sort of assessment is best left to a qualified biokineticist or sports physician who is well-versed in cycling-specific biomechanics.
– By Jeroen Swart
Dr Jeroen Swart is a sports physician and exercise physiologist at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa.