Whether you’re a competitive mountain biker, Peloton enthusiast or just enjoy the occasional weekend ride around town, chances are that you’ll have experienced some degree of foot pain as a result of cycling. In fact, foot pain from biking is so common that a 2006 study found that up to 85% of people experienced some form on non-traumatic injury from riding a bike.¹ Thankfully, there’s one often overlooked aspect of cycling that can make all the difference when it comes to preventing foot pain (and we’re about to break it down for you).
Cycling involves a massive amount of energy transfer from the legs, through our feet to the pedals,² often causing symptoms like hot burning sensations³, numbness and sharp pains on the undersides of the feet. These are frequently the result of the nerves in our feet traveling through a narrow space between the metatarsal heads⁴ (which you can think of as your feet’s “knuckles” or the balls of your feet). These narrow areas come into direct contact with our cycling cleats, exacerbating the issue and intensifying the pain. Long rides, warm weather and inflexible shoes can also cause our feet to swell, making matters even worse.
So, what’s the cure? You should start with the shoes. Wider shoes with a roomier front end and looser straps are less constrictive and allow for a better range of motion for the feet. While many cyclists choose stiffer shoes—such as carbon fiber models—as they cause less energy wastage and make for more efficient cycling, these can actually lead to increased hot spots and foot pain. One US study compared participants cycling at 400 watts output in two pairs of shoes of the same make and size, but one had plastic soles while the other had carbon fiber soles. During pedaling, the carbon fiber shoes produced peak plantar pressures 18% higher than those of plastic design.⁵ To summarize, firmer shoes increase the risk of irritation and potential injury.
A later, more comprehensive study outlined the following guidelines (amongst others) for cyclists to use when selecting their footwear:
- Cycling shoes should be selected to afford adequate width and support, especially in the forefoot area (bear in mind that the foot will swell significantly when cycling in warm/hot conditions).
- A stiffer soled shoe is not necessarily harmful provided that the footbed/insert is properly structured and contoured to help relieve plantar pressure.
- Simply using a flat padded insole in a shoe with a very stiff sole is unlikely to reduce foot pain – indeed, if the shoe is already a snug fit, it could increase it.
- When adjusting the upper straps of a cycling shoe, care should be taken to ensure that over-tightening doesn’t occur.
In essence, finding the perfect shoe to cycle in is just as important as finding the perfect shoe to wear all day at work, go on a long run, hike a trail or play on turf. Our feet need different types of support during various activities and skimping on thoroughly testing out the right types of shoes, not taking regular breaks during activity or not paying attention to how your feet look and feel could have some serious consequences.
And one more pro tip: test out cycling cleats at the end of the day when your feet are naturally more swollen. This will replicate how your feet might feel after a long biking session.
Of course, if you experience any type of persistent foot pain or irritation, it’s best to consult with a doctor.