By Rick Schultz, MBA, DBA
1. Swelling Feet
During a normal group ride, do you loosen the straps on your cycling shoes because your “feet are swelling?” It’s OK if you admit to this since this happens to most cyclists. I have read many articles on this topic and they all mention “feet swelling” but don’t get into the details as to the how’s and why’s. Talking with many cyclists on this topic, they really don’t give this a second thought since they think feet swelling is a normal part of cycling. To fix this problem, all they do is to reach down and loosen the BOA’s. BOA is a design that lets you turn a ratcheting knob to increase the tension of the shoe instead of shoelaces or hook-and-loop straps.
I had always thought I was doing something wrong since I always have to tighten my shoes. In fact, on a normal 2.5-hour ride, I tighten my cycling shoes no less than 3 times. The fact that so many cyclists have to loosen their shoes is due to a bad bike / cleat / shoe fit.
Why you should have to tighten your shoes.
Prior to starting a ride, cyclists will sit, have a coffee, gossip a little, all the while gravity is pulling their blood into their feet. A low-volume tight fitting cycling shoe might also lead to even more swelling. Then, when starting the ride, the leg muscles start engaging where they need blood to carry oxygen to help fuel their movements. Even though the cyclist is sitting on their saddle with their legs moving, gravity is still at work pulling blood into their feet.
So, how do you get this ‘pooled’ blood out of the feet?
Enter the calf. Everyone has a set of calf muscles, actually 7 muscles in each calf but the two that are best known are the gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the most visible muscle and gives your calf most of its shape. You can see a hard-working gastrocnemius in this picture.
The purpose(s) of the calf muscles are 4-fold, (a) plantarflex your ankle, (b) help curl your toes, (c) help bend your knees and, the main purpose for this article (d) pump blood from the foot and lower leg back up and into the circulatory system. So, a calf that is working effectively will pump this ‘pooled’ blood from the foot back up to the heart. There is actually a term for this called the calf muscle pump. If your feet are swelling, then your calves are not working effectively and it’s time to address this problem.
As stated before, a bike / cleat / shoe fit is needed to place your feet in the right relation to the pedals so that you will be able to engage the calf correctly. You will know when you are in the correct position since (a) you will be tightening your shoes instead of loosening them and (b) see #2 below.
2. Calf Cramps
Have you ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a painful cramp in the calf? That sudden level 10 pain shooting through your lower leg lasting for 1-3 minutes. Nothing you do makes it go away. Ever thought why?
During a bike fit interview, I always ask “do you get painful calf-cramps at night?” About 25% of my clients say yes. Turning their shoes over I can tell why. The cause is the mis-placement of the cleat. I spend about an hour of a 2.5-hour bike fit on adjusting the cleats…making sure they are in the absolute perfect position. It is of utmost importance for the cleats to be in the right position because the foot is the only part of your body that is mechanically locked to the bicycle. All other touch-points (glutes on the saddle and hands on the handlebars) can move, therefore, placement of the cleat is a critical component of a bike fit, one part of the fit that needs to be perfect. To ensure that this is perfect, I have created double-check and even triple check processes.
The fix for this is to position the cleat to remove stress from the calf and achilles tendon and place it onto the quadriceps. This also relates to the first point, swelling feet. Almost every cyclist I have fit have their cleats positioned so that the only job the calf is doing is supporting the foot from collapsing. With this bad cleat position, the calves are not pumping much blood back up the leg, not helping to drive the cyclist forward, and are being overworked and overstressed by spending their whole time supporting the foot from collapsing during each pedal stroke… the cause of nightly calf cramps we just spoke about.
3. Hoods vs Drops
Another important question that recently came up is “why do most crit racers race on the hoods and not in the drops?” We all know the importance of racing in the drops. Three of the most important factors are (a) safety, because you can’t hook bars while in the drops, (b) more solid handling and control when bumped, and (c) better aerodynamics.
The two main reasons so many racers race on the hoods is because (a) lack of hamstring flexibility and (b) holding the hoods is the position they were fit to. To get more flexible, start a stretching routine and/or attend yoga classes. For the bike fit portion, I highly recommend that you discuss this with your bike fitter. Ask your bike fitter to fit you so that you are comfortable in the drops. From this point forward, you should always ride, train and race in the drops.
Let’s look at an example. Please reference these two Giant TCR bicycles. The person who owns the bicycle pictured on the top has obviously been fitted to the hoods. Referencing the bicycle pictured on the bottom, I added a red horizontal line delineating where the hoods are in the top photo. I then “raised” the stem and added a longer stem so that when the cyclist grabs the drops, their hands are in the exact same X, Y as when originally on the hoods.
So, obviously this frame is too small for this cyclist. This frame appears to be a Giant M/L; therefore, I would recommend an XL for this cyclist. But sadly, by the time someone usually comes in for a bike fit, they have already purchased the wrong size frame (and experiencing knee and back pain). This is why I like to work with bike shops who send me clients to do a bike sizing first. This way, the client is on the right-size frame to begin with and is the most important step in the process.
4. Knee Pain
I can’t stress the importance of taking care of your knees. This can only be accomplished by a bike fit to determine correct crank arm length. Examples, I am seeing more and more cyclists who are experiencing knee pain, begging for relief. I am seeing clients that have Osteoarthritis in their knees that want relief so that they can continue to bicycle. I have had clients tell me that they have gone to several other fitters and if I can’t help them, they are going to give up cycling. I have had clients with a previous injury that have little to no ACL left that want to continue to bicycle.
Recently, every one of my clients have suffered with knee pain and finally have gotten to the threshold point that they can’t take the pain any more. In fact, I am currently working with a 23-year-old ex-domestic pro that has tremendous knee pain. Don’t wait until you get to this point. Do yourself a favor and go get a bike fit so that the fitter can help you get rid of your knee pain. In most every case, I have been able to mitigate or completely rid my clients of their knee pain. For those few that still need more relief, I work with several physical therapists who can take the ball and run with it. Regardless, the clients are much happier since they are still able to enjoy the sport they love.
5. Pain versus Suffering
The reason I bring this up is that a lot of cyclists get these confused. It’s no fault of theirs since articles I have researched interchange these as well. I searched for “pain vs suffering in cycling.”
Even Merriam-Webster defines pain as “localized suffering associated with bodily disorder” and suffering as “pain.” As a coach and personal trainer, here’s my take on this.
You are pushing on the pedals so hard that your legs are starting to cramp, you are breathing so hard that your lungs feel like they are coming through your chest. You are doing hill repeats and you heart rate is at a sustained maximum. That’s suffering. In fact, the US Navy SEALs have a saying, “When your MIND says STOP, your BODY still has 40% left.” Think about that next time you want to back off.
You never want to experience pain. For example, pain is where it hurts to pedal even at a low power output. For cyclists, pain is usually experienced in the knees and pain can be greatly reduced or negated by a crankarm length analysis. Pain will usually continue even when off the bike. If you experience pain, get off the bike and get it checked out by your doctor, physical therapist, and bike fitter.
These five fit related points should be useful in helping you be a better, safer and healthier cyclist.
Bike Fitness Coaching is your one-stop shop for professional bike fitting and coaching. Guru, Trek and BikeFit static and dynamic fit certified, USAC level 2 certified coach with Peaks Coaching Group. Please visit us at the websites listed above.
When you say its “improper cleat position” that leads to swelling/cramping, do you mean the cleats are too far forward or rearward?
This article seems to me to just a ad for getting a bike fit. It did not answer any of the questions it brought up. For instance when discussing calf cramps, cleat position was a possible cause but nothing was said whether the cleat was too far forward or back.
All bike fits are not the same. Each fitter has their own ideas of what is a proper fit and too many strictly rely on measurements to get to the proper fit. There’s a lot more involved to proper fit.
Dan Driscoll says
Great to say that most people have their cleats in the wrong spot, but it would be helpful to expound on this a bit, so we could try to diagnose our own cleat placements. As is this is not much help, and more of an advertisement than an a helpful post. Thanks for any future post with more detailed info.
Jim Langley says
The cleat position that usually causes problems is having them too far forward (too close to the toe end of the shoes). With the cleats way forward, we essentially pedal on our tip toes, which means not enough of the foot is pressing on the pedal and that’s what causes the issues – we don’t have enough support from our foot. What’s interesting is that you can move cleats as far back as they will go and it’s very unlikely you will have any foot/leg issues – in fact many long distance riders (like the amazing cyclists that do the Race Across America) push their cleats as far back as possible and have even had shoes modified to get the cleats more rearward. Note though that if you push the cleats all the way back, you might strike your toe against the front wheel when turning at slow speeds (when your pedals are at 3 and 9 o’clock). But, once you know that can happen it’s pretty easy to just pay more attention when rolling around slowly. Summing up, if someone is having foot and leg issues, we fitters usually move the cleats back on the bottom of the shoe. Moving them the other way is a lot rarer.
Hope this helps.
Zvi Wolf says
Moving the cleats back on my MTB shoes got rid of knee pain I was experiencing. When I rode my flat bar bike. I figured that out from my road shoes , which had the cleats fitted by a pro. My fitter must have done my road shoes correctly since I do usually have to tighten them on rides.
Brian Nystrom says
A related issue that I found is that if you use pedals with a degree of rotational float, your cleats should be positioned so the ball of your foot is forward of the pivot point of the cleats, if possible. This makes your feet much more stable – your heels won’t move from side-to-side as much under power – especially when out of the saddle. This position has the additional benefit of making it less likely that you’ll accidentally unclip.
Rick Schultz says
To all, I purposely didn’t give the solution since everyone is different. What if I said move cleats to here, here is not the same for everyone. My point is to go get a bike fit from a fitter that knows what they are doing with the cleats. But, as Zvi mentioned above, just because their fitter was a pro, they didn’t understand cleat positioning.
1) Ask the fitter some anatomy questions, specifically about how the calf pumps blood. You will be able to quickly see if they know anything about anatomy
2) Ask the fitter if they perform an eval and what the eval consists of. If the eval doesn’t address foot/cleat issues/positioning, this is also very telling.
3) Ask if what they will do if they find some ‘medical’ issue like excessive valgus or varus foot positioning. If they try and medically diagnose you instead of sending you to a certified medical professional, this is also very telling.
Again, since everyone is unique and no two fits are the same, Im not going to tell how to fix something since I don’t know where your issue is. If you are interested in going further, I do remote fitting via internet/email/and discussions over the phone.
Along with my daughter, doctor physical therapy, I have created my own bike fitting education course which we discuss this topic in detail.
So, for those that think my article sounds like an ad, I believe I have covered why I didn’t want to say how to fix something a certain way since it will not apply to everyone. It can actually do more harm than good.
Rick Schultz says
And, if you go to your fitter and they want to fix everything with a wedge, RUN don’t walk out of their shop.
LARRY HEDGSPETH says
Thanks for the good advice. Everyone is so unique, it’s hard to give anything more than general observations and then give them resources (i.e. going to a certified bike fitter, in depth physiological articles, etc.) to help them resolve their specific issues. It seems that a majority of folks can get by with general fit criteria amazingly well.
Roy Bloomfield says
If I get a cramp in the calf in the middle of the night, it has nothing to do with my cleat position (I’ve been Retul fitted), but the fact that I forgot to do calf stretches after my ride . . .
Could you please elaborate on “And, if you go to your fitter and they want to fix everything with a wedge, RUN don’t walk out of their shop.”
Thank you, Scott