In this series of columns over the past few weeks, I’ve been discussing various aches and pains (other than tired legs!) that we roadies suffer from, what causes them and what you can do to avoid them. Previous columns have covered: cramping; nausea; saddle discomfort / saddle sores; upper back, shoulder, neck pain / discomfort; numb / painful hands, and lower back pain and discomfort. (See links to individual articles below.)
Today we’ll focus on hot / painful feet. And, as with the other cycling maladies, we’ll devote some time to discussing how you can avoid it.
Let’s Start With An Example
My buddy Roger got me started riding in California in the ’70s. One of our favorite double centuries was the Mt. Lassen DC – the slogan was “Where a Sag’s a Drag.” We rode 200 miles, including Lassen National Park, and subsisted on what we could buy at mini-marts.
After they stopped running the DC, Roger and I decided to ride it on our own. Lassen is an active volcano, and the pass on the shoulder of the mountain is half-way through the ride. We continued north and descended through the devastated area (which features lava fields resulting from multiple eruptions between 1914 and 1917).
We stopped at Old Station, about 135 miles into our adventure, to refuel. The next store was 42 miles away through remote country, so I ordered a large pizza and a pitcher of Coke. Roger had very hot feet, so he soaked his feet in the stream while we waited for the pizza. I didn’t know much about riding nutrition or physiology back then!
Although it was only around 70F that day, half an hour down the road Roger had hot feet again.
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Causes of Hot Foot
Numb toes and pain under the ball of the foot generally results from squeezing of the nerves between the foot bones in the ball of the foot just behind the toes. This can result from:
Swollen feet: On longer rides, most riders develop peripheral edema, which is nothing to worry about as long as it goes away after the ride. How long a ride before it develops depends on the individual.
Poor technique: If a rider “pedals squares,” then the pressure on the sole of the foot is constant. If a rider pedals with a round stroke, then at the back of the stroke the rider is lifting the foot to unweight the pedal (thus relieving the pressure a bit on every stroke).
Foot shape: Forefoot varus is when the ball of the foot is elevated relative to the outside of the foot when not bearing weight. As many as 87% of us are built this way. If the foot is not supported properly, then pressure on the nerves may result. Narrow, bony feet lack padding, while wide feet may be crammed into too-narrow shoes. Any of these anatomical issues in the feet could result in hot foot.
Pedal size: Since road shoes are made with stiff soles, the size the pedal isn’t an issue.
Solutions: Some Options, Starting with the Easiest
1. Improve technique: Learn to pedal with a round stroke, which will also increase your power as you call on different muscle groups to move you down the road. If you develop hot feet while riding, try exaggerating a round stroke with less pressure on the downward part of the stroke.
2. Don’t stand: When standing, you are only applying downward force, which increases pressure on the balls of your feet, and all of your body weight is on the pedals.
3. Loosen shoes: If your feet swell when you ride, then loosen your shoes and/or wear looser socks to allow for the swelling. Prevention is best: I start with shoes that are slightly loose.
4. Take shoes off: If you stop at an aid station or mini-mart, park your shoes with your bike and walk around in your socks – they’re washable!
5. Move cleats back: If possible, slide your cleats back so that the ball of your foot is in front of the center of the cleat. I’ve custom-drilled holes in my shoes to move the cleats 1 cm back. This costs me a fraction of a percent of efficiency and power, but greatly increases how long I can ride. Remember when moving the cleats back to also lower your seat a bit to compensate for the effective change in leg length.
6. Orthotics: Orthotics, especially those with a metatarsal bump, often distribute the load more evenly. A metatarsal bump is a slightly raised spot just behind the ball of the foot. I have forefoot varus and for years used custom orthotics; however, now I use a Specialized footbed. These come in a wide range of sizes. Each model is customizable for different longitudinal arches and metatarsal support. Most riders don’t need custom orthotics.
7. Podiatrist: If the problem persists, see a podiatrist.
8. Larger shoes: Twenty years ago, I wore size 45 shoes; however, on long rides my feet would swell so I also got a pair of size 46 shoes. For RAAM, I also took sizes 47 and 48. As we age, our feet get larger – and I now wear size 49. When I bought the shoes, the sales person told me they were too loose. Not for my kind of riding, I explained.
Follow-up on a Reader Comment on Lower Back Pain
Rando Richard commented: I completed a 600 K brevet, 375 miles with 32,000 feet of climbing in about 45.5 hours. It had six continuous climbs (2,000 – 4,500 ft. each). Despite putting on 10,000 miles on my road bike last year, this one really threw me for a loop. My lower back was killing me on the last two climbs, a new problem for me. I stopped to stretch 6 or 8 times on the last climb. As I neared the top of this 4,500-foot climb (6-9%), the grade angled back a little and my cadence increased and my back pain immediately vanished. As I remember, my heart rate was unchanged as the angle decreased, so I was still pushing as hard. Was the back pain due to too slow of a cadence (due to fatigue)? Or was it due to just total exertion, without regard to cadence? Despite installing a cassette that yielded lower gearing before that ride, it was not enough. If I ever do another, I plan to put on an even bigger cassette.
My Reply: Your legs are levers, and the pelvis is the fulcrum. The more force you exert per stroke, the more other muscles work to stabilize the pelvis so that all the force goes into the pedals rather than moving your pelvis. The muscles that stabilize your pelvis are either in your lower back or your core.
The amount of force on the pedals is a function of gear selection and cadence together. If you were in your lowest gear and just pedaling slower because you were fatigued, then the force was the same as riding with a higher cadence. In your case, because the grade eased the force per stroke was less.
Lower gears and a higher cadence definitely will help – as well as a stronger core. On brevets, there are periodic controls, at which stretching for a few minutes at each stop will also help.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written over 40 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.
Christian Burkhardt says
I suffered from hot foot during a 400k brevet a long time ago. A friend gave my two Tums antacid pills and the pain went away instantly. Since then I always carry Tums or an equivalent.
I think you are off by about 100 years on the eruptions at Mt. Lassen.
John Marsh says
That was mistake, obviously! Thanks for pointing it out. We’ve since fixed it.
If you are pedaling with a flat foot technique (not toe or heel dipping) moving the cleat back on the shoe will have no, or insignificant effect on saddle height at 6 or 12 o’clock. However, at the 3 o’clock position your foot will be reaching further ahead into the stroke & therefore you may need to lower the saddle, not raise it. This is why bike fit people will sometimes advise moving the cleat back on a longer leg on one side or the other, especially if it’s a longer femur. Moving cleats forward shortens stroke, moving back lengthens stroke because the foot is moved forward over the axel & has to reach further to complete the arc. Try moving your cleats extreme forward, then extreme back, take a ride on the trainer or road & you will feel the difference.
Brian Nystrom says
There are simple modifications that can be made to insoles to reduce or eliminate hot foot:
– Adding metatarsal bumps is easy. Scrap handlebar tape has a perfect shape for making pads, a thick center with tapered edges. Use double-sided tape to stick pads to the underside of the insoles and build the pads up as much as necessary. Experiment with the shape, thickness and location. Don’t assume that both of your feet need the same amount of padding. You may also find that padding the inside or outside of the insole helps.
– If your shoe soles are rigid and the insoles are thin, you may find that adding a thin layer of closed-cell foam under the insoles makes a world of difference. You may lose a fraction of a percent in efficiency, but if your feet don’t hurt, you’ll be more efficient overall. Remember that this may require thinner socks if your shoes don’t have sufficient room in them.
– If your shoe soles have vents, make sure that there are vents in the same place on the insoles, so you actually get some airflow through the shoes. While this won’t help with pressure-related discomfort, on hot days cooler feet are happier feet.
Dave Minden says
When my feet get hot one thing that helps is pedaling lighter: spinning at a higher rate and with less pressure on the pedals.
I switched to DMT shoes about 4 years ago. Previously I had suffered excruciating foot pain on longer rides. The DMTs have a wider forefoot than many other brands and fit my feet like the proverbial glove. Have never had a problem since. DMT started out as a custom shoe maker making fake big brand shoes for pros who couldn’t live with their sponsors products. That experience seems to have resulted in extremely comfortable production shoes.
I do long distance touring rather than racing. Due to pain in the ball of each foot using normal cleats, I stopped using cleats at all and switched to a large “Power Grip” that would allow me to have the middle of my foot over the pedal. That pretty much solved my foot problems while still allowing me to have my foot firmly attached to the pedals. I highly recommend these Power Grips to anyone with problems with the ball of their feet.
[quote=Jeff]…that would allow me to have the middle of my foot over the pedal. [/quote]
This brings up an interesting point. Are there any studies that compare pedaling dynamics, efficiency, power between cleat placement at metatarsals vs at mid foot? Currently you would have to custom drill holes for mid fort cleat placement.
Google “Steve Hogg” & go to his website. He has blog posts & articles which describe midfoot cleat placement & effects.