By Coach Robert Wilhite
Talk about opening up a can of worms. Well, the subject of having float or not in your cleat system, is one sure to stir up the can. For someone who has no interest in being politically correct, my motivation is always to tell the truth with respect. That said, no matter what perspective on float you have chosen to accept or believe, my hope is that you read this article with an open mind. It might surprise you what you may learn.
To start off, let me explain float, as I can’t assume that everyone who reads this will automatically know what that is. Simply put, a cleat that has float allows you to move (or swivel) your heel from side to side, while your shoe is clipped into the pedal. Of course, zero float means when you clip in, that swivel ability is not there; your shoe stays in a static position.
For example, this image above shows cleats for Look Keo pedals. The black cleat is a zero float, the red is a 9 degree float and the grey cleat is 4 1/2 degree float. If you use Shimano SPD-SL cleats, the image below shows your option of cleats. The red cleat has zero float, the blue cleat has 3 degree float and the yellow cleat has 6 degree float.
The Speedplay Zero pedal system below has 15 degree float, allowing you to adjust the float from wide open (15 degrees), down to a fixed position (or zero float).
There are other systems out there, but for the sake of space, I am limiting my spotlight on these three pedal systems because they are by far the most widely used brands for road cyclists.
Back to the float for a minute. Whatever the degree of float a cleat has, means you can swivel your heel half that amount in either direction. For example, if you have the yellow Shimano 6 degree float cleats, that means you can actually swivel your heel approximately 3 degrees to the right and left from a center position.
To Float Or Not To Float
Next, I want to tackle the different perspectives of using…or not using…cleats with float. First, let’s start with zero float cleats. If you google enough, then you will find that the overwhelmingly majority of the cycling industry steers you away from using zero float cleats. Their reasoning is that if you use these type cleats, then the result is that you are locking down your shoes in a static position.
This zero float doesn’t allow you to have any play or swivel in your foot position and therefore affects the position of your knees in the same fashion. Their argument is that if you lock down your feet and knees in a static, repetitive position, then the result will be potential knee injury to the tendons and ligaments that are so sensitive around the front and back of your knees. At first glance, this sounds totally plausible and would certainly lead you to believe that you better choose a cleat that has float, to avoid this potential injury.
Obviously, if someone has had previous knee injuries or surgeries, then the level of sensitivity only rises regarding the protection of your knees, leading many to gravitate to cleats that have the most amount of float. To some degree, I absolutely agree with this perspective.
Now, I am going to share with you, from a bio-mechanical perspective, the very reasons why the cycling industry says you should NOT use zero float cleats. In my opinion, these are the very reasons why you SHOULD use zero float cleats. Sounds crazy, right? Hang with me and I’ll explain my case. Then you decide.
The next time you walk down a hall, pay attention to how each of your feet strikes the ground, as it relates to a center, straight line. Typically, the majority of us walks in a way that each foot is angled out to the side a bit and the rare few whose feet strike the ground in a perfect parallel position. Obviously, the way your feet strike the ground is what is natural to you…and to each individual foot; there is no cookie-cutter guideline for this. Everybody is different. Every foot is different.
Here’s a little drill for you, but you will need a helper. I want you to start walking towards your helper and find a fixed point to keep your eyes on; this allows you to walk a straight line. When you reach your helper, stop so that each foot is beside each other. Each foot will mirror the same angle they stuck the ground when you were walking, with a slight caveat. When you actually stop, there is a tendency for your feet to slightly adjust, meaning the angle your feet are when you stop may not be the exact angle they were striking the ground when you were walking.
This is why you need a helper to identify if this slight adjustment happens when you stop. By the way, if you look down at your feet while walking, it won’t ensure you walk an actual straight line, so keep your eyes fixed on that point. When I’m doing a cleat fitting, I crouch down to the floor and hold up my fist in the air and instruct Clients to keep their eyes on my fist. Works every time.
Movement Means Power Loss and More
Now, let’s assume that both feet are angled out a bit from a center line position, with your heels being closer together than the opposite end of your feet. Pay attention to your knees. Feel any uncomfortableness or tightness? Of course not, because you are standing in what is a natural position for you.
Next, I want you to purposefully pick up your heels and move them away from each other, so that now your feet are in a perfect parallel position to each other. Pay attention to your knees. Feel any uncomfortableness or tightness now? Though it may be very slight, you should be nodding your head yes. What you feel is your tendons and ligaments in an unnatural position and are now being stretched in such a way that is not natural for your feet alignment.
Again, it may be slight, but it is very significant down the road (pun intended). The way this unnatural feeling translates to your cleats with float (I’m assuming that’s what you have) is each time your shoe swivels side to side, you are literally placing your foot (and knees) in and out of their natural, bio-mechanical position.
The problem is that you are out of this correct position twice as much as you are in, when you are pedaling. Furthermore, it is a power loss because when you are out of your natural bio-mechanical position, you are de-activating certain muscle groups, while transferring the workload to fewer muscles. Anytime you disengage muscles, you lose power. Period.
If that were not enough, you also need to realize that this slight tight feeling is not something that you will easily notice when cycling.
Why? Literally, because the pain is so little, compared to the pain you may feel in your thighs, your hamstrings, your back, your neck or even the ever popular numbness in your hands — it just can’t compete. But, that doesn’t mean that it is still not there and building up over time. I have lost count how many cyclists who I have heard over the years, saying something like this: “I have been riding for years and never had any knee pain. All of the sudden, it is bothering me.” This is not verbatim, but pretty darn close.
Think of it like someone going to the doctor today and being diagnosed with cancer. It’s not that yesterday they didn’t have cancer and today they do. It’s a matter of their symptoms not being severe enough, or noticeable enough until it is overly obvious. The severity of the symptoms is what drives them to the doctor for a testing, and then they get the results.
The same scenario is true with this tightness in the knees. It has just taken a long time to finally get bad enough that you actually notice it. Or, better put, every pedal stroke you take using cleats with float, you are allowing this type scenario to occur — and to build up over time. Then, you will find yourself saying about those same words as others.
Oh, I forgot to mention that every time someone has said that to me and I have done a fitting for them, 100 percent of the time they were using cleats with float. And, after switching them to zero float cleats, along with making other fitting corrections, their problem was eliminated.
Bold statement, but if you really understood the principles of bio-mechanics, then you would realize that that statement is not really that bold. It’s an accurate bio-mechanical statement.
The only time I have ever used cleats with float has been when the cleats were not able to be adjusted enough to mirror a client’s severe angled (natural) foot position. In 17 years of doing bio-mechanical bike fittings, I can count those times on just one hand.
Mounting Zero Float Cleats Is No Cinch
Two more topics I want to share with you on cleats before we end. First, when mounting a cleat, whether with float (which I don’t recommend) or zero float, (what I do recommend) you have to factor in these three components:
- positioned correctly to the ball of your foot
- rotationally, so that it allows the shoe to mirror your feet striking the ground,
- the appropriate Q-factor, based on your physical composition. (“Q factor” of a crankset is the horizontal width of the cranks, measured from where the pedals screw in.)
Get any of these wrong, and you have a power loss and some future potential knee pain.
Second, as rare as me having to use a cleat with float, is about the same number of people who are aware of cleat markings, that allow you to properly adjust your ball position (#1 above) to the center of the pedal spindle. You should know the cycling industry has gone to advocating cleats be backwards toward the arch of your foot; their ‘band-aid’ approach to engaging more of the quad muscles.
However, my approach is bio-mechanical. I don’t compromise the ‘best’ leverage point, (which is the ball of your foot to create power and engage more of your quads), I properly adjust the saddle fore/aft to achieve the same end result. In other words, the industry and my end result is the same; it’s the process of how we both arrive there that is quite different. Theirs? A loss of leverage (or power). Mine? It’s bio-mechanically correct (no power loss).
Even scarier is the fact that many bike fitters out there are unaware of these markings on cleats, which begs the question: “How in the world can a bike fitter properly install cleats without knowing this?” Precisely my point. And, you are paying them. Without this knowledge, there is no way, unless they get a really lucky guess, they could ever correctly install cleats. I don’t know about you but when it comes to safety and pain-free cycling, I will never guess or allow others to do the same.
If nothing else, I hope this topic has caused you to pause and take inventory of your knowledge about cleats with and without float, what perspective you embrace and why. Don’t get caught in the trap of using the cleats that came with your pedals, just because they were included (referring to Look and Shimano here). Do your due diligence on the correct cleat and on correct mounting. Finally, use the the three criteria I mentioned above, to determine if your cleats were mounted correctly.
As I mentioned from the start, this is one topic that is sure to drum up countless perspectives and individual preferences. Now, you have to decide which perspective is right for you. If you have any questions on this topic, feel free to contact me, as I LOVE to hear your comments and feedback.
More from Robert Wilhite:
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The information Coach Robert shares in this eBook, came from a collaboration with current and former professional UCI racing team members, former USA continental professional racers, and of course, from the hundreds of thousands of miles he has personally ridden all across the United States.