You’re on a long ride or tour. After several hours on the bike, your feet start feeling hot and uncomfortable. This isn’t the first time. Standing on hills makes it worse. You start looking for a roadside stream in which to douse your sizzling dogs.
I developed a bad case of hot foot on a transcontinental PAC Tour, which covered 3,400 miles in 24 days. During the final week, my feet felt like some fiery-eyed devil was attacking with a blowtorch on every pedal stroke.
Hot foot is a common malady on rides that last 3 hours or more, so it affects century riders, tourers and cyclists who just like to go long. The primary cause is the tendency of feet to swell during long rides. This increases pressure inside the shoes, which, in turn, compresses nerves. The result is a burning sensation in the ball of the foot and tingling or numb toes.
Avoid snug-fitting shoes. You may never suffer hot foot if your shoes allow normal swelling without become restrictive. Try on new shoes while wearing your riding socks so you can get an accurate fit. Do it later in the day when feet are a bit fatter. Most shoes come in half sizes. If you’re on the fence, opt for the larger pair.
Spread the metatarsal bones. These are the 5 finger-like bones of the forefoot. When I returned from PAC Tour, I made a beeline to Andy Pruitt at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine with my tale of woe. He ordered custom cycling orthotics with a small dome just behind the metatarsal heads. This bump spreads the bones to prevent pressure on the nerves that run between them. It worked great for me and has been the solution for many other riders. Pruitt later collaborated with Specialized to develop the Body Geometry line of shoes, which have a metatarsal dome built into the insole.
Make an emergency dome. If you’re on a tour and suffering, check the foot-care section of a pharmacy. You may find “metatarsal buttons” that you can stick to your insoles. If not, you’ll see a number of foam or moleskin products that you can adapt. Remember, the insole buildup goes in the center, just behind the metatarsal heads in the depression adjacent to the ball of the foot. This is about one-third of the distance between your toes and heel.
Move cleats rearward. This has been the salvation for many long-distance riders. The idea is to reduce direct pressure on the ball of the foot by moving it in front of the pedal axle. For most riders, simply sliding the cleats to the rear of the sole slots will do the job. Some riders, however, need to drill new cleat-mounting holes to get back far enough for this trick to work.
Loosen straps. Even if a metatarsal dome is in place and your shoes fit perfectly, they’re likely to begin feeling tight as a ride wears on. As soon as you sense it happening, loosen the straps and/or closure system. In the typical road shoe with 3 straps, it’s mainly the top one nearest your ankle that makes the shoe feel secure during pedaling (like an old-fashion toe strap). You can keep it snug because it has the least effect on forefoot pressure. The lower straps can be loosened a lot without harming pedaling efficiency.
Things may be slightly different with the new Boa closure systems. Some have a combination of straps and the filament closure that is dialed-in for tightness or looseness. So, depending on the particular model, just try to loosen the section of the shoe nearest the toe box and ball of your foot, in particular.
Wear thinner socks. And if that doesn’t help enough, switch to thinner insoles , and socks. Or don’t use insoles at all. Your shoes will be roomier, allowing feet to swell without compressing nerves.
Coach Fred Matheny is an RBR co-founder who has four decades of road cycling and coaching experience. He has written 14 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach Fred Matheny, including the classic Complete Book of Road Bike Training, which includes 4 eBooks comprising 250 pages of timeless, detailed advice and training plans. The Complete Book is one of the many perks of an RBR Premium Membership. Click to read Fred’s full bio.