First, a Little Background…
I started mountain biking in the summer of 2015. I grew up snowmobiling, four-wheeling, and riding my single speed bikes anywhere my legs could take me. My family owned a dairy farm with plenty of land to romp around. Mountain biking felt like an easy transition from a familiarity from childhood. I rode a 29” hardtail for my first season before buying a dual suspension in 2016. This is when I made my transition to a clipless set up.
I had never clipped in before. I had no idea how to set the cleats or what adjustments to make. I even brought my shoes to a bike shop help me with the install. The cleats were positioned in the middle of the track and centered. Looking back, I am a little embarrassed to say I never considered the position of the cleats and how that would impact my joints up the chain. If my feet are secured in one position, well, what does that means for my knees, hips, back, etc. I pedaled like that for...a bit too long.
Shift in Thought
Being a physical therapist and considering body mechanics and movement patterns throughout my day, my curiosity began to spike with how to properly fit bikes. Some of this was driven by my own low-grade, lower back pain and occasional cranky knees after 4+ miles of riding. I did what any science nerd would do: research. I wanted to attend a course on how to fit bikes, especially mountain bikes. From what I could tell, there wasn’t a specific course or education materials for mountain bike fitting. There are several camps of thought for cycling and different ways to fit bikes. The BikeFit course incorporated both mountain bikes and road bikes. I attended a Level I BikeFit course in April 2019 to learn about principles of bike-fitting.
As you start to dive into the educational material, it becomes clear that a huge component of a good fit starts with the feet. This made perfect sense to me from a clinical standpoint. There are so many connections to injuries or irritations that we see that are stemming from the feet. For example, with our athletes who have a lack of ankle mobility leading to altered squat mechanics generally coupled with lower back pain.
What to Consider
We all have a natural walking, running, and jumping pattern that is unique to us. We have a natural stance that is comfortable for our own body. The trouble with a clipless set up on a bike, this natural foot positioning is often overlooked when mounting the cleats. Even I was guilty of this, and my entire profession revolves around the way the body moves. This can lead to issues from power output to discomfort. When you clip-in, your foot is clamped down flat and oriented however you have your cleats. Imagine if you had to walk like this all day? I have yet to see someone in my career whose walking pattern would match my original cleat set up. For the record, it didn’t work for me either.
A Good Place to Start
An easy trick to start with, primarily for performance, first adjust where the cleat should orient in the track up and down. You want the base (metatarsal head) of your pinky toe (fifth metatarsal) to be over your pedal spindle. This will create a shorter lever arm for your calf muscles and be more efficient, less taxing. Some shoes and cleats are limited in their ability to make adjustments, you have to take what you can get! Cleats can be adjusted up and down, side-to-side, rotated, and we can even add wedges to match your forefoot tilt or shims for leg length discrepancy. You will notice a red plate under my cleats in the photo, this is a cleat wedge to provide a degree of tilt to match my natural foot angle in my forefoot.
Have Pain with Biking?
If you are curious to learn more or you have pain or discomfort, reach out to us to see how we can help. Our philosophy of care revolves around keeping people doing the activities that they love. We can look at your alignment by using a biker trainer and lasers to see where the knee is tracking over the foot. Put the foot and knee in better alignment, one that mimics your natural movement, and enjoy a more comfortable riding experience. Maybe your bike set up is great, but there is a strength or mobility deficit, we can help with this too :)
My Bikes Shoes
Notice the cleat alignment in the track up/down, side-to-side, and the slight rotation. The red plate under my cleat is a forefoot wedge to mimic my natural degree of foot tilt to create a comfortable mount to my pedal.