Shoe, Pedal and Foot Placement Tips for Flat Pedals

Sep 11, 2012 at 0:05
Sep 11, 2012
by James Wilson  
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I get a lot of questions from mountain bikers about how to keep their feet planted on their flat pedals and I have found that it usually boils down to 3 things – Shoes, Pedal Selection and Foot Placement. If even one of these things is wrong you will struggle to feel comfortable on your flats or really maximize their performance.

1) Shoe Selection: The #1 thing to know about riding flat pedals is that a good pair of flat pedal specific shoes is a must. If you are trying to ride flat pedals with your tennis shoes then you'll never feel confident on the trail. You need shoes that are made specifically for riding flat pedals, preferably with a sticky rubber compound like that found on the soles of 5-10 brand shoes. I wrote an article going over the different model shoes 5-10 makes and the types of riding I use them for that you can read by clicking here.

2) Pedal Selection: If you have a good pair of riding shoes then you can get a mid-level pedal and be just fine. While some pedals are definitely nicer and hold up longer than others no one has really cornered the market on the "best" pedal so I prefer to go with a couple of guidelines when recommending pedals.

- Make sure it has a relatively thin profile. A thinner profile pedal lowers your center of gravity on the bike and improves your power transfer into the crank arms.

- Make sure that it is wide enough to comfortably get the majority of your foot on it. If more than ½ inch of your foot is hanging over the edge of the pedal then it is not wide enough and can result in a numb pinkie toe.

3) Foot Placement: The first thing that you will notice on flat pedals is that your feet naturally go to a mid-foot position where the ball of the foot is placed in front of the pedal axle. This is much different than the foot position where most clipless pedals want to put you, which is with the ball of the foot directly over the axle. However, having the ball of the foot in front of the axle is actually a more natural and, one could argue, better position for your foot.

From a functional movement point of view, trying to place the ball of your foot directly on top of the pedal axle is not the best position for your foot to be whether you are on flats or clipless pedals. Driving through the ball of the foot is what you want to do when you are propelling your center of gravity forward - like when running or jumping - but this is not what is happening when we pedal out bikes. When pedaling you are driving the pedals away from you, much like when you squat or deadlift, and that type of leg drive is much better delivered from a more mid-foot position. This more mid-foot position also allows improved recruitment of the hips during the pedal stroke, especially when standing.

You'll also find that this mid-foot position will also allow you to better drop your heels when standing up in your "attack position" to flow through rock gardens or other trail features. By dropping your heels you will sit back into your hips more, getting your center of gravity lower and further back, and also keep your feet pressing into your pedals when you hit rocks and bumps in the trail instead of getting pushed off the top of them.

Below you'll find a video in which I go over each of these 3 tips. If you feel like your feet are bouncing off your pedals more than you want – especially if you’ve spent a lot of time on clipless pedals before trying flats – then this is the video you’ve been waiting for. Watch as I reveal what you need to know about shoes, pedals and foot placement to get the most out of riding flat pedals.

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MTB Strength Training Systems is the world leader in integrated performance training programs for the unique demands of mountain biking. As the strength and conditioning coach for World Cup Teams and 3 National Championships, his programs have been proven at the highest levels. James has helped thousands of riders just like you improve their speed, endurance and skills on the trail. Visit to sign up for the free Trail Rider Fundamentals Video Mini-Course.

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  • + 8
 who says that if a rider switches from clips to flats and his/her feet start bouncing off, that they had "bad technique" when they were riding clipped in? When clipped, you don't need to to worry about keeping lots of pressure on the pedals, and can instead be lighter on your feet, with a more active lower body to absorb impacts. I don't think that you're supposed to ride clipless pedals the same as flats, they're two entirely different animals with their own proper techniques.
  • + 1
 you really shouldn't be "light on your feet" ever heard of this guy lee mccormack, one of the best skills coaches out there and if you take one of his clinics he'll fix your feet bouncing around... light hand heavy feet! learn on flats, have fun on flats and race clips,....
  • + 1
 @cglasford- checkout what Stevie has to say about that: jump to 6:30 in the video.
  • + 2
 and just before that he talks about how he used them for filming and it was easier and more fun so it goes right back to my last statement and if you want to rock heavy hands and light feet go for it i'll send you a get well card in the hospital when they are rebuilding your collar bone
  • + 0
 and from the "Unforgettable Adventure - Easton Riders in NZ" story reposted on PB on Sep 26, 2012: "Concentrate on staying light on your wheels and go as fast as you can - 10x World Champ Nico's last words before disappearing ahead of the group down another hair ball section of roots." I appreciate your concern for my collar bone, I hope you send letters to all these pro's too when their "bad technique" lands them in the hospital.
  • + 8
 if your feet are bouncing off your peddles it could also just be the set up of your rear shock....
  • + 10
 But probably not....more likely that you aren't properly absorbing impacts with your legs and core.

I didn't watch the vid, but the article doesn't mention where the ball of your foot is; it's the padded area behind your toes.

It's also worth mentioning that you will never be the fastest rider if you ride flats...just say' give me negative props...since you can't refute this with facts. The days of the fastest riders riding flats are over, but flats are safer and more fun, IMHO.
  • - 13
flag longgully-freerider (Sep 11, 2012 at 4:28) (Below Threshold)
 if your feet are bouncing off, RIDE CLIPS!
  • + 13
 ""if your feet are bouncing off your peddles it could also just be the set up of your rear shock..."...and what if you don´t have one...??.
  • + 13
 Its not as simple as saying if your feet come off ride clips. I dont think Sam Hill or Brook MacDonald have problems with their feet blowing off. It comes down to bike set up and your riding technique. Either rebound thats too fast or just not absorbing the terrain through your legs and arms will cause this problem. Riding with clips to solve the problem is just covering up your problems and it wont help your riding at all.
  • + 14
 Protour - I'd like to add that you might never become a fastest rider if you ride only clipless...
  • + 8
 100% accurate Waki. One should "graduate" to using clipless... if your feet are "bouncing" off pedals without them then you are not ready. Too many people rush into them they become a crutch.
  • + 5
 I actually prefer flats are higher level of riding (well I switched that way) because it alows me to do more stupid things and progress faster. I have to be more cautious about some stuff in clips
  • - 1
 Gwin "graduated" to riding clips at the age of 6 or 7 years old or somewhere around there, lol. Not saying it's the reason hes the fastest rider ever, but the earlier you switch, the more natural they feel.

Buut there was one race this year where Lopes was announcing and was talking about how Hill would probably lose time in the last pedaling section of the course, then I think he actually ended up being the fastest racer in that section and made up time, making Lopes look like a fool. But typically these days the fastest guys are clipped in.

But yeah, wAKI, it's good to ride flats sometimes, especially in the powdery snow DH conditions, my favorite conditions.
  • + 4
 There was a whole article about pedaling recently. It kinda pointed out that there's a lot of myth about the benefits of clipless.

"You can (and should) be able to pedal your bike very effectively with flat pedals."
  • + 2
 Twenty6 Predator pedals and 510's if you have "pedal bounce" problems with these...well you just have problems
  • + 1
 I wouldn't call Gwin the fastest rider ever. He's won two world cups back to back. Pretty sure Sam Hill did that once too. really the fastest rider ever is Steve Peat as he has the most World Cup Victories, although he does mostly ride clips, but he doesn't solely ride clips.
  • + 3
 Ya Peaty may have the most wins ever so far but keep in mind he has been racing for 20 years! And add to that only 1 World Championship whereas people like Nico Vouilloz have won 16 World Cup races and have 7 Senior World Champ titles 5 of which were back to back. Gwin has 9 WC victories, over half way to Peatys record and hes only been racing pro about 4 years. Peatys a legend, no one can deny that but he's not the fastest racer ever in my opinion anyway.
  • + 1
 all of the articles by James Wilson are great, and i love his strength training videos, but what did flat pedals ever do to him, he is completely biased against clips, if you have ridden clips for a while there you really don't feel locked in at all. most of the fastest hardtail riders use clips because you have to stay super light on the bike and lift your back wheel like 3000 times a ride to not die,

is there something you want to talk about James?
  • + 6
 sorry but the fastest rider ever was E.T
  • + 1
 look at the tour de france or paris-roubaix, no the pros dont decide whats best but why arent they riding flats if theyre so much better james? flats and clips are personal preference IMO personally I'm constantly switching back and forth as I ride differently on different tracks and have a riding style to match if that makes any sense, there will be another great rider on flats look at sam hill the guys a legend although in world cups clips will always have more riders on them
  • + 1
 E.T. rocked clips on his DH bike though...
  • + 2
look at the tour de france or paris-roubaix, no the pros dont decide whats best but why arent they riding flats if theyre so much better james?"

No one is questioning if you can put more power out with can FACT
You can also make a more efficient pedal stroke when you run clipless there is far less dwell time and you are using both strokes. This is also great for putting out consistent power over a long period(like when you are riding 60 miles continuously on flat road)

For the most part we do not need to make power over a long period of time we are going downhill.
We make short sprints out of and into corners and we usually have gravity on our side so no need to put out huge KW like climbing a hill or sprinting to the finish at Paris.
World Cup tracks(even local races) often have pedal sections were you can make or loose time if you don't have good fitness BUT even a good rider on clipless will loose time to a rider on flats who can put out more KW longer.

What it comes down to for me as a racer is....
if you loose time having to clip in and out in corners or
you are not able to charge rough sections for fear of having to unclip or
you unclip for a corner and can't get clipped back in for a few seconds
then any gain you have on the flat pedaly sections just got wiped out.

If the course is smooth and has lot's of pedaling I ride SPD other wise I run flats 90% of the time
On my road bike, XC bike and Enduro bike I ride SPD.
What does matter for me is control and being able to get off and on my pedals quickly
Other then putting down power Flats are better then clipless IMO

Just a thought when was the last time you "clipped in" to go ride your motocross bike? If it offered SO much more control why don't they do it?
  • + 2
 I enjoy riding flats more, but clearly there are trade-offs. I don't think James is saying otherwise.

I rode clips for 6 or 7 years while racing BMX, so when I first started mountain biking about three years ago I rode clips. A year later I decided to try flats for freestyle riding, and the holes that clips had created in my pedaling were glaringly apparent. 2 years since riding only flats my riding ability has increased dramatically, and I think I have filled in many of those holes. Even still there are lines that I could ride clipped in 2 years ago that I can't ride now with flats, and it's hella frustrating.

Maybe I'll go back to riding clips someday, or I will achieve the skills I need to keep having as much fun as I do on clips, but pedal as well as I could with clips. Anyway, like I said, I think there clearly are trade-offs, and to say that riding flates is "better" is equally as annoying as saying the same about clips.
  • + 4
 er heard of Brook Macdonald? that guy who just won a World Cup? On flat pedals..
  • + 2
 it comes down to your riding style and personal preference, I hardly ever take my feat off my pedals even when i rode flats and also once you get proficient clipping in and out its just as quick and our foot is in the right position and you don't have to worry about readjusting your foot once its in
  • + 3
 As a matter of the fact in most cases when riding flat pedals in proper stance, your foot will end up in the right position described above. And saying it is your own preference is true only if someone can do both very well, most importantly if he is presented with pros and cons of both and understands them. Many who post this ever present argument (also constantly repeated in discussions about wearing helmets or even fastening seatbelts in the car) are forgetting that not everyone is a MTB-skills badass ( as everyone on this site OFK)

Most beginners with slightly fatter wallet are shuffled clipless down their throats immediately after they buy the mountain bike, no matter what kind it is. Then they ride out of balance and lack confidence, developing nothing more than bad habits, I know people who cant bunny hop after 5 years of riding, yet race XC and DH. And it happens because someone told them, "clipless is more efficient all PROs ride it" - the guy that told them this will get more money by selling clipless shoes and pedals than if he sold flats, he also probably offered a bike fit as well

Flat pedals promote better riding technique than clipless. The only thing clipless promote is keeping your foot up on the inside pedal, they also give a racing edge to those who can take advantage of it. If someobody says: I ride clipless to stay on the bike, then he/she has the first hint that there's some work to be done on riding stance, relaxing and jumping skills.
  • + 1
 ahh sorry folks misunderstood there, though the guy had gone staright off the deep end thinking flats give more power, I have no clue why anybody would ever suggest you start riding clipped on the mtb its just stupid you need the confidence when your learning, I can tell anybody thinking about swapping right now: if your not 100% confident on the bike and your local trails stay off clipless, if you want to be aboe to unclip in the rough sections again dont swap, its all personal preference but everybody should learn on flats they just give so much more confidence for very little downfall I think people should be confident on both but it comes down to riding style and the looseness of the trail
  • + 4
 Interesting piece. Ever since Dirt Rag (I think it was DR, maybe it was BIKE) Magazine published a piece extolling the virtues of riding flats, I know a few people who switched immediately, which was completely silly. It shouldn't be perceived as a fad. I think when it comes down to it, it's all about personal preference. We can't discount the comfort factor for people still learning. If you're introducing someone to MTB, I would definitely start them on flats and let them decide for themselves later on.

I started MTBing on clipless because I came from the road bike world and didn't know any better. It scared me shitless being attached to a bike hurtling down a rock garden. Discovering flats was a Godsend. I am now so much more ambitious, brave and comfortable knowing I can instantly throw a foot down (without snapping an ankle) if attempting a feature or jump doesn't go well. I don't need to be fast.

On the rare occasion I race XC, I absolutely use clipless. But my big, burly Yeti has permanent flats. It likes to eat trails. It doesn't need to go fast. :-)
  • + 3
 I ride flats and have always placed the balls of my feet over the axel, I have and I always will argue that placing the mid foot position over the axel sacrifices 3-4 inches(both neg and positive adding up to 6-8 inches) of your bodies natural suspension (like doing calf raises). I also argue that pedaling dynamics are lost, imagine a baseball pitcher pitching with out the use of their finger joints, accuracy would be seriously comprimised and they would be lucky, if at best, they could pitch 70mph compared to the 100mph+ they are capable of. Riding with your mid foot positioned over your axel reduces the full range of your ankle joint.
  • + 2
 I agree with positioning of the foot on the pedal and dropping the heels in steep terrain and while braking. But you forgot to mention one technique to help with keeping feet on the pedals while jumping, Just a little dip of the toes will help to grip the pedals while in the air, Same for the level lift, bunny hop and rear wheel lift. Just my 2 cents worth. Thanks for a good article.
  • + 2
 Reading comments where people's MTB rider identity/ego is bound up completely in pedal choice = poor waste of my time. Let's get out of the middle school bragging mindset and pay attention to what James's article is about.

You're not a hero or badass if you ride flats; you're not a wimp or skill-deficient if you ride clips.

Likewise flats are not impossible to manage, and you can learn to release from clips to bail just as easily if on flats. It's just about what you choose to prefer: mechanical bike connection (clips) or having to manage a foot/pedal interface in the same way you manage how you rest on the saddle, or use your hands on your grips.

James is correct when he talks about getting the ball of your foot slightly forward of the pedal axle. But then he says clipless shoes/pedals want the ball of your foot behind or over the pedal axle. I think that's a poor generalization to make, and it seems rooted in his same old vendetta against/vengeance toward clips. That's as boring as reading comments where people tie their ego to pedal choice.

I can set my cleats to where the ball of my foot is ahead of the pedal spindle. Most shoes have long enough slots to let you do this. I'm not sure what shoes James has examined or used, but they haven't been the ones I've been on for the past decade -- Lake shoes.

The point about a thinner pedal lowering your COG is pretty obnoxious when you consider that good riding requires a fluid riding style, one where your core is stabilized but certainly moving up and down (as well as side to side) as required by the terrain. Where your core is located is a much better place to look at where your COG is.

Not your foot's relation to the pedal spindle changing by 1/4".
  • - 2
 I hated your first 3 paragraphs of conciliatory statements, cause it's not about ego; I like to start debates on here to hear different perspectives, and the best way to get people to talk is to agitate them.

But I agree with you about clipless pedal foot positioning, cleats further back puts you in a better riding position and generates more power.
  • + 2
 CFOxtrot, I like how you try to make that second paragraph sound as if you are arguing against some false dichotomy, but you're really just being equally obnoxious. Nice.
  • + 2
 I didn't "try to make it sound" like anything, Palpatine. It says what it says. James Wilson is the one who's rhetorically dishonest. Dude has a terrible priapism case regarding clips.

Protour, watch out for debate spurring. Most PBers are sheeplike robots who just regurgitate marketing copy in a pretense at expertise. They all aspire to be Upie.
  • + 2
 I've ridden clipped in for most of the time I've been mountain biking; which, admittedly has only been a few years but once I got the technique down to get in and out (took a few months), I never had a problem with them and even preferred them. Not being able to get off in time really isn't a problem. It came to the point where I was out before I even knew it- I didn't even have to think about it. Plus, all the "good" riders I to ride use'em. Well, except one; he was very anti-clips. He wore me down eventually and whenever I'd swap for flats I couldn't keep my goddamn foot on the pedal. I hated that and always went back to my SPDs.

Truth is tho, that fact itself wore me down: I suck on flats. How? I've ridden a bike all my life, a vast majority of the time it was on regular ol' flats. I liked the fact I was attached to my bike: that when I jumped or landed, my feet would stay where they were; that it gave me that extra motivation to get over something and not to cop out and foot down. Plus that sound and feel of the snap when I start off- that awesome, I'm-a-legit-biker feeling. These are all good things but my feet had become so sloppy and lazy; that didn't sit well with me.

I've been recovering from a broken leg these past months and actually rode a trail for the first time since May a couple days ago, on flats; it wasn't too bad. Granted, I've been on stationary bikes the past few months rebuilding my strength, on flats. I was a bit scared to get any air, thinking my feet will fly off (and my technique sucks, if I have one, so that needs to get better too). Truth is I'll probably use clips on the more rare, longer rides, but everything else I'm going to try to ride well on flats. There is a certain quality I like about them that I'm not sure how to describe...

So yeah, to sum up- I didn't like flats due to possible extracurricular foot activity (and that I sucked on'em).

Cool vid, I'll give the tips a try next time I'm out.
  • + 2
 I think you're missing the point of Clipped pedals. Clips aren't so keep your feet in place, they're so you can transfer power from one leg to the cranks during the full rotation of the cranks, not just half.
  • + 2
 They are meant to keep your feet in place as well.
  • + 1
 digby, the "keeping your feet in place" is secondary to the mechanical connection, and required (to a degree) by the connection. It FOLLOWS from clips, it is NOT the point of clips.

Anyone who's used the variety of clipless pedals (road and MTB both) available since the late 1980s knows this.
  • + 1
 The best shoe, pedal and foot placement to reduce and eliminate flat pedal problems is already invented and is called SPDs. I saw here in PinkBike article that only 18% of Whistler rides SPD/clipless and that is ridiculously small part. Ever since I've switched to SPDs ride is smoother, less slips and shin stitches, better power transfer etc. Haven't seen a disadvantage with SPDs so far, and yes I have had spills and it's not much worse then with flats Smile
  • + 2
 For us people with bad ankles, having the balls of our feet directly over the axles doesn't work so well with big impacts. I need to have the balls of my feet in front of the axles.
  • + 2
 One quibble:

James says, "...most clipless pedals want to put you...with the ball of the foot directly over the axle."

If this is the case, then your cleats are set up incorrectly.
  • + 1
 I honestly hard ever pedal slip with my left foot, my right leg is practically skinned whilst my left is almost fine haha, something to do with me riding right foot forward? or just being a goof with my right leg... haha
  • + 3
 Whilst I agree mid-foot works for flats, for clipless it feels horrible. Ball of the feet works, tried and tested.
  • + 5
 Depends upon personal preference, and the mid-foot position generates more power on the pedals with clipless according to the experts and all of the roadie studies that have been done.
  • + 0
 It's funny but I'm not sure that the 5.10's are the bast as far as pedaling efficiency goes... One of the reasons - beside the clips of course - that make the clipless shoes more efficient is the stiffness of the soles, correct? I checked out a pair of "flat style" 661's that have the option for clips if you cut out the rubber: they are much stiffer than a pair of 5.10. So if you use them with flats you have the benefit of freedom of the flat pedals, with the added stiffness that helps transmission of power.

I personalty use 5.10, but I have two complains: they get soft fast so I can really feel the loss of power when climbing and they are TOO sticky... how many times have I found myself in a bad position after a rough spot and couldn't reposition my feet! With any pair of good skate shoe you get plenty enough grip and you have more style options. Just maintain your pedals and change the pins!
  • + 3
 This is a good advert for 5 10, I hope they payed you.
"so after you've got yourself a pair of 5 10's..." haha.
  • + 1
 possibly, but I'm not paid by them, and I agree. feet moved around on flats until I got 5.10s. Now I can't move them when I want to, may try some of those new freerider Vxi shoes to solve that problem.
  • + 2
 The amount of pins and length of them also affect pedal slippage on flats. I run 8mm pins on my VP's and 5-10's and have never slipped a pedal. Just my 2c
  • + 1
 Flats and 5:10's - no issues at all. I have heard of people going from clip in's to 5:10's saying they are as good.
I just don't like the idea of being locked into my pedals - it's scary.
  • + 2
 I ride both flats and SPD's and I have to say that 5:10's and good pedals, while the best option if you are riding flats, are not the same as riding clipless. And I know it seems scary, but clipless is hardly "locked in" to your pedals. I've bailed many many many times and always clipped out. It's not even a matter of clipping out in time, it just happens naturally, even pedal strikes will clip you out the odd time, it's not like you're locked in really tight.

Just my two cents.
  • + 1
 Gravelmans, I'm with you, I rode clips for a season for XC, but the number of times I fell on stupid stuff because I didn't clip out in time was ruining my riding. I found I spent my time worrying about how I'd get out if things got gnarly, rather than riding and enjoying myself. I know, I know ... practice makes perfect - but I'm way more comfortable on flats. I'm not a serious XC rider, so it's not like it really matters. I love riding technical, and I love knowing that if I have to stab a foot down,I can. I also find that clipless doesn't let me have my foot in a comfortable position for technical descending. The midfoot postion that James talks about, braced against the pedal, works so much better for me.
  • + 1
 I feel when I go down a fast downhill section and there are bumps my feet fly forward and then my heel is in the middle of my pedals. I have specific shoes and the pedals arent too small? Very interesting article!
  • + 5
 Try dropping your heels.
  • + 1
 yup, get them heels down. The Brian Lopes book talks about this.
  • + 0
 I'm a girl and I ride flats. Now I have scars from slipped pedals on my shins but my husband claims that "next time you won't be sloppy and you won't do that"... I believe I have learned to absorb terrain better and use technique to get over logs etc instead of just depending on being attached to the bike. I don't think I will ever compete and really need the extra pedal power that clippless provide. However, if I ever entered races I would want clippless because there is no way you can pedal as efficiently on flats.
  • - 5
flag themountain (Sep 11, 2012 at 14:04) (Below Threshold) got scars...poor you !! Frown
  • + 1
 good clip i,m a cross-over i rode clipped in for many yrs and just got into riding again and am planing on staying with flats
  • + 3
 I have clipless on my XC and flats on my AM and DJ. I like both, clipless definitely helps with maintaining speed over long distances but flats just gives more confidence for technical sections Smile Both are good, just depends on the style of riding. And this video is just an excuse for me to buy another pair of 5.10s!
  • + 1
 I used to ride with SPD's about 8 years ago. Then got more into DH and general AM riding using flats. Last weekend I dug out the SPD's and put them on my XC bike and went for a ride around my local woods. I really enjoyed them again, but I found myself holding very tightly on the bars on the down bits no way as loose as using flats on my other bike. I was thinking to myself. Road and XC yes, anything else is a no for me. I would even not use them in the wet winter months
  • + 2
 Im tired of this dude trying to prove flats are better than clips. haha Get it over it James Clipped is the way to go.
  • + 1
 personal preference, whatever floats your boat, whatever rocks your garden...
  • + 1
 I really like these segments, but how do you explain a better energy transfer with lower profile pedals?
  • + 2
 A pair of vans and some flats work wonders
  • + 1
 For sure. Gwin uses Vans, I like my DC's.
  • + 1
 5.10 Freeriders with Canfield Crampons! Love that setup!
  • + 1
 old school Pumas grip just as well but don't have any arch support.
  • + 1
 Thanks for posting great articles like this!
  • + 1
 i have Teva Links and they are great!
  • + 1
 yes! I've been wandering about this for quite some time. thanks Smile

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