Your feet are an important contact point with the bike. Without your feet being in the right place you will pedal with less power, be less stable through technical trail sections and set yourself up for an overuse injury.
The problem is that most riders have been given the wrong idea about where to place their foot on their pedals. You see, we forget that at one point someone took a guess about where to place the foot on the pedal and today we simply take it as gospel.
But what if the original “pedal stroke theorists
” were wrong? What if they didn’t realize that they were looking at things the wrong way and applying the wrong logic sequence to the problem?In other words, what if the current advice about where to place your foot on the pedal is based on faulty logic in the first place?
But before we can even start getting into the logic sequence of where you want to place your foot on the pedal we need to back up and answer an even more important question…Does pedaling a bike require an engineering based or a movement based solution?
For a lot of people this is the first time they have ever heard this question. They’ve always assumed that there was just one logic sequence you could use to arrive at the perfect pedal stroke so let me explain the difference.
And once I do you will see how important this question really is.
The engineering based solution looks at pedaling the bike from the bikes point of view – if we were going to design a machine to power this bike, what would we want it to do?However, the movement based solution looks at things from the human organism’s point of view – how do we take the way the body is hardwired to optimally move and apply it to the bike?
For a long time the engineering based solution has been the dominate train of thought in pedal stroke theory. When you do that you can come up with all sorts of nifty ideas on how to add power to the pedal stroke.
The two most common pieces of advice from the engineering based solution are to pull up on the backstroke to keep even tension on the pedals and to place the ball of your foot over the axle of the pedal so you can push and pull through the ankle.
Both of these things make sense… in theory. If I was designing a machine from scratch to pedal a bike I’d have it pulling and pushing at the same time while also extending and pulling with every joint to add to the potential power.The problem is that the human organism isn’t a machine and comes pre-wired with ways it likes to move.
For example, when you push down hard with your lead leg there is an automatic activation of the muscles that retract the other leg. Your body is pre-hardwired for you to focus on pushing hard and letting the Passive Mechanics of the body reset the other leg to push down hard.
Runners know that and this is why they don’t try to add forward power with the return of the trail leg. They instead focus on simply driving their lead leg into the ground.You waste energy and start to lose power when you try to overcome the body’s pre-wired Passive Mechanics.
And this is exactly what you see in the Mornieux (et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) and Korf (et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) Cycling Efficiency Studies I have referenced in the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto
This idea of a movement vs. engineering based solution extends to foot placement as well. From the engineering perspective you would want the ankle to extend so you could push through the ball of the foot. Heck, it even looks like how you run or walk so it has to have some basis in movement as well, right?
Again, not so fast.When you look at the foot and lower leg from a movement based perspective you see that there are two very different ways for the lower leg to act.
The first is running, walking or jumping. In these activities you are wanting to move your center of gravity from over your base of support so you can change position in space. This does require a push off through the fore foot to “jump” in order to break contact with the ground so you can.
Pushing through the ball of the foot to propel ourselves forward.
But this isn’t the only way that we move. We also need to move in a way where our center of gravity stays on top of our base of support. Squatting and dead lifting in the gym are good examples, as are bending over to pick up a box or standing up from a chair in the everyday world.When we move this way we want our feet to stay solidly planted to the ground for maximum balance, muscle recruitment and power transfer.
We don’t want to come up on the ball of the foot because it will actually decrease strength and balance.
Feet staying firmly planted on the ground.
The foot and lower leg act very differently in these two situations and so we should figure out which most closely resembles pedalling so we can apply it. And when we are pedalling our bikes we are not actually moving our center of gravity forward – we are pushing the pedals away from us and the bike is carrying our center of gravity with it.
Pedalling your bike is much more like squatting or dead lifting than running or jumping. And when you look at the lower leg and foot mechanics of this type of movement you see that you do not want to be balancing on and pushing through the ball of your foot.This is why you naturally go to a mid-foot position on flat pedals.
If you don’t have someone telling you that it is wrong and strapping your feet to where they “should
” go most people would naturally find this foot position themselves and stick with it.Your body, which is infinitely smarter than all of the experts who are “lecturing birds on how to fly” in this matter, instantly recognizes what they don’t – that you are far more balanced and powerful in that mid-foot position than you are trying to balance on your toes.
Don’t place the ball of your foot on top of the pedal axle, look to place it in front of it.
When you are squatting or deadlifting you want to keep your weight balanced on your feet. Your calf is helping to stabilize the ankle by isometrically contracting to help with the power transfer through the feet into the ground. If you try to have the calf stop stabilizing isometrically and ask it to move so you can push through the ball of your foot it will result in much less power and force being transferred into the ground.So, this means that when we pedal our bikes we also want to have a mid-foot position.
This foot position will automatically allow for better recruitment of the hips, which are the strongest muscles in the lower body and the real secret to pedalling power. You’ll also be more balanced and stable when you stand up to pedal or get into the attack position for technical sections and downhills.
And since this mid-foot position doesn’t require us to strap our feet into what your body recognizes as an unnatural position, it is yet another reason that you don’t need clipless pedals. Anyone who tells you that you need them for finding the perfect foot position and forcing your feet to stay there is selling you an engineering based solution that doesn’t work with your body’s natural ways of moving.Another problem with the engineering based solution for foot placement is that machines are inherently fragile and hate disorder.
You want to smooth out as many rough edges as possible and look for symmetrical, repeatable movement.
But, like I pointed out earlier, the human body is not a machine, it is an organism. And organisms that move are inherently Anti-Fragile. This means that, up to a certain point, they actually benefit from some disorder and “noise”.
Your body literally uses this disorder to improve and when you try and take it away by smoothing out all the rough edges you actually fragilize the system.In other words, your feet were never meant to be put in the exact same position every time they touch your pedals.
They also aren’t supposed to be strapped down so they are in the exact same position for your entire ride. Yes, your feet working to maintain position uses more energy compared to strapping them into clipless shoes and pedals, but that movement is needed to keep the system healthy.
Quick side note – this is another reason that I advocate that riders who do use clipless pedals still ride flats at least part of the time. It will keep your pedal stroke and skills sharp while also allowing for the feet to move more naturally.
This need for “noise” and disorder is something that the engineering based solutions doesn’t account for. Organisms thrive off of some disorder, machines break because of it and so there is a much different mindset and logic sequence used for each.So don’t fall for someone trying to sell you on the need to find the “optimal foot placement position” and then forcing your foot in that exact same position every time you ride.
This is actually much worse on the body than letting your foot have slight variations in how it is placed on the pedals despite the engineering based theories of how this “wastes energy”.
As you can see, how we answered the engineering based vs. movement based question led us to a very different view of where we should place our foot on the pedal. It is kind of like Alice’s rabbit hole – you can get sucked pretty far down it before you know it so make sure you choose the right one in the first place.When you start to look at pedaling and maneuvering your bike as requiring a movement based solution you start to see things in a much different light.
Instead of trying to force the body to move in way it doesn’t want to in the name of some engineering based theory, learn how to work with your body’s natural ways of movement and apply them to the bike.
It will open up the door to much higher levels of performance and while placing much less wear and tear on the body in the process.
BTW, I’m not the only coach who advocates this mid-foot position on the pedals. I can point to Joel Friel
and Greg Choat
as two other high level coaches who don’t think pushing through the ball of the foot is the right thing to do. I'd also like to go ahead and say that I am not anti-engineering in some way. Engineering based solutions are great if I am building a machine or a building and using bio-mechanics (which is just engineering applied to the body) is great IF you take the organism and how it moves into account first. I'm just pointing out that that the current pedal stroke theories lean too heavily on the the first two without a true understanding of the latter.
Until next time…
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This article takes an interesting real-world-physiology vs engineering perspective to prove mid foot is better. But in that case, why do all the pros clip-in for XC or road riding? It has obviously proven otherwise in the real world.
That said, this article assumes pedalling efficiency is of utmost importance. I'd argue that for DH the ability to pump and absorb hits with the legs is just as - if not more - important. You'd think being on the ball of your foot would help with that too.
"Not reading all that",
*proceeds to read the 200 comment long chain in the e-bike post and gets involved in a wheelsize argument*
@PLC07: nailed it!
Also, as many have commented, if clipless is so bad, why every pro XC or roadie uses it?
Time yourself on a 30 second blast up a hill with flats and then again clipped in. Actually don't bother, because you know what the outcome will be.
Having said that, I stopped using clipless pedals when I was 19 because of the knee pain. I can ride all day on flats with no worries so there you go. I'd have to agree with the "noise" part from personal experience, and disagree with the power output part based also on personal experience.
Here's the actual facts: Spindle under ball of foot, maximum power and control. Spindle behind ball of foot, maximum endurance (useful for triathlons and other tired people).
Anyone with a respectable amount of saddle time can tell you this, no studies needed.
And yes being on the balls of your feet does put a lot of strain on your calves... if that's problematic for you it's because your calves aren't strong enough, but they will be if you keep riding.
Or you ride like a Sally....
For DH riding, though, I tend to just keep my foot on the pedals - I don't much give a damn where they end up as long as they aren't in my shins.
You're also forgetting that your hands are holding the bars, unlike in deadlift and sqaut where your purely using your legs to balance, which will make a huge difference.
Furthermore if you ride on your midsole you more or less eliminate any flex in your ankle contributing to shock absorbtion through your leg. I'd say you're trying a bit too much to apply gyming to biking but that's just my opinion.
Similarly, when riding a bike, and especially at high speeds and in instances in which the force of gravity on your body is anything other than 9.8m/s/s, if you do not have your hands or body positioned evenly and distribute the mass (and often momentum) about the center of mass (moment of inertia) you will wind up on your face (eating dirt, grass, pavement, etc.). When riding a bike, you gotta use your whole body and do all kinds of crazy stuff with your body and bike to balance everything out so you don't end up on your face. Riding your bike takes your whole body to balance, just as doing a squat or a dead lift takes your whole body to balance.
Am applying too much gyming to you biking for ya?
All in all, though, very good article, I liked it (I'm a professional in the same field here in Italy), but, just like always, there needs to be scientific evidence behind, otherwise it's just an opinion.
For example there is something right in the noise and disorder reasoning, probably comes from the importance of feedback and proprioception to prevent overuse injuries, but put like that it just sounds somewhat newage-ish. But then again maybe he's just putting things that way for divulgative purposes... look at all the tldr comments and imagine how they would have taken an article containing real science.
I always wear clips, but I don't usually ride DH. I could see flats being fun and comfortable for that with lots of control and easy on off access. Less pedal rolling too.
Despite a few things you said being correct, your understanding of body mechanics and physics is horrible and the reasoning you come up with for stuff is largely wrong. You've extrapolated reasons behind different occurrences without fully understanding the situation which causes them. You may not be "anti-engineer," but you do seem to really want to show you are at least their intellectual equal.
And hate to bring road into this... But surely they know something about performance, millions and millions of £ are spent on loosing hundreds if not thousands of a second. All road riders + track riders use clipped in pedals, don't they, with super stiff carbon soles to get rid of flex otherwise known as wasted energy. So surely more power is transferred through the pedals in this way compared to pushing and not pulling. Pushing and pulling together must transmit more than 1.5 times the power to just pushing surely??
positioning the ball of the foot ahead of the pedal axle doesn't really cost you anything in the majority of cases, and has the benefit of reducing stress on the ankle. James can site you these studies, but research has shown that placing the axle behind the ball of the foot a rider can ride at medium power outputs at a low percentage of VOmax. this is largely due to lower recruitment of the lower leg muscles rather than magic- its like shutting off a cylinder in a car engine to run more efficiently.
At higher power outputs you are less able to produce power if you dont have the ball of your foot positioned over the axle. you can fire up that dead cylinder by putting your lower leg into action through the ankle joint. You also can extend the power phase of the pedal stroke by being able to push forward sooner and pull back later. But you only see this benefit at high power outputs and high RPM's. cyclists who's sport depends on high output chose to clip-in with stiff soles and the ball of the foot over the spindle largely. BMX riders who push out 2200 watts on the gate, Track sprinters, and road riders as well....
for some riders being on the spindle feels best because of their background, chances are if they have a high level in another area of the sport they probably have a lot of flexibility and strength in the muscles and tendons relating to their ankles so the dont need to worry about injury and they can balance just as well. that motion in the ankle can be 6-8 inches of movement that can be used to balance or to soak up impacts, or to drive the bike at max wattage.
its hard to argue against clipped-in and on the spindle when it comes to maximum performance biomechanically, but there are a lot of other reasons that a rider should consider a rear-ward cleat placement, or flats with a more mid-foot placement.
You'll never be frustrated with this issue again...especially after your brain catches up with your body and you stop falling over on the trail.
I agree that the power transfer is fantastic. Another bonus is that it can make it much easier to swap from flats to clips because the foot position is the same.
I drill the new cleat holes instead of slotting because i feel it gives a stiffer feeling to the sole. I've got a couple of photos in my profile of the sole after the mod.
I'm wondering about your claim that "runners don't try to add power with the return of the trail leg". I'd say that this is totally untrue. In sprinting, for instance, tons of power is generated by the trail leg kickback and, stemming from that, the knee drive. Yes, all the *reactive* forces from your stride stem from the drive into the ground. However, it's quite impossible to achieve anything other than a weak, short, upright block start or a weak stride if you don't generate power and drive with the trail leg. Sure, it's a reflexive movement to swing your knee. No, it's not a reflexive movement to generate enough knee drive to achieve good angles or enough power with a proper start. It's an outright absurd thing to claim about how to make power, no matter what distance or style you run.
when i walk up stairs, down stairs, sides ways, backwards, round off camber corners, turn 180deg on the spot, jump, land.... i use the foot (and leg) in all manner of different ways to deal with the chaos of real world situations. and its wonderfully designed to handle it all. shouldnt it be the same for riding? I understand if your riding involves 200km of repetitive spinning. but thats not a good description of your typical mt bike ride.
I have ridden some great bikes (imho) for some time now and I have learned that, for me, GEO (personally on the bike and fitment /foot placement etc. is the most important)....,suspension design is very much an aspect, but all-in-all, geometry is king to find my hero ride.............and as far as I can tell........my existence LOVES FLAT PEDALS!!!!!!
this article makes a generalization which applies to some situations. in fact, for trail riders riding with slightly low saddle heights and flat pedals and moderately flex shoes, (many pink bike readers i assume) I think this makes perfect sense.
but i don't think the article makes it clear enough that depending on fit, flexibility, shoe choice and size etc. etc. results may vary and the "ideal" position for a given rider may be different.
All my cycling life I have spent on the balls of feet and I have notice, especially down hilling that it places a lot of strain on my calves, I've been experimenting with a more forward foot position on flats.
Should I now be thinking of implementing it on my XC bike, I do enjoy my feet shuffling about but I also like being "attached" to the bike, not so much for pedaling but it makes shifting the back end about much easier.
Some many questions now!!!!
Perhaps a switching every couple of rides could benefit a trials rider too?
Clipless makes sense on a road bike(where it came from) though: weight penalty of flats would be a too much. Heck, if they work better for you, use them. just stop hassling those of us who ride flats, & stop hassling us if we ride in a midfoot position.
I do it for fun on my xc bike when im bored on a climb, but it doesn't really help you much. or if you mean by "pulling up" to bunny hop, j hop or jump, then yes, yes I can. pretty brutal if you cant.
Do it this way!
Don"t do it this way!!
Read the rest of this articel if you do not belive me!!!
Was like listening to a Yale professor talk about peace who has never been in combat.....
When I ride a byke I am not dead lifting (lifting a bar close to my body in a straight line), when I sprint I am not deadlifting and when I enduro your mom... nope, still not dead lifting. well maybe.
When you dead lift you need a great center of balance. when you ride that center of balance is just as important but is much different in that the center of gravity is ever changing. I can not use the same footing stance to swing a golf club and swing a base ball bat.
Our body's change their center of gravity so much, we need a more aggressive/responsive stance, something that allows us to change positions and transfer power quickly and effectively. Stand flat on your feet like when dead lifting and have someone push you, then stand on the balls of your feet and see which one you are more stable in. Both with knees slightly bent.
When the human body sprints, it leans forward and runs on the balls of the feet. Where is your body when you sprint? where are your feet landing to produce the most power and control? Flat? Can you deadlift in that position? Is the body position for deadlifting/squatting the same as a simple sprint when running. NO. what is closer to riding a bike?
I do ride flat pedals and I can pull up on the back stroke. I tried to make this a short post so sorry I did not add a lot more details. Research your sport!
it's just personal preference but believe clipless are great for XC and roadies for those long sustained drives, as they benefit with the upstroke *giggity*
just as long as you feel comfortable, natural and are having fun, go with it!
if you have 20 sponsors on your back.... then biomechanics, sports science, engineering based solution, DRAAAAGOOO all the way!!!
Its not just a roadie thing to get fitted/setup right as you can optimize performance and ultimately power throughout MTB too...
Good little read!
Second, I am refering to all those pictures showing one position and then another with foot moved like one inch. Do you really think while riding downhill should you move your foot one inch this or that way ? There are many much more important things to focus on than PERFECT (and that is the key word here in my argument) foot placement.
You have to admire his commitment...
- sitting slightly forward the ball of your foot, so that your toes are having to help support your weight (not natural, toes are for balance). If you slam down from a jump and your foot slips, your foot will slip off the back of the pedal and destroy your shin, since the ball of your foot will force the pedal to rotate rearward and your toes can't provide enough force to oppose the rotation.
-sitting slightly behind the center of the ball of the foot, but still basically on the ball of the foot, so that you are pushing down on the pedal just in front of the center of the axle with the ball of your foot and your arch comfortable prevents the pedals rotation. If your foot were to slip, it would slide forward so you would still be supported by your arch- not comfortable, but much preferred to losing your footing completely and destroying your shin.