Many cyclists suffer some form of foot pain, particularly on longer rides. Often a change of shoe shape or size is enough to fix the problem, or failing that, a new brand of pedal with a different style of cleat. If you've tried both of these options and they haven't worked, there are a few other tricks you can try.
The majority of symptoms that cyclists get on the undersides of their feet – hot, burning sensations, numbness, pain – originate from the nerves to the toes.
To get there, they travel through a narrow space between the metatarsal heads (the foot’s ‘knuckles’, or ball of the foot), which is where we most often position our cleats. In addition, we wear inflexible shoes in which our feet swell, complicating matters further: the longer and hotter the ride, the worse it usually is.
Nearly every solution to foot pain is aimed either at giving these nerves more space, or relieving pressure over the ball of the foot. So, trying wider shoes with a roomier front end and loosening straps (even taking them off at café stops) are staple solutions. Buying shoes towards the end of the day when feet are most swollen is a good idea too.
Greg LeMond famously suffered terribly with his feet, and ended up with custom-made shoes. Shimano do a custom-fit shoe that might be worth considering, the principle being that a shoe that’s vacuum-moulded to your exact foot shape doesn’t need to be tightened so much.
Pay attention to socks: thin bony feet may need thicker socks for padding the ball of the foot; bigger feet may benefit from thinner socks and more room.
Specifically shaped shoe insoles can also afford great relief. Look for those with a ‘metatarsal button’ – this is a small raised area just behind the ball of the foot that spreads the metatarsal heads apart to give the nerves more breathing space as they pass through the gaps. Specialized lead the pack here, with their Body Geometry system.
Redistributing the pressure over this area can be achieved by a number of measures, for example using cleats with a large platform and wearing shoes with a rigid sole. It’s also worth taking out the insole and checking that there are no irregularities in the shoe bed pressing into the foot (like cleat bolt holes).
A bit more contentious but definitely worth a try if none of the above has helped is to move the cleats back as far as they will go (gradually, on both sides, and with a couple of millimetres' drop in saddle height); some people even advocate drilling holes to move cleats back as far as 2cm. Take a deep breath and type in ‘arch cleat’ online…
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that if symptoms are confined to one foot, it’s very occasionally due to a ‘Morton’s neuroma’ – a benign swelling around one of the plantar nerves that gets painfully compressed between the metatarsal heads.