Health: Put your feet first

Why you should let your feet do the talking

The latest groupset, the lightest frames, the most sculpted bars, the fanciest wheels; we’ve all been guilty of drooling over bikes and their components, but how long do we spend pondering one of our key contact areas with our bike – our shoes?

How stiff, light and what shape a shoe is can profoundly affect how efficiently our precious efforts are delivered to the pedals, crankset, chain and hence to where we really want it – our back tyre.

Getting to know your feet

Before you go shopping for your next pair of cycling shoes, take a moment to get to know more about your feet and their needs for a change. Once you can identify your foot shape and your arch shape, you will have a better chance of finding footwear that your feet appreciate and deserve. Here’s a naff but effective way to make a template of your foot, the perfect activity for a rainy day when you weren’t that keen on riding anyway.

Make a foot guide

Step 1: Draw your feet

  • Stand barefoot on a piece of paper
  • March on the spot for a few seconds and then stand still
  • Bend over and draw around your feet
  • Compare your foot template with the foot shape and foot arch diagrams below

Step 2:  Get wet then step inside

  • Place the paper next to your shower pan and get your feet wet
  • With your soggy feet step inside the pre-drawn outlines
  • Squat without letting your heels lift
  • Step off the paper

Step 3: Do some colouring in

  • Your wet arch will have left a nice impression on the paper
  • Colour in the still dry area
  • Compare the non-coloured paper to the second set of diagrams below

Step 4: Cut out and keep

  • You now have a permanent reminder of your foot type
  • Put this somewhere safe
  • Every time you go to buy cycling (or running) shoes take your template with you for reference

Common foot and arch types

Compare your foot template with the foot shape and foot arch diagrams below.

The most common foot shape in the UK is Egyptian. Nicely ordered toes aren’t they? If you’ve a Morton or Greek foot then your big toe is shorter than the one next to it. If at least your second toe is the same length as your big toe then, sorry, you’ve got Peasant’s feet!

The average person has a Rectus foot, and those who have been told that they “overpronate” by their running shop or healthcare practitioner are likely to show a Planus foot type, or flat foot. Cavus foot types are more rigid, high arched and generally better suited to producing power.

Footwear as a functional choice

So, now armed with the story of your feet, it’s time to consider what type of riding you’re buying these shoes for. As with all footwear choice, trying to get one pair to meet all of your demands is often a false economy.

Multi-purpose: If you’re commuting, will be stepping off at traffic lights regularly or you also need to walk in your cycling shoes, then either a pair of mountain biking or casual shoes, with cleats that are recessed into the sole, should be considered. 

If you use a normal pair of road-cycling shoes for these purposes, you may find that they do not tolerate the wear and tear and you end up spending more money in the long term than if you had chosen a separate pair of shoes for each task.

If you’re choosing such a shoe type as your only pair, try to get something that is as stiff as possible for efficiency on the bike, without making them too uncomfortable to walk in.

Specific purpose: If a dedicated road training/racing shoe is what you’re after, then stiffer is certainly better, and it should not be possible for you to notably flex any such shoe by hand. Again – and if you clock a lot of miles on grubby roads – then buying separate training and racing shoes may be the more economical way to go.

In the long run an expensive pair of shoes will provide you with many seasons of racing performance, while a cheaper ‘hack’ pair can be ridden until there’s no life left in them.

The art of reading shoes

So now you’ve listened to your feet and considered the purpose of your new purchase, it’s time to read some shoes. This is best done in your local bike shop – which should be able to help you with your fitting questions.

1. Compare your own foot template to the shoe shape, and see how well the two shapes match.

  • If you’ve got a very Egyptian foot, then it might not understand why your shoe is talking Greek to it – your first toe may hurt, then there’s cramp and, at worst, you could end up with a bunion forming. Nasty.
  • Should yours be a Peasant’s foot, then you’ll usually need shoes with a wider toe-box area.

2. Now feel inside the shoe along the ‘last’, where your arch will sit – is it curved or does it feel very flat?

  • If you have a Cavus foot, then a curved last is more likely to hold you in your normal posture when you’re pushing hard on the pedals and lower your likelihood of arch pains. 
  • If you have a Planus foot, then a curved last will cause arch pain, while a flat or semi-curved last is more likely to be comfortable.
  • The average Rectus foots are well provided for, as an increasing majority of manufacturers produce semi-curved lasts.

What to consider in the final fit

It’s best to try on shoes later in the day, when your feet are slightly more swollen and bigger. There are lots of different closure systems available nowadays. Ideally, the uppermost of the straps should be ratchet-closed to allow micro-adjustment of tension.

Heel area: Any system, such as the ‘Pulling power’ heel-fit system, which pulls the heel cup area tight at the same time is ideal. Some people complain that certain cycling shoes are too tight around the heel. However, within reason the tighter the heel-fit the better; any movement in this area is bad news in a performance cycling shoe.

Toe area: Your toes should never feel crammed in, and don’t expect any significant amount of stretch to occur when wearing to make the toe-box more comfortable.

Ball of foot:  If you’re going to be putting all your efforts through the ball of your foot, make sure that it’s held securely yet does not feel squeezed – otherwise you’re asking for trouble.

With that in mind, make sure you rock forward on the ball of your foot when testing for forefoot comfort. Squat down multiple times with your weight bearing on the pedal area – and don’t be afraid to do so over 10 or 15 minutes to ensure a comfy fit. 

If you’re still unsure, any good store should allow you to exchange the shoes having tried them out on your turbo trainer at home for a half hour or so (make sure you don’t get them sweaty!).

If you think about how much work your feet will be doing in these shoes, when compared to any other shoes that you own, you’ll realise that a happy rider depends on happy feet – so it makes perfect sense to let your feet do the talking.  

Other relevant considerations for shoe purchase

Foot size matters: Some people recommend choosing cycling shoes that are quite tight, so that you can then let your feet stretch the shoe to shape it. Although leather uppers will give a little, a tight shoe will only be well tolerated if you ride shorter distances. 

If you tour or cycle sportives, then the lack of movement in your foot, allied to intense exercise, can cause a pooling of blood and swelling of your feet – at worst producing searing pain and ruining your day. 

Your comfortable casual shoe size will usually coincide with your best cycling shoe size, but as a rule of thumb you should leave approximatley 1½ -2cm between your foremost toe and the end of the shoe to avoid problems.  

Pulling power: If you're a particularly powerful rider there are a few special considerations you should make.

  • Firstly, the rigidity of the shoe is even more important for you, as you’re likely to test it more than the average rider. 
  • Secondly – and this goes for anyone who stomps out of the saddle a lot – a very tight and secure heel-fit will enable you to pull up harder on the pedals during your sprint efforts.  

Female and slender feet

Women often struggle to find shoes to fit their more slender foot type. But they’re not alone – many men struggle to find the right shoes for just the same reason.

Good news. The past five years has seen the women’s apparel market boom, and manufacturers are meeting this with an increased range of choices. 

Some women’s products are just pink versions of the men’s, and this is obvious when you put them side by side. Specialized does a women-specific shoe – which is slender in both the heel and forefoot area. It and other more slender women-specific options should also be considered by men who are having the same kind of shoe fitting problems.

Although it remains to be seen whether or not the Shimano custom-fit footwear really establishes its niche, it cannot be denied that they offer a viable alternative for those who struggle to find a comfortable fit.

Shimano has always provided a good selection of do-it-all shoes, and the addition of its heat and vacuum-aided shoe fit will especially suit those with long and narrow feet.

What is the difference between slip-lasted or board-lasted?

When making the inside ‘last’ section of a shoe, there are two main technologies. You should be able to remove the insole from any shoe to expose this.

The slip-lasted method involves sewing the upper together down the midline of the inside of the shoe.

This is cheaper and tends to create a more rounded profile to the inside of the shoe, and is often more flexible. They do provide a snug fit around the heel, but using special insoles is generally a bad idea in these shoes. 

The more traditional board-lasted shoes, on the other hand, have a separate ‘board’ along the base, and are sewn around the sides of the sole. They have a more box-section appearance that’s generally more stable and better accommodates custom orthoses and other in-shoe modifications such as heel lifts. 

If you have orthotic insoles or use heel-lifts, you should look for board-lasted shoes.  

How light is too light?

A pair of casual commuter shoes can weigh well over 2kg per pair. Some of Rocket7’s latest custom carbon fibre shoes tip the scales at under 180g, but most shoes weigh somewhere in between.

If you’re training in the UK, racing criterium or even UK sportives, then the stiffness of the shoe should be more important than the weight.

If eyeing up more grand sportives on the continent or racing stage races at an elite level, you may benefit from going a shade under the 320g holy grail of footwear, but with current technology, lighter shoes simply aren’t stiff enough for serious performance, and hence might waste some of your highly tuned efforts.

Knowing when it’s time to retire your shoes

Unlike running shoes whose soles will let you know, it’s a little more difficult to know when a pair of cycling shoes are past their ‘best before’ date.

Training shoes, with regular cleat replacements, should last many years before the wear and abuse has them splitting at the seams – so when they no longer tighten snugly and become loose when you accelerate, it’s finally time to say goodbye. 

These older shoes can often use a winter turbo trainer as their nursing home, where spinning technique is preferred over sprinting power, and they can give continued use.

Racing shoes, however, should be rigid and supportive in order to optimise performance. Their cleats should never be allowed to wear thin – this endangers you and your fellow competitors. 

Carbon fibre soles resist fatigue and so offer continued performance for many years. Any racing shoe that can be significantly flexed by a pair of impolite hands is probably no longer up to the job and should be demoted to training use.

So before buying your next pair of shoes, spend a little time not just looking at the marketing bumpf and the colour options, but listening to the poor soles who will have to live in them… your feet.

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