How to install and adjust cycling cleats

Expert advice to help you get your cleat positioning right — the ultimate guide

It's just a cleat... it's no big deal. If this is your line of thinking, then this in-depth guide on how to properly fit cycling cleats is for you. 

There’s nothing more important than your feet when cycling. Sounds like a grandiose claim? Well, when you generate hundreds of thousands of pedal strokes, how do you deliver your effort? Through your feet, of course.

This article was last updated on 26 June 2017.

I can say, with utmost certainty, that cleats can influence positively and negatively the following: feet, ankles, knees, hips, the lower back and everything in between. Experienced fitters will tell you this is not the end of the list, and I agree, but that should be sufficient for you to take notice.

Pedaling dynamics

Your foot experiences movement in all three planes when cycling, despite a fixed trajectory. In addition, the complex motion of the knee has to be taken in to consideration. 

The knee joint is four bones: the femur, tibia, fibula (technically speaking) and patella. It’s also an organized chaos of connective tissues, cartilage, menisci, fluid sacs, and then some — it’s complex. 

As such, its motion is also complex. It is not a simple hinge. Rather it engages in a choreographed arrangement of gliding, translating, pivoting and rotating. 

Although explaining the dynamics of the knee is too complex for this article, what is important to know is that it is complicated and there’s plenty of room for error. 

"I like my current cleat placement"

If you already have your preferred shoe and pedal/cleat setup going that’s great. If you don’t have symptoms telling you otherwise, by all means don’t fix what’s not broken.

New cleats aren’t going to behave exactly like your old cleats

Re-creating a placement using an existing shoe is simple with a sharpie marker. Trace the outside of your cleat on the bottom of your sole and you’ve got your template. Some folks just pick an edge or two, but my experience is that covering the entire cleat surface prevents disgruntled-athlete emails.

Some companies offer template stickers that go over the existing cleat, but I’ve not had the most luck getting it just right. The marker method is pretty much foolproof, unless you’re finicky about marking the bottom of your shoes… that no one will ever see… ever.

One thing to note when replacing bike cleats: they aren’t going to behave exactly like your old cleats. 

Accept this and make adjustments accordingly. If you have a huge event coming up, the night before is not a good time to replace your cleats. Allow a few easy rides to get things sorted — 100–150 miles should be sufficient if all other things stay in the same.

The (three) axis of power

Mounting cycle cleats requires attention to all three axes/planes: fore/aft (sagittal), float (transverse), and angular (frontal).

For clarity, fore/aft refers to how close to the heel or toe the center-line of the cleat is located. 

Float refers to the movement of the shoe once it’s engaged in the pedal body — the ‘heel-in’ and ‘heel-out’ motion — and the static orientation that allows it. 

Last but not least is the angular position of the shoe compared to the pedal axle (aka ‘cant’, or ‘roll’, or ‘varus/valgus’). 

To the front or back?

Fore/aft is potentially the easiest to set. In my experience it is the least likely of the three to lead to any injuries if it isn’t just right on the first try. 

The most common methodology today is to set cleats in the area of the metatarsal-phalangeal joint (MPJ) of the third toe, based on a guesstimate. 

Have a look at the image that shows the MPJ of the 1st and 5th toes. Put your shoe on and find these two bony landmarks and put a small mark to indicate their location. Somewhere between the marks is the location to center your cleat fore/aft as a starting position.

The red dots identify the 1st (left) and 5th (right) MTP (metatarsalphalangeal joint) — guesstimating the 3rd is a common starting place for fore/aft placement
The red dots identify the 1st (left) and 5th (right) MTP (metatarsalphalangeal joint) — guesstimating the 3rd is a common starting place for fore/aft placement

From there, it’s been my experience that for riders who engage in solo or long efforts (triathlon, breakaway specialists or just-riding-my-damn-bike) moving things more to the heel is better. For riders waiting for that last 200 meters, moving things towards the toe allows for a bit more springing ‘snap’.

There are other ideas to consider. The evolution of this methodology was never based on research and has only been validated by research as an artifact of its use. 

Every cleat has a line denoting the midpoint — this is a reference for setting up in relation to the MPJ of your choice
Every cleat has a line denoting the midpoint — this is a reference for setting up in relation to the MPJ of your choice

I’m willing to argue that there is room for improvement in this realm and some progressive shoe manufacturers feel the same as they continue to move their cleat mounting holes towards the heel.

If you are craving a more rearward position, with most pedal and cleat systems there is no option. However, Speedplay offers a fore/aft extender plate that adds an extra 14mm of rearward placement possibility, and relatively speaking that is a lot.

Save your knees

Float is the next consideration, and this can be very tricky. Before mounting cleats, are you aware that not all pedals are created equal when it comes to float? 

Some offer none and others as much as 30 degrees. Most people feel comfortable in the 6–9 degree range.

My biggest suggestion for setting cleats rotationally is to evaluate in a standing position first. March in place a few steps and then once standing still, view the alignment of the kneecap and feet. Do they point in the same direction? Then look exclusively to the feet, are they pointed straight ahead or to one direction? 

Another test: get in to a seated position with your feet hanging off the edge of an assessment table or even a bedside (fitters, don’t have a bed in your fit studio, that’s just weird). Sit upright with the feet at 90 degrees to the tibia, then roll forward at the hip, do the feet rotate in or out?

The table test is a more 'active' approach at finding good cleat alignment. Sit upright, then rotate at the hip to see if the feet move at all
The table test is a more 'active' approach at finding good cleat alignment. Sit upright, then rotate at the hip to see if the feet move at all

Based on what is seen, set cleats to mirror the position of the feet or to facilitate the movement of the second test. Do some pedaling and see how it looks and feels. Do the pedaling feet look like the standing feet? What about the knees, do they have the same alignment they had when standing? 

Medial or lateral knee discomfort as a very dull ache is a pretty good indicator you’ve not got it just right, yet.

Pretty much every system is capable of the adjustments above, with accessories, but unfortunately only one pedal system available today (to my knowledge) is capable of managing these planes independently. The keyword is ‘independent’. 

Speedplay Zero pedals allow float to be determined once on the bike. This doesn’t affect your already determined fore/aft position (or stance width), which could be compromised in a 3-hole system. 

The float component of Speedplay Zero pedals is unique and totally awesome
The float component of Speedplay Zero pedals is unique and totally awesome

Between you and your shoe

Fore/aft and float are a bit simple compared to varus/valgus, roll, cant or whatever awesome name you give it. 

Trying to decide if this is for you or not is no easy task. I highly recommend professional advice, but the rationale behind cleat wedging is fairly straightforward. 

If your ankle complex is not vertically stacked, you may benefit from varus/valgus wedging. Why? Because if your ankle is not vertically stacked, it very likely means your entire foot has an angular component and it will not sit flat on the pedal body. Due to the restrictions of the fixed trajectory, you’d be only loading one side of your foot and this can be problematic.

Setting the cleat flush with the bench-top can help make sure the shoe's heel drop doesn't negatively influence fore/aft location
Setting the cleat flush with the bench-top can help make sure the shoe's heel drop doesn't negatively influence fore/aft location

By placing wedges between the shoe and the cleat, you’ve compensated for the uneven pressure distribution. This means your foot will feel more even pressure, and the manner in which you can deliver force to the pedals could be improved. 

Again, this is an opportunity to complicate things for yourself and it’s incredibly difficult to assess your ankle complex alone. With varus/valgus cleat wedging I strongly encourage you to seek feedback from a qualified professional. 

It’s also important to mention that cleat wedging is not the same as forefoot wedging — this is a cleat article, so no comment on forefoot wedging today.

If the ankle complex doesn't seem to stack vertically, there is potential benefit from cleat wedging. Use caution and perhaps a second opinion
If the ankle complex doesn't seem to stack vertically, there is potential benefit from cleat wedging. Use caution and perhaps a second opinion

A stack of varus/valgus wedges. Start with one and stay conservative. Don't be afraid to seek advice from a trained eye and remember, they're not the same as forefoot wedges
A stack of varus/valgus wedges. Start with one and stay conservative. Don't be afraid to seek advice from a trained eye and remember, they're not the same as forefoot wedges

Here's a shoe with two installed and it's obvious how much of an impact they make
Here's a shoe with two installed and it's obvious how much of an impact they make

Wait, don’t forget about…

‘Stance width’ is the term used to describe the distance between your feet when engaged in the pedals. When assessing the knees and feet that I described earlier, did you naturally stand with your feet wide apart or close together? When you pedal, do you feel like your feet are underneath your knees? 

There really is no method for determining stance width. To some extent it’s just trial and error. Pressure mapping can add a bit of science, but that’s pretty uncommon.

If you suffer from IT Band issues, increasing stance width can be a useful adjustment. 

The knees point straight ahead, but the rider's right foot is rotated outward a bit — it would be fine if this were present on the bike too
The knees point straight ahead, but the rider's right foot is rotated outward a bit — it would be fine if this were present on the bike too

If you move your knees outward at the top of your pedal stroke to avoid a hanging belly, moving cleats out can be helpful. If your stance width is wide (lots of space between your shoes and the crank arms) and your knees dive inward, try a narrower stance (note: there could be several other things going on).

Aside from fore/aft, float and canting, stance width is often overlooked, or a victim of the other three adjustments. 

However, if you’ve maxed out cleat adjustment, several companies purposefully offer different axle lengths to help (Speedplay, Keywin and a few others) and some brands have one short version simply to save weight (Shimano). And of course there are axle extenders, but they have significant limitations, and again, this is a cleat article.

When trying to create proper alignment, hold the cleat static and move the shoe, making it easier to see 'heel-in' or 'heel-out'
When trying to create proper alignment, hold the cleat static and move the shoe, making it easier to see 'heel-in' or 'heel-out'

Not enough? Then there's one last thing to consider: you are not symmetrical.

There is a vertical component to evaluate as well, and it will require knowledge of your structural and functional anatomy to manage. Perhaps you don’t sit squarely on your saddle or perhaps you have two different length legs (functionally or structurally). There are vertical stack spacers available to help accommodate for this.

A stack spacer for testing the waters with functional or anatomical leg length discrepencies — aside from unique cases, one or two is usually sufficient
A stack spacer for testing the waters with functional or anatomical leg length discrepencies — aside from unique cases, one or two is usually sufficient

While I strongly recommend professional advice, this won’t negatively influence you nearly as much as wedging if you’ve made a poor decision. At least not in terms of a physical manifestation of pain, but that’s not saying it doesn’t influence you because it will. 

If you think you’re over-reaching on one side but the other side is butter, try adding a spacer. If it feels smoother or more natural, go with it. If your body ends up telling you it’s no better than before, you’ll make an adjustment at the knee (or ankle) without even knowing, but remove the spacer if you don’t need it. 

You’ll very likely need new bolts to accommodate your stack spacer, which aren’t expensive and when it’s the right move are well worth the money.

Once you think it's right, or if you're completely unsure, you can hang the shoe by it's cleat to see the extent of heel-in or toe-out
Once you think it's right, or if you're completely unsure, you can hang the shoe by it's cleat to see the extent of heel-in or toe-out

Setting mountain bike cleats

So far all content has been three-hole (road) focused. All the same information applies to off-road (2-bolt systems) in regards to fore/aft, float, and stance width procedures. 

However, creating varus/valgus is pretty challenging on mountain bikes because the cleat contact is so minimal and the shoe/pedal contact creates stability of the system. 

Furthermore, off-road riding is much more dynamic and most riders don’t find they even notice it, and subsequently don’t need it like they might on the road. Try it if you like, the wedges do exist. 

Since I’ve pointed it out before, Speedplay again stands alone. It offers off-road pedals (the Syzr) that do in fact offer cleat-based canting.

Maybe it’s not important for mountain biking, but with the increasing popularity of gravel road riding and the use of MTB shoes, I see the feature-benefit for sure. 

Check your cleats for wear

Cleats are a wear item, regardless of brand. The same can be said for pedals, with some holding up better than others. 

Be mindful and check cleats once a month to look for signs of wear so you don’t find yourself in a pinch the night before your big event. And don’t forget to service them if they require it.

I have one request for you: keep a journal of how you’ve decided to go about messing with your cleats (or any other position metric for that matter). The above is powerful information and should be leveraged in a responsible way. 

Making changes and not documenting what you’ve done leaves you armed with only the ‘ignorant shrug’ as a tool of communication and it’s scientifically proven 100 percent ineffective, 100 percent of the time.

This article was last updated in June 2017

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

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