The wrong cleat position not only stops you getting maximum power out of every pedal stroke, making you slower, but can also lead to muscle or joint pain – sometimes in a different part of your body.
“Quite often I will see cyclists who have knee problems that actually originate from a problem with their ankle, or their Achilles tendon, caused by their cleat setup,” says Jo Ward, from The Centre for Osteopathy in Hythe, Kent. “Over time, if they’re not sorted out, those problems can have an impact on the lower back, and that imbalance can then extend as far as the neck.”
One step at a time
It’s vital, then, to get the setup right in the ﬁrst place. But how do you go about it? One foot at a time, says Julian Wall of CycleFit, the London-based specialists in cycle positioning. “Don’t just mirror the cleat position on each shoe,” he says, “usually there is a difference in the length of your feet, or the angle that is comfortable for each leg, so set them up independently.”
If the shoe fits
Ideally, you should consider the type of shoe you're buying and how it's going to support your foot before you even think about your cleats. For example, if you know you're an over-pronator – your foot rolls inwards when you walk – you will over-pronate when you cycle too, says Wall.
Companies such as Specialized make shoes that help with this problem, by offering different inserts to support high arches and wedges to prevent over-pronation, but it may be worth speaking to a podiatrist to get some speciﬁc advice if you're suffering serious discomfort.
To ﬁnd out more about your own feet and their alignment, read our feet guide.
On your marks
In essence, cleat positioning is really about positioning your foot in relation to the pedal: “The pedal axle should be 5-7mm behind the ball of your foot,” says Wall. “You can ﬁnd the ball – which is at your ﬁrst big toe joint – by putting your thumb on the side of your shoe and wiggling your toes. Mark that point with a piece of white tape on the outside of the shoe, and put the centre of the cleat 5-7mm behind that point.”
The centre of most cleats is marked with a line, but SPD SLs, for example, have the centre point where they start to taper. Many shoes will have helpful marks on the sole too, but it’s still best to check.
To start with, set your cleats in the ‘neutral position’ – pointing straight up the centre of the shoe – and change them only if necessary, says Wall. Most cleats have a degree of ‘ﬂoat’ – a small amount of lateral play for your foot to swivel on the pedal – which can help you avoid putting extra pressure on your ligaments and joints.
Unfortunately, the best way to tell if you need to move your cleats from the neutral position is to cycle in them, and you should only adjust them slightly each time until you get a comfortable position.
Sometimes it helps to get another experienced rider to watch your riding. They can tell you whether your knees are pointing in or out too much, how close to the crank your heels are, or whether you look like you’re extending your leg too much – something you rsaddle height also affects in a big way.
If you get your friend to video you on their mobile phone, for example, from the front and side, you too can analyse your pedalling action.
Angle of the dangle
If, after the test ride, you decide you need to change from the neutral angle, there is a tried and trusted way of ﬁnding your cleat angle for each foot.
Perch squarely on the edge of a table with your legs dangling off the side, so that your shoes rest on a rectangular or square piece of paper, the edge of which is perpendicular to the table edge. Draw round your shoes, then place the cleats on the outlines so that they too are square to the edge of the table. The angle between a centreline drawn through the length of your shoes and the vertical edge of the paper is your cleat angle.
“If your heel is forced too far out when you are pedalling,” says Jo Ward, “it will put pressure on the medial ligaments in your knee and the ligaments on the outside of your ankle. The reverse would happen if your heels are too close to your crank arm, resulting in pain when walking or running, even if you cannot feel any problem pedalling.”
“If your heels are pointing down when you’re cycling,” says Ward, “then you are stretching the anterior tibialis muscle, which could cause shin splints.
“If your toes are pointing downwards, then you are going to have to contract your calf muscles too much, and that can effectively shorten your Achilles tendon. This will cause an imbalance through your ankle, knees and hips, which may only be a problem when you get off the bike.”
Choose the right cleats
There's plenty of choice when it comes to pedal and cleat systems, but if you have joint alignment issues, you may be influenced by the different amount of float some offer.
An updated classic that’s colour coded for float: Grey (standard) gives 4.5 degrees, red gives nine degrees and black gives zero. Available from Fisher Outdoor Leisure.
The RXS cleat offers five degrees of float. You can also use the offroad Impact cleat, which has two release angle choices. Available from Chicken Cycles.
Fits trainer-like shoes and a double-sided offroad pedal. There’s lots of lateral and side-to-side ﬂoat. Available from Madison.
The original Look cleat – red gives nine degrees of float, black is fixed with zero. Available from Fisher Outdoor Leisure.
Colour-coded for ﬂoat, the yellow version gives six degrees of ﬂoat, while the red is ﬁxed with zero. Available from Madison.
The clipless mechanism is in the cleat, not the pedal. Float and release are easily adjustable. Available from i-ride.