Black magic and cycling cleat positioning: De-mystifying the clipless pedal + shoe interface

The Shoe/Cleat conundrum.

If any question ever comes up when I mention that I’m a Physical Therapist and a bike fitter, the topic of shoe/cleat interface always seems to creep up. For some reason, there exists this sense of voodoo black magic when it comes to shoe and cleat fitting. Why is this?

Perhaps the bike industry is to blame. Industry always seems to constantly bombard us with new makes/models of shoes, cleats, wedges, inserts, customizations, Q-factors, the amount of ‘float’ allowable, and so on. I guess making it really challenging for the average rider to understand will obviously drive more people to bike shops to get a bike fit, I suppose.

Firstly, lets get a few things straight. Regardless of what type of bicycling or what type of shoes you wear, there exists an anatomical, optimal place for your foot on the pedal to promote efficient transferal of energy from the hips and legs to the pedal. We can all agree on that. This position also is the absolute starting point for any bike fit in general, as each measurement or adjustment builds off of one another. This is why I find it curious that some shops offer only a cleat-fitting wherein they will adjust the rider’s shoe/cleat, and nothing else. (It is important to note that whenever you change the foot/cleat position, you’re also changing everything up the kinematic chain, including saddle height and position.) But alas, I digress.

Let’s begin with a basic intro to shoe/cleat positioning, which all begins not with the latests-and-greatest in cycling equipment- but your foot’s unique anatomy, and how it interacts with the pedal.

Enter: Foot Anatomy 101

It’s no surprise that the ball of our foot provides the best lever arm for the calf and foot muscles to propel our bodies with walking, running and jumping, so it’s not surprising that this also serves as the optimal place on our foot to orient with the center of the pedal.

Anatomically speaking, the “ball” of the foot is created by a row of bones called your metatarsal-phalangeal (MTP) joints (see Fig 1). Slip off your sock now and see if you can identify your 1st MTP — i.e the big toe ‘knuckle’- which is indicated by the pen below on Fig 2. Extra bonus points if you can identify the 5th MTP (the pinky toe knuckle) — you’ll need that landmark in just a second here.

Fig 1: Note the row of MTP joints, and how they create the “ball’ of your foot.

OK, now that we’ve got our 1st MTP and 5th MTP landmarks identified, so now get your cycling shoes back on, and see if you can find those landmarks again while your foot is inside the shoe- it gets a little trickier to palpate. To make the next step easier, you could even put a little scratch of chalk on the sides of the shoe to identify those spots. Take note they are NOT directly across from each other, but more of an angled line if you were to connect the 1st to the 5th MTPs with a line. It’s this angled line that we will use to orient the cleat and foot on the pedal.

Fig 2: Pen is pointing directly to the 1st MTP, i.e. “Big toe knuckle”

Where Shoe Meets Pedal

No matter what type pedal system, the connection between the pedal to the bike ultimately articulates through your crank via the pedal spindle (i.e. axle -See Fig 3).

Start by visualizing the pedal spindle as a straight line extending through the entire pedal. Now that you’ve found your 1st and 5th MTP’s, you’ll want to orient your foot so the 1st MTP is just clearly in front (anterior to) the spindle, AND also so that the 5th MTP cleanly lies behind (posterior) to the line of the spindle. The adjustment is made to the cleat itself up/down, and for example, by moving the cleat forwards (towards the toe of the shoe) it moves the foot backwards on the pedal, and vice-versa. It’s a little tricky to ‘think backwards’ but with a few tries, you’ll get the picture.

Fig 3. Note how the pedal spindle bisects the 1st and 5th MTPs. The general goal is to have the 1st MTP in front of spindle, and the 5th MTP slightly behind it. Photo credit: BikeFit.com

This is where the ‘angled line’ concept of our 1st to 5th MTPs allows for this position, but do take note: All of our foot anatomy is different, which means some of us have a very steep ‘angled line’, and others have a ‘closer to parallel’ line, making it a little bit more challenging to get that ‘perfect’ cleat position, a la Fig 3.

Also: It’s noteworthy to mention that most of us have one foot that is 1/2 size smaller than the other, so be sure to check each foot for cleat position versus using the ‘mirror image’ of the cleat position to match one shoe on another. By using anatomical landmarks, it allows us to be specific on cleat position for each foot. Don’t be surprised if your cleat position is different for the R and L shoes.

Disclaimer: Every rider is different, and there does exist times wherein we’d want to bias rotation and/or stance width, but utilizing this basic cleat/pedal overview is always a great starting point with new shoes + cleats for all riders. Any symptoms experienced, including foot tingling/numbness, foot/toe cramping, and knee discomfort would warrant visiting a bike fit professional to remedy those symptoms.

  • Kevin Schmidt, MSPT, CMP, Bike PT is the Founder of Pedal PT: Bike Friendly Physcial Therapy in Portland, Oregon

Owner/Founder of Pedal PT. Passionate Cyclist, Physical Therapist, Clinical Bike Fitter, Dad, and Entrepreneur, living the #BikeLife in Portland, Oregon.