Orthotics for Cycling: Improving Power Transfer & Tissue Load
Cycling is often considered a healthy exercise choice because it is low impact, this typically means less pounding on your joints and often less injuries compared to other higher impact sports, which is a good thing! But cycling comes with its own plague; repetition. Unfortunately the repetitive nature of cycling can overload tissues; with the repetition of a slightly incorrect movement pattern you can be predisposed to injury.
If you wear orthotics in your everyday life, it doesn't necessarily mean that they are needed in your cycling shoes. Pedal strokes are different to running and walking gait and cycling shoes are completely different in shape and stiffness. Since your foot never touches the ground when cycling there is a significant reduction in load sustained by the foot and lower limb compared to running or even walking. Often if orthotics are required, it is most effective to have a pair of dedicated cycling orthoses to ensure correct fit and function. Because of volume limitations with cycling shoes - narrow toe box & shallow shoe depth - size, weight and materials used to make the orthotics need to be considered as well as biomechanics.
If you are injured or experiencing pain a great first step is having a bike fit done from a reputable local bike shop. Also consider how quickly you increased your mileage? Are the shoes themselves causing the issue? Or potentially cleat position? And question if your injury is being exasperated by other activities off the bike.
The most common complaints that warrant orthotic intervention with cycling are:
Metatarsalgia; pain and inflammation in the ball of the foot caused by excessive plantar pressures in the forefoot. Metatarsalgia is a common pathology with cycling shoes due to the stiffness especially with carbon fibre soles which have been shown to increase peak plantar pressures by 18% in the forefoot (1). Not to mention that cleats localize the pressure directly under the forefoot.
Numbness and tingling in feet
Arch/ heel pain
Residual knee pain
Chronic iliotibial band pain
Often when an unsupported foot pushes down on the pedals a large amount of power goes through the arch of the foot, the arch flattens, the tibia (shin bone) internally rotates, which act to change the dynamic at the knee. This movement pattern can lead to mistracking of the patella (knee cap) and iliotibial (IT) band lengthening and eventually iliotibial band friction syndrome due to how repetitive in nature cycling is. Not only does an unsupported arch potentially lead to tracking and overuse injuries but also reduced power transfer to the pedals. The relationship between the bicycle and foot is such that the arch helps support the foot as the leg is extending and power is pushed through the sole of the foot into the shoe, then into the pedal. Small adjustments to your foot positioning can make a big difference! Think about how many watts you put out in a sprint. And just how many pedal strokes you take on a ride!
Having an arch support in your cycling shoes helps to stabilize and support the foot, which can help to assist in bettering your ergonomics on the bike, assist in power transfer to the pedals, help in controlling your foot and lower limb during the pedal stroke and protect tissues against over stressing at your foot, ankle and knee.
1. Jarboe NE, Quesada PM. The effects of cycling shoe stiffness on forefoot pressure. Foot Ankle Int 2003;24(10):784-788.