Your feet are an important contact point with the bike. Without your feet being in the right place you will pedal with less power, be less stable through technical trail sections and set yourself up for an overuse injury.
How we answered the engineering based vs. movement based question led us to a very different view of where we should place our foot on the pedal.
The problem is that most riders have been given the wrong idea about where to place their foot on their pedals. You see, we forget that at one point someone took a guess about where to place the foot on the pedal and today we simply take it as gospel.
But what if the original “pedal stroke theorists” were wrong? What if they didn’t realize that they were looking at things the wrong way and applying the wrong logic sequence to the problem?
In other words, what if the current advice about where to place your foot on the pedal is based on faulty logic in the first place?
But before we can even start getting into the logic sequence of where you want to place your foot on the pedal we need to back up and answer an even more important question…
Does pedaling a bike require an engineering based or a movement based solution?
For a lot of people this is the first time they have ever heard this question. They’ve always assumed that there was just one logic sequence you could use to arrive at the perfect pedal stroke so let me explain the difference.
And once I do you will see how important this question really is.
The engineering based solution looks at pedaling the bike from the bikes point of view – if we were going to design a machine to power this bike, what would we want it to do?
However, the movement based solution looks at things from the human organism’s point of view – how do we take the way the body is hardwired to optimally move and apply it to the bike?
For a long time the engineering based solution has been the dominate train of thought in pedal stroke theory. When you do that you can come up with all sorts of nifty ideas on how to add power to the pedal stroke.
The two most common pieces of advice from the engineering based solution are to pull up on the backstroke to keep even tension on the pedals and to place the ball of your foot over the axle of the pedal so you can push and pull through the ankle.
Both of these things make sense… in theory. If I was designing a machine from scratch to pedal a bike I’d have it pulling and pushing at the same time while also extending and pulling with every joint to add to the potential power.
The problem is that the human organism isn’t a machine and comes pre-wired with ways it likes to move. For example, when you push down hard with your lead leg there is an automatic activation of the muscles that retract the other leg. Your body is pre-hardwired for you to focus on pushing hard and letting the Passive Mechanics of the body reset the other leg to push down hard.
Runners know that and this is why they don’t try to add forward power with the return of the trail leg. They instead focus on simply driving their lead leg into the ground.
You waste energy and start to lose power when you try to overcome the body’s pre-wired Passive Mechanics. And this is exactly what you see in the Mornieux (et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) and Korf (et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) Cycling Efficiency Studies I have referenced in the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto.
This idea of a movement vs. engineering based solution extends to foot placement as well. From the engineering perspective you would want the ankle to extend so you could push through the ball of the foot. Heck, it even looks like how you run or walk so it has to have some basis in movement as well, right?
Again, not so fast.
When you look at the foot and lower leg from a movement based perspective you see that there are two very different ways for the lower leg to act.
The first is running, walking or jumping. In these activities you are wanting to move your center of gravity from over your base of support so you can change position in space. These does require a push off through the fore foot to “jump” in order to break contact with the ground so you can.
But this isn’t the only way that we move. We also need to move in a way where our center of gravity stays on top of our base of support. Squatting and deadlifting in the gym are good examples, as are bending over to pick up a box or standing up from a chair in the everyday world.
When we move this way we want our feet to stay solidly planted to the ground for maximum balance, muscle recruitment and power transfer. We don’t want to come up on the ball of the foot because it will actually decrease strength and balance.
The foot and lower leg act very differently in these two situations and so we should figure out which most closely resembles pedaling so we can apply it. And when we are pedaling our bikes we are not actually moving our center of gravity forward – we are pushing the pedals away from us and the bike is carrying our center of gravity with it.
Pedaling your bike is much more like squatting or deadlifting than running or jumping. And when you look at the lower leg and foot mechanics of this type of movement you see that you do not want to be balancing on and pushing through the ball of your foot.
This is why you naturally go to a mid-foot position on flat pedals. If you don’t have someone telling you that it is wrong and strapping your feet to where they “should” go most people would naturally find this foot position themselves and stick with it.
Your body, which is infinitely smarter than all of the experts who are “lecturing birds on how to fly” in this matter, instantly recognizes what they don’t – that you are far more balanced and powerful in that mid-foot position than you are trying to balance on your toes.
When you are squatting or deadlifting you want to keep your weight balanced on your feet. Your calf is helping to stabilize the ankle by isometrically contracting to help with the power transfer through the feet into the ground. If you try to have the calf stop stabilizing isometrically and ask it to move so you can push through the ball of your foot it will result in much less power and force being transferred into the ground.
So, this means that when we pedal our bikes we also want to have a mid-foot position. This foot position will automatically allow for better recruitment of the hips, which are the strongest muscles in the lower body and the real secret to pedaling power. You’ll also be more balanced and stable when you stand up to pedal or get into the attack position for technical sections and downhills.
And since this mid-foot position doesn’t require us to strap our feet into what your body recognizes as an unnatural position, it is yet another reason that you don’t need clipless pedals. Anyone who tells you that you need them for finding the perfect foot position and forcing your feet to stay there is selling you an engineering based solution that doesn’t work with your body’s natural ways of moving.
Another problem with the engineering based solution for foot placement is that machines are inherently fragile and hate disorder. You want to smooth out as many rough edges as possible and look for symmetrical, repeatable movement.
But, like I pointed out earlier, the human body is not a machine, it is an organism. And organisms that move are inherently Anti-Fragile. This means that, up to a certain point, they actually benefit from some disorder and “noise”.
Your body literally uses this disorder to improve and when you try and take it away by smoothing out all the rough edges you actually fragilize the system.
In other words, your feet were never meant to be put in the exact same position every time they touch your pedals. They also aren’t supposed to be strapped down so they are in the exact same position for your entire ride. Yes, your feet working to maintain position uses more energy compared to strapping them into clipless shoes and pedals but that movement is needed to keep the system healthy.
Quick side not – this is another reason that I advocate that riders who do use clipless pedals still ride flats at least part of the time. It will keep your pedal stroke and skills sharp while also allowing for the feet to move more naturally.
This need for “noise” and disorder is something that the engineering based solutions doesn’t account for. Organisms thrive off of some disorder, machines break because of it and so there is a much different mindset and logic sequence used for each.
So don’t fall for someone trying to sell you on the need to find the “optimal foot placement position” and then forcing your foot in that exact same position every time you ride. This is actually much worse on the body than letting your foot have slight variations in how it is placed on the pedals despite the engineering based theories of how this “wastes energy”.
As you can see, how we answered the engineering based vs. movement based question led us to a very different view of where we should place our foot on the pedal. It is kind of like Alice’s rabbit hole – you can get sucked pretty far down it before you know it so make sure you choose the right one in the first place.
When you start to look at pedaling and maneuvering your bike as requiring a movement based solution you start to see things in a much different light. Instead of trying to force the body to move in way it doesn’t want to in the name of some engineering based theory, learn how to work with your body’s natural ways of movement and apply them to the bike.
It will open up the door to much higher levels of performance and while placing much less wear and tear on the body in the process.
BTW, I’m not the only coach who advocates this mid-foot position on the pedals. I can point to Joel Friel and Greg Choat as two other high level coaches who don’t think pushing through the ball of the foot is the right thing to do.
As always I’d love to hear your thoughts so please feel free to leave a comment below this post. And if you liked this post please pass it along to a fellow rider or two who could benefit from the info.
Until next time…
10 thoughts on “Why you don’t want to push through the ball of your foot when you pedal.”
James your explanation was very clear and understandable, i learned a lot.
Thanks, glad you liked it.
I argue with people all the time that the mid-foot position is better for pedaling. One push back I get is if you are on the balls of your foot while descending you get that little extra shock absorption from the ankle flexing. While riding mid-foot you get less flex in the ankle. I have to concede that it seems there are two “best” foot positions, one for pedaling, one for descending. Thoughts?
The problem with their logic is that your calves are not designed to be shock absorbers, your hips are. When you are on the balls of your feet and your calves are moving then they can’t stabilize the lower leg to let the hips work properly. You’re body can’t use the calves and the hips at the same time to absorb impacts, which is why you see that people use the calves to get the heels down to absorb impacts from jumping or Olympic Lifting, not to absorb energy themselves.
In fact, if they absorb too much energy you get a strained ankle or worse, like an Achilles tendon tear (just ask Rachael Atherton). Getting on the ball of the foot increases the leverage being placed on the ankle and the supporting structures and amplifies the energy going them. Based on geometry and physics this is the last thing you want to do when you are absorbing energy through the foot.
This is the same logic that led to the “pull up on the backstroke” advice – people think that you can add to how the body moves but you can only change how it moves. Using the hip flexors too much actually takes away from the push and using the calves too much to absorb impacts takes away from the hips ability to absorb energy. It sounds good in theory but it doesn’t make sense and you don’t see that same logic being applied in other sports when you really understand what you are seeing.
Hope this helps, there isn’t a time when having an unstable foot is better for your body, which is essentially what they are arguing.
I just started spin cycling and thought the ball of the foot approach was ridiculous and as I came up out of the saddle I felt like a ballerina trying to pedal with my knees giving out on me. The next ride i just flipped the straps over and flat footed it and rode it as I rode my bike as a child and my legs were not jello when I was done. Im glad to see someone else actually thinks this too!
As A mountain bike coach, I have corrected so many riders’ foot positions over the last few years – getting them to move they foot forward to a more centred position and the improvements in their riding, their balance, control and body position is noticeable and they always thanks me for the advice! .
The first time I tried mid-foot pedalling (three years ago), I was able to complete a familiar trail in my big chainring instead of the small one, using the same cadence!! (I’ve since converted my 2x to a 1x with a 36 tooth ring, and haven’t gone back!)
Now I see that even CrankBrothers & Specialized offer shoes with cleats that are able to be positioned further back down the sole. Change is coming!
Interesting, I’ll probably change my road shoes and see how it goes, not sure about the trail bike though. I like being on my toes for when things get rowdy.
Great explanation, James and I will no longer worry that my feet ‘wander’ a bit in different situations. The machine vs organism analogy is spot on! Thanks for all your thoughts on foot position.
Perfect sense and perfect explanation. This is life saving.