September
3

Why you don’t need stiff soled riding shoe for flat pedals

While this advice is being directed at flat pedal riders, the advice holds true for clipless pedal riders as well. In short, you do not need a stiff soled shoe when riding flat pedals. Most riders get confused on the subject because they assume that since clipless pedals have stiff soles, they need stiff soled shoes for their flat pedals as well. The problem is that we think that clipless pedals have stiff soles strictly for performance reasons when, in fact, it is an attempt to solve the problem of how unnatural the clipless pedal interface is with the foot.

Because of this difference a stiff soled shoe is unnecessary and, one could argue, actually counterproductive from a natural movement point of view.

While having a stiff sole can help in some situations that I’ll go over later, in general there is a huge difference between the foot and pedal interface on flats vs. clipless pedals – on flat pedals your foot is able to drive into the pedal itself while with clipless pedals the sole of the shoe must provide the platform for your foot to drive into.

The reason that you must have a stiff soled shoe for clipless pedals is that the attachment point with the pedals is too small to drive your foot into (your foot is actually touching less than one square inch on the pedals) so the soles of the shoe itself become that platform your foot needs. Without a stiff sole providing some sort of platform your foot would be forced to balance on and drive into the attachment point itself, which would be very uncomfortable and inefficient. The stiff sole acts as an intermediary of sorts, allowing the foot to drive into it and then transferring that force into the attachment point with the pedal.

On flats a very different dynamic is allowed to take place. Because the actual interface with the pedal is so large (you have several square inches of actual contact space with flat pedals) your foot can use it directly for support and to drive into. Just like running, your foot is allowed to naturally interact with the surface it is touching instead of relying on an artificial means of support and energy transfer. Because of this difference a stiff soled shoe is unnecessary and, one could argue, actually counterproductive from a natural movement point of view.

Your body is designed to let the foot articulate as needed so it can interact directly with the ground and this doesn’t change when you sit on a bike. When you stiffen the sole of the shoe to act as the support for the foot you also change how the foot can articulate – the stiffer the sole the more you are “locking” the foot into place and interfering with how it would naturally articulate. You can not change how one joint moves without placing more stress on some other joints and over time that locked up foot can come back to haunt you.

Now, with all that said a stiff soled shoe can improve performance and safety in certain situations. For example, I like to ride with 5-10 Impacts when riding downhill or freeride type trails because the thicker, stiffer sole will provide more cushioning if I have to eject mid-air and come down hard on my feet. I don’t like them as much for trail riding because I find the sole too stiff for lots of pedaling and my feet feel more comfortable with a more minimal soled shoe like the 5-10 Spitfires or Freeriders.

A stiff soled shoe can also provide a more efficient power transfer into the pedals for racing situations – but at the expense of altering how your foot moves which can cause problems over the long run. While the idea that the same shoes that make you faster can also hurt you over the long run is new in cycling, it is not a new idea in sports. In fact, I originally learned of this idea that shoes that can increase performance can also cause long term overuse injuries while running track in high school.

In the track world we all knew that even though your racing spikes made you run faster, you didn’t train in them. They were for race day and high performance practices (which were rare) because the same things that those shoes did to give you a short term performance increase on race day would tear you down eventually if you used them too much in training.

In other words, just because something made us faster didn’t make it “better” and understanding how to juggle what would allow us to train injury free with what would make use faster was part of the game. The truth is that having a super stiff sole on a riding shoe is not only unnecessary, it is potentially harmful if used exclusively over the long run. Find a pedal and shoe system (flats and 5-10′s work real well) for your everyday riding that allows your foot to move freely and drive directly into the pedal interface itself and save the stiff soled shoes for specific racing/ performance applications.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Mike says:

    Keep preaching it James. Because of you I’m fast becoming a flat pedal convert. Everything you’re saying makes so much sense ~ like I would have known these things for myself if I only I gave them some thought. I realize that you’ve said you’re not anti-clipless, but I can no longer see the point of using clipless pedals for myself. I don’t race and I never will. As a 52 year XC rider, my goals are merely to be a strong and competent rider for as long as time will allow. I’m out on the trails for my own enjoyment, and not to compete with anyone. Am I looking at this the right way? Can you see any reason for me to use clipless pedals

    Reply • September 4 at 9:41 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, I really can’t. I have never used them and my goals are pretty similar to yours – I don’t race and don’t give two craps about being the fastest guy on the trail, I just want to flow and have fun. I really think that a lot of riders have bought into clipless pedals based on myths and half-truths and once they know the real truth they can make a more informed decision, which, for a lot of riders like you, is to just have fun with flats and leave the clipless pedals to the riders who are looking for every performance advantage they can for racing.

      Reply • September 4 at 9:57 am
  2. Jonathan says:

    I have Impacts, and I have Freeriders. Your comment about preferring Freeriders for trail riding mirrors my own experience. Disconnected–too isolated from the bike. That’s how I feel when pedaling in the stiffer shoes.

    And I agree w/Mike: Keep preachin’ it.

    Reply • September 4 at 10:12 am
  3. Tony says:

    Coach…thanks for affirming what I always had a feeling was correct relative to clipless v platform and special shoes v shoes that get the job done without breaking your feet. I have been using platforms and 5/10′s for several years. Works great for me!

    Reply • September 4 at 11:00 am
  4. Anne says:

    I use my impacts for all riding. Love them. While they may be heavy for most riders, for me they do the job and keep things from hitting my feet hard and hurting them (like branches, rocks, narrow rut I’m riding in that used to be a trail).

    Converted permanently to flats last year after ACL surgery. Being able to move my foot around on the pedals is huge for me.

    James: Any recommendation for strengthening your feet (e.g. arches and ankle areas)? That’s going to be huge on getting me more comfortable with less foot support.

    Reply • September 5 at 9:45 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Barefoot training is the best thing you can do. I’m sure you’ve noticed but I almost never have shoes on in my exercise demo videos and that is how I train. Heavy deadlifts with no shoes on will get your feet pretty strong…

      Reply • September 5 at 12:02 pm
      • Anne says:

        Thanks James, appreciate your thoughts. Keep the rubber side down.

        Reply • September 6 at 10:18 pm
  5. TR says:

    I ran clipless last year and went back to flats this year. I’m 99% that I’ll never go back. This article is just another reason to not switch back. It did take some time to adjust but well worth it. I hear a lot of horror stories locally about people having hard crashes and after riding those same trails I’m convinced that at least some of those crashes are due to not unclipping in time. I’ve had a few instances this season where being clipped in would have led to serious injury. Thanks for all the good info and tips James!

    Reply • September 5 at 11:27 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It always amazes me how people just pretend that rider’s aren’t getting seriously hurt every day by not being able to unclip in time. I’ve personally come across 2 guys on our local trails waiting for medical evac and the first words out of their mouths was “I couldn’t get unclipped in time…”

      Reply • September 5 at 12:01 pm
      • Jonathan says:

        I routinely meet people who are afraid or intimidated in their riding due to having clipless thrust upon them as the one, true path.

        Reply • September 7 at 6:27 am
  6. Julie says:

    Regarding…
    “I like to ride with 5-10 Impacts when riding downhill or freeride type trails because the thicker, stiffer sole will provide more cushioning if I have to eject mid-air and come down hard on my feet. I don’t like them as much for trail riding because I find the sole too stiff for lots of pedaling and my feet feel more comfortable with a more minimal soled shoe like the 5-10 Spitfires or Freeriders.”

    Us women-folk with feet smaller than the smallest available men’s size only have 1 choice in 5-10′s, and they are thick and clunky. Argh argh argh….!!!! Hopefully the shoe manufacturers will come around to let us in on the fun.

    Reply • September 5 at 12:11 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I am realizing that 5-10 needs to do a better job of educating its female customers about their shoes. All of their shoes are available in women’s sizes – if you go on their site you’ll see the size conversions from men’s to women’s sizes but you can get any of their shoes in your size.

      I just got my wife a new pair of Freeriders and she likes them much better for trail riding than the women’s Karvers. I’ll pass this on to the guys at 5-10, it is too bad that so many women don’t realize they aren’t stuck with the one “women’s specific” shoe they make.

      Reply • September 6 at 11:03 am
      • Julie says:

        Thanks James for your reply! I forgot about this thread until just now as I was searching for women’s flat pedal shoes. I had a look at the sizing chart – you’re right! The problem with just picking an equivalent men’s size is that they are usually just too wide. I will try some on though. I know other women who wear the men’s shoes and seem to like them. Although, some actual women’s size Freeriders would be super sweet. Anyway, just a plug for flat pedals & five ten’s – a few weekends ago, I did a 45 mile 10,000′ of climbing mtn bike ride in my old tattered women’s Karvers and was totally comfortable. Flats & five tens ftw! :)

        Reply • November 28 at 1:23 am
  7. Joe says:

    greetings James

    sorry… i’m long winded

    after riding clipless since 1998, i’m a recent convert to flats thanks to you. (and a digital ‘hi five’ to Dirt Rag for featuring you)

    understanding that my experience is not the common theme here: i never ever had problems getting free of my clipless pedals. i understand that some people do, but that was not a motivating factor for me.
    i also loved how much confidence clipless pedals gave me to tear ass on the trail. coming from a skiing background, being clipped in was second nature.

    i could bunny hop as well.

    not so much anymore.

    the recent case of ‘hot foot’ was what motivated me to follow up on the whole flat pedal thing.

    i’ve only gone on two rides with my new set up (wellgo magnesium flats & the beloved 5.10 freerider) – 1 dragging my son in the burley on a gravel road & a trail ride.
    without a doubt, riding is more exciting, largely due to how un-confident i feel not be clipped in. just rolling down the driveway feels crazy.

    on the trail ride ( a trail i’ve ridden many times) i felt like a total noob. on the steep uphill sections my feet would occasionally come off the pedal on the up stroke. (bit of a hold over from the clipless world i assume)

    on the technical parts of the trail… i am pathetic. scared sh*tless when i try to ‘hop’ anything & looking more like i’m having convulsions than “bunny hopping”.

    but i’m determined and my ‘hot foot’ is already gone. the day i can truly ‘bunny hop’ over something as huge as a cigarette butt, i’m going to send you the video.

    also: thanks for inspiring me to do something i know i’m going to love but would never have even considered previously.

    Reply • September 5 at 4:34 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback on your experiences so far, I’m sure some other riders can relate. Make sure you check out my Foot Placement Tips video if you haven’t already as it will help a lot with feeling more planted on the pedals. You’ll get it figured out, it just takes a few weeks to iron things out but you’ll end up a better rider for it.

      Reply • September 6 at 11:06 am
  8. Jon Laterveer says:

    I found that I had no business using clipless, unless you move well and have no mobility or strength imbalances using clipless will make you mechanically sick! I to ran track in highschool and the reference to spikes is very accurate! My clipless will be for my races only, maybe not even that once I get efficient on flats .

    Reply • September 5 at 5:15 pm
  9. Gregg Howard says:

    Yes and No. That’s the way I feel about the clipless and flat pedals. Been riding bikes all my life (71 yrs) 35 years on mountain biles. Started on flats, as that is all they had at that time and progressed through clips and into clipless. Raced at a pretty high level for 10 years and never had a lick of problems. But, after reading your opinion on clipless pedals 7 months ago, I bough some HTs and 5 Ten Impacts and started relearning how to bunny hope and fell in love with flats again. A lot more freedom on the technical scary stuff! Have been riding them steady for the last 7 months. I still ride with a fast group of XC riders several times a week and have noticed that I am quite a bit faster on clipless. Others have noticed it as well. Good call using the flats when you just want to ride … but just like Fords and Chevys, full suspension and single speeds, each is different and have a place I feel. Lastly, appreciate your effort James to educate us … as change is one thing that keeps you young… Never too old to learn or relearn something new/old.

    Reply • September 6 at 1:41 pm
  10. Ray says:

    I’m really appreciating all this info you’re putting out there, James. I’m enjoying flat pedals and standing a lot and use my dropper more like a raiser, for when I’m gassed and really need a break. Otherwise, it’s in the down position 80% of the time.

    Here’s my question: Does rider weight influence shoe choice standing/flat pedaling?

    The reason I ask is I’m 200lbs. and find that everything I use in mtbing is better if it’s stouter/stiffer. For instance, I upgraded my fork from 32mm to 34mm stanchions and feel much more confident on descents and cornering. Also, I went from a 4.5lb steel frame to 6lb steel frame and immediately felt more responsiveness and power transfer.

    I’m currently riding with AMP Straitline pedals and 5.10 Freeriders. Should I get some Impacts/Sam Hills? My reasoning is that since I’m heavier, what you consider stiff, Impacts, I may consider normal. Maybe Freeriders are too flexible for big guys. Thanks for any thought you have on this.

    Reply • October 6 at 12:31 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I am going off of how the foot naturally works and while your weight may make that term a bit more relative (although I weigh 175 so I’m not too far behind you) I’d still suggest using the Freeriders as an everyday trail shoe. Your bike getting stiffer means that it doesn’t flex as much under you but you want your sole to flex so you’re kind of looking at apples and oranges with the comparison but I can see how the two could seem related. However, the only real test is to try them for yourself and see, some people really like the stiffer sole.

      Reply • October 8 at 6:34 am
      • Ray says:

        Thanks for answering. I tried on a pair of Impacts and found them to be too clunky and stiff. It felt as if I had hiking boots on and I couldn’t feel the pedal as easily. I’ll stick with the freeriders for now.

        Reply • October 8 at 4:34 pm
  11. John says:

    I had a rather uncomfortable riding experience at Coldwater Mtn in Alabama yesterday. On the Bomb Dog DH section, I started to experience what felt like a stress fracture in the middle of my left foot, primarily in hard cornering situations where the g’s were pushing me in the pedals more. I have 5.10s and Straitline flats. I kept having to stop until the pain subsided and then head down some more until it got unbearable again. I thought may I needed new 5.10s or harder soled shoes for DH action, but after reading this I’m concerned I might have medical concerns.

    Reply • January 13 at 9:50 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, I’d suggest getting it checked out. Anytime there is pain you want to get it checked.

      Reply • January 13 at 10:08 am
      • John says:

        After further research, it is very likely plantar fasciitis. Sounds like other people experienced the same type of pain and used orthodics to relieve the issue.

        Reply • January 13 at 12:43 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          While orthotics may help they won’t fix the real problem which is that you feet are weak and tight. Try taking a tennis ball and rolling out the bottom of your foot on it – just step on it and smash the ball between your foot and floor and roll it around. You should also try spending some more time barefoot, either just walking around your house or even taking into your strength training by wearing minimalist shoes like Vibrams or Nike Frees. Those solutions will work much better than just relying on orthotics.

          Also, if you are trying flats after years in clipless it take a few rides for your feet to wake up and adapt. Good luck, the good news is that the issue can be addressed and fixed.

          Reply • January 14 at 9:28 am

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