Are Clipless Pedals Enhancing Your Performance or Covering Up Your Dysfunctions?

Better is a relative term, especially when talking about artificial means of performance enhancement. The mistake people make is assuming that because something improves performance it must be better and therefore you want to use it all of the time. The fact is that equipment can either enhance good technique and fitness or cover up technique and fitness gaps and there is a huge difference between the two. The first will let you tap into your own abilities even more and the second will lead to plateaus and overuse injuries.

Once you can ride almost as well on flats as you did on clipless go back and try clipless pedals again and I’ll bet you see a big difference in how effectively you can use them.

In mountain biking this is seen in the rampant use of clipless pedals but ours is not the only sport that has this problem and we can learn something by looking at the parallels between our situations. In fact, the best analogy to explain this concept is the use of a weight belt when squatting or deadlifting.

Using a weight belt will help you lift more weight, which technically makes it “better” from a performance point of view. However, anyone who knows anything about strength training knows that you don’t use a weight belt all of the time. You save it for when you need it but, on average, 80-90% of your lifts should be without it.

Why is this? If a weight belt is “better” then why do the strongest guys in the world not use it all of the time? The answer is because they know that you must build your technique without it so that you keep yourself honest and do not start to use the belt to cover up technique flaws. Watch someone who really knows how to squat and his technique will look the same with or without the belt and his best raw squat (using no belt) won’t be too far behind his squat while using a belt.

Compare this with the average gym rat who uses a weight belt for everything. It doesn’t take a highly trained strength coach to see that they their technique sucks and if you took the belt away and exposed their pathetic core strength they wouldn’t be able to squat nearly as much. Most of us would agree that in this case you are better off building your technique and fitness “raw” and using the equipment to enhance that base.

In fact, most sports have specialized equipment that is “better” than normal training equipment but they only use it to get used to it and for competitions. Track has racing shoes, swimming has special suits and I believe that clipless pedals belong in the same category – equipment that does enhance your performance but not something you should be using all of the time since they can be used to cover up technique flaws.

The truth is that you should be able to ride a bike relatively well with some good flat pedals and shoes. In one study (Mornieux et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) it was found that the pedal stroke of elite cyclists looked the same on flats and clipless pedals. Another study (Korff et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) showed that pedaling in circles or pulling through the top of the pedal stroke resulted in a less powerful and efficient pedal stroke –  in other words, there is no “magical” pedal stroke that is only available by attaching your foot to the pedals.

If you can’t pedal half as well without being attached to your pedals then that is a sure sign that you would benefit greatly from some time spent riding “raw”, so to speak, and building your technique and fitness base without the aid of being attached to your bike. Once you can ride almost as well on flats as you did on clipess go back and try clipless pedals again and I’ll bet you see a big difference in how effectively you can use them.

It is always a good idea to go back from time to time and spend some time on flats, just to keep you honest. During the off season make sure you do your indoor intervals with them since you can’t really practice clipping in and out anyways. During the riding season at least spend a couple rides each month on flats as a way to check your technique and make sure that you aren’t developing any bad habits along the way.

The dirty little secret is that the best riders are already in this category – take away their clipless pedals and they would still be the best in the world. They are using clipless pedals to enhance their already great technique, not make up for the fact that if their feet weren’t attached to the pedals they would fly off on every climb or rock garden. Training “raw” is a lesson that every sport has learned and we would benefit from not trying be at “100%” all the time and developing our technique and fitness base without the help of artificial enhancements. Clipless pedals are “better” in some regards but with that knowledge needs to come the perspective on how to best use them.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Jose Vazquez says:

    Excellent information! I’m fairly new on MTB, just 1 year. For 10 months I used flat pedals and focused on improving pedal technique (based on articles similar to this). Like 2 months ago I got clipless pedals (eggbeaters) and can say that the only difference it has made is on helping me maintain the foot attached to the pedals while riding rocky terrain with some level of downhill. But maybe this is also an issue of technique. Anyway, I have not seen any difference on performance. Thanks for such good info James!

    Reply • December 5 at 7:09 am
  2. Alex Y. says:

    I must be part of the 1%…the 1% that still uses clips! Personally, I think I get the best of both worlds. I keep them tight enough so my feet don’t slip off during the heavy bumps, yet loose enough to allow my foot a pretty decent range of movement to adjust hopping of the saddle during steeps etc. There are some downsides for sure. But it works for me.

    Reply • December 5 at 7:56 am
  3. Anne says:

    So much improved with my riding when I stopped being clipped in.

    My climbing improved. I was able to actually spin, something I never understood how to really do clipped in.

    I’m also willing to try new things and was able to pull off a wheelie for the first time ever a few weeks ago.

    The only side effect to my riding is my pedaling isn’t as smooth, so I was wondering if you have any drills using flat pedals on smoothing out your pedal stroke? The only thing I can’t do is one leg pedaling drills in flats, but that’s the only thing that hasn’t improved since the permanent switch.

    Reply • December 5 at 8:36 am
  4. Dorsey Tennant says:

    Hey James
    Love your Blogs! Until recently I had never even ridden a Mt. Bike with flats. I started racing BMX with my sons about 14 or 15 yrs ago. I started on flats of course and it may have been partially due to the shoes and/or pedals I was using but apparently my technique sucked too because I could not keep my feet on the pedals especially going over jumps ect. Most of the other riders I was racing against were clipped in so I switched over and immediately advanced my performance. I never felt the scarey sensations that a lot of people say they feel about not being able to unclip. In fact I feel more connected and comfortable on my bike clipped in. When I started Mt. Biking shortly after starting BMX I put clipless pedals on from the start and never even thought about using flats until about 6 or 8 months ago when I discovered Better Ride and then you thru Gene’s page somehow on facebook. You and Gene both seem to share the same philosophy on flats so I recently bought some 5/10 Shoes and some decent flats and have been using them for a couple of months now. I like them and I now realize that what you say is true. You don’t really pull up on your clipless pedals as much as you think you do. The power is there with a good pr of shoes and flats and pedaling technique. The main problem (no doubt a flaw in my technique)I still have on flats is mostly just when I’m jumping something. My feet still come off the pedals sometimes. What am I doing wrong? I usually don’t have much problem on smaller stuff. It’s usually on larger tables or drops that my feet come off the pedals while I’m in the air. Any ideas on what I am doing wrong? Maybe you could do a blog post in the future that addresses correct jumping techniques on flat pedals? Thanks!

    Reply • December 5 at 10:54 am
    • si says:

      Hey Dorsey, can’t speak for James, but I also suffer from my feet leaving the pedals, seems to be a common problem and not a lot of fun. Check out this article by Lee, it has helped me get better control:

      Reply • December 5 at 6:08 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      The trick to that is learning how to drive yoru feet into the pedals to initiate drops and jumps. This video on manualing shows you the basic concept and once you can manual you can do it on the drops and jumps you are talking about. BTW, a drop is simply a manual off a ledge – you just control how high you pull based on the drop but the concept of driving the bike in front of you off the ledge is the same.

      You also can use your hands and wrists to control you bike. Twisting the wrists forward can also bring your rear up up a bit and help get it back under you if you feel it falling away. Even then your feet may float a bit from time to time but with practice you get a feel for where your pedals are and are able to get back on them.

      Reply • December 6 at 9:50 am
    • Wacek says:

      Another bit is to realize how the vectors of forces work when hitting a jump. Basicaly the momentum of your body with center of mass around your waist tries to go forward while the jump tries to move you upward. The goal is to match those vectors of forces as much s it is possible. You need to dynamicaly shift your weight back (as James says) in order to direct vector of your mass upwards to match the take off. Otherwise if you ride staticaly through the jump, while your front wheel goes up to follow the curve of the jump your hips are still moving forward. Once the rear hits the jump the rear end pushes you forward. The most common mistake is to have flex in upper body and stiff lower body which just . All that is counterintuitive. Learning to bunnyhop is the basis. Once you master that you will be able to bunnyhop on the lip to fly higher and further, or prejump it by pulling the bike before the lip directs it upwards. And remember, plan to turn handlebars a bit in one direction. It is better to be mentally prepared for that, and choose direction yourself, rather than leave it to the luck, whcih way the wind blows. Say no to dead sailors 😉


      Reply • April 4 at 8:15 am
  5. Chad McCray says:

    I am firmly convinced that you can get stronger riding flats. I ride clipped in most of the time though. I am an endurance rider and racer so the events I ride can very from 6-24 hours. Being in the saddle that long I prefer my feet connected because many times I’m in pure survival mode. However for short rides (2hrs and under),and power training. I am switching back and forth to flat pedals because of the core strength ,and bike handling it teaches you. Believe it or not I have injured my foot doing to much downhilling clipped in. They both have advantages and disadvantages. The fact that you will never see a uci world champ downhiller ,or trials rider clipped in ,and you will never see a world champ xc racer on flats is proof of that to me. Application and personal preference have much to do with this. However being stuck to one discipline limits your ability as a rider in my opinion. I always see the strongest of riders are the most versatile in bike disciplines.

    Reply • December 5 at 3:44 pm
  6. Kevin says:

    I am using some great flats with set screws and trail running shoes with good traction and pretty soft soles. The only problem at first with my new flats was learning not to cut my shins or calves in the parking lot before even going on my MTB ride. I never slip a pedal and on the rare occasions when I bounce off my pedals they seem to always be there waiting for my feet, so I have full confidence in my flats. Once upon a time I was a roadie and used toe straps (before clipless) and I have also done lots of spin classes, so I can tell that my pedal stroke on flats is very good and I do not think I am missing out on a “pull” stroke.

    Reply • December 5 at 8:14 pm
  7. Dean Sheard says:

    Chad, Greg Minnaar, current world Champ Downhiller rides clipped in, but I do see your point, and as a long time clipped in rider I’ve started riding with flats to improve my technique.

    Reply • December 5 at 11:05 pm
  8. Chris A says:

    Enough with the pedals already! I’m in the top 10 on Strava on several downhill sections along the Front Range and I’ve never ridden with flats.

    You can use the same analogy by riding a crappy bike. Ie If you ride a crappy bike enough, you will become a better rider.

    It’s all personal taste.

    Time to move on to other aspects of mountain biking. You’re diluting yourself with all this flat pedal pontification!

    Reply • December 7 at 2:13 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It is not all personal taste, that is just what people who don’t understand the real science behind it say when they can’t refute the evidence I present. If it was all about personal preference then most riders wouldn’t ride clipless pedals in the first place – most, like you, only did it because they were told they had to, not from personal experience with both pedals systems.

      Keep racking up your KOMs on clipless pedals, just don’t pretend that there are not very real dangers to using them and advantages to using flats.

      Reply • December 9 at 5:44 pm
  9. Chris A says:

    I disagree if you are suggesting that there is a greater chance for injury riding with SPD. I can ride the most technical terrain clipped in and the only time I feel sketchy is if I’m on the skinnys.

    Reply • December 20 at 1:50 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Just because you don’t have issues (which isn’t really true because you already stated that skinnies feel sketchy and I’d bet that there are sketchy sections of trail you pre-unclip for) dismissing the real concerns and fears of other riders with an “I don’t have a problem so neither should you” attitude isn’t helping the situation. Hundreds if not thousands of riders a year are hurt in crashes that start with “I couldn’t get unclipped” and acting like that isn’t true doesn’t mean that it isn’t. The odds of getting hurt go up a lot when you first start riding clipless pedals – there is no denying that – and it takes a long time to get to where you don’t worry about getting your feet unclipped and for a lot of riders that learning curve isn’t worth it. Try to expand your world beyond you and your riding buddies and you’d see that a lot of riders do get hurt by not being able to get unclipped.

      Reply • December 21 at 8:43 am
      • Likewise you can’t discount the learning curve and injuries related to learning to ride more advance terrain on flats. Both pedals require their own skill set. Everything in life is a compromise, pick your poison. When I feel that I can take time away from what I have the most fun at, 2-6 hour XC with plenty of rock gardens and tech on a rigid bike,I may invest in the flat pedal learning curve. I have already went through the clipless learning curve, 20 years ago.

        Reply • April 4 at 10:11 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          But that doesn’t take into account the central theme of this article – if you can’t ride flats doesn’t that tell you that clipless pedals are covering up technique flaws and/ or movement dysfunctions. You can and should pedal and maneuver your bike the exact same way on clipless as you do on flats and when you can you will actually get more out of your clipless pedals.

          Flat pedals are the reality check for your pedal stroke and technique. Clipless pedals can enhance your performance but only if you already own your movement and technique in the first place. The learning curve is not nearly as steep as you may think, I guarantee that in less than 4 weeks you’ll be able to pedal and maneuver your bike just fine and you’ll find that you do it more efficiently.

          Once you are able to ride your flats then you’ll find that when you go back to your clipless pedals you’ll get more out of them. This is a common bit of feedback I hear from riders who take up the challenge, in fact you can hear from one in the latest podcast I did with Coach Al Painter.

          I appreciate your perspective but I really feel that it is trapping you in some ways. You are not nearly as dependent on your clipless pedals as you think and once you learn to tap into the power and technique you have within you’ll get more out of any pedal system you choose.

          Reply • April 4 at 10:46 am
          • James,

            Finding ways to improve, is why I am even considering flats. I am not an exBMXer. As kids, we would race up and down the city streets on flats, sometime on just the spindles of broken pedals. My first MTB had flats, then I added straps and clips. I was evolving along with the MTBs. I adopted SPD’s quite early on (20 years maybe), with no pressure from the bikeshop. I am sure I had, and maybe still what you would call holes in my technique. I also killed my self on a skateboard, but liked being connected to my DH skis. A telemark skier might say a fixed heel ski is just making up for poor form. He would be right to a point. But new tools come out and some adapt to them and own those. I actually wish they had stronger retention springs on SPD, cause I pedal hard enough on the upstroke to pull out sometimes. Not a lot, mainly to make a particularly steep and loose section of a climb on my Single speed. I have no problem getting out of my pedals in an instant. When I first got my SPDs, way back when, I found that I could continue pedalling while getting the bike up and over rocks and roots on climbs. Proof enough for me, no foot slipping back off the pedal and stalling forward momentum. I don’t allow myself to get sold things, I alway make up my own mind and think everyone else should too! Yes I fell over a few times before I owned the pedal release. I expect to fall a few times if and when I try flats as well. I know you recomend shin guards. Sorry for the long post and I am just stating the opinion of a 48 year old that has been trail riding 20+ years. “Set in his ways hes is.”

            Like I said I love riding how I am riding, but the possibility for loving it more, is enticing.

            • April 4 at 6:03 pm
          • bikejames bikejames says:

            Having fun is what it is all about in my book and that is the word I hear most often when riders describe their first few rides on flats. Give it a shot, I guarantee that it won’t be nearly as hard of a transition as you think. The Clipless Pedal Mafia has done a wonderful job of convincing riders that their technology owns your pedal stroke when that isn’t the case. You own your pedal stroke and technique and flats will give you the freedom to rediscover that.

            • April 8 at 10:29 am
  10. Jordan C. says:

    James, I really appreciate this article. I began riding mountain bikes in 1989, at the young age of eleven! Riding a bike on trails, my body naturally did what a typical adult would have to train for years to be able to do.

    I think some (many) of us longtime riders actually transitioned from toe-clips/straps to clipless pedals in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Talk about struggling with pedaling issues, try using clips/straps on singletrack, rock gardens, and switchbacks! I can’t believe we did that! I rode those SPD’s for a decade.

    By the turn of the millennium, I returned from college to find many of my friends were riding trials and freeride and curiously riding flats. They possessed skills that I only wished I had! What happened while I was gone? How could they manual, ride skinny logs, bunny hop over obstacles, hop on their back wheel, feel comfortable in the air, drift through turns, track stand, and generally move their body with/or counter-to their bike so fluidly?! I followed suit and transitioned to good flat pedals (I feel like the black traction pins that thread in from the top with an allen key offer the best grip).

    Back on flat pedals, the bike suddenly became comfortable, and came alive! My friends all said you have to go slower to get faster. They had mini competitions along a ride to see who could get over/through a difficult obstacle the slowest! For the first time in my life, I actually worked on skills! With flats, I learned how to really bunny hop, ride skinny things, drop the bike in turns, and use trail features to my advantage. Now I realize, it’s the rider who is moving along the trail, while the bike under him/her is simply a fun tool to do it faster.

    I do agree with the commenter who rides 24hr events that clipless pedals help when you’re just hanging on and don’t have the energy to pedal properly.

    Reply • April 12 at 11:01 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback and story! I totally agree. Clipless have their place, particularly in races. I just think everyone should give flats a genuine try and make an educated decision. Great to hear that you are having fun with them!

      Reply • April 14 at 9:31 pm

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