Humans love metaphors. You know, where you compare something you know about to something you don’t know about, which makes that something new easier to understand.

For example, telling you that something “tastes like chicken” is a metaphor. So is telling you that falling in love “feels like a roller coaster”. Or that riding your bike feels like…well, I’ll let you fill in your own metaphor.

If you think about it, we rely a lot on metaphors to help us make sense of the world. And for good reason – they work great!

I use them a lot myself to help riders understand how certain exercises can help them on the trail. Once you understand how the hip hinge and body position connect to each other you’ll never look at either one the same way again.

However, metaphors have a downside. As great as they are for helping us quickly understand new things, they can also be used to confuse people as well. Since they are a substitute for actual knowledge and experience in an area, if the metaphor is faulty it can be hard for most people to catch it.

And this can lead to a lot of confusion about things.

A great example of this is when discussing if you want to be on the ball of the foot or not when riding your bike. One school of thought is that you need to be up on the balls of your feet because “that’s where you are in your athletic stance” and being “flatfooted” makes you less “agile”.

The problem is that while this sounds great, this is not a good metaphor. Most people who use this metaphor have never wrestled or played the sport they are referring to or else they would know that no one is out there just bouncing around on the balls of their feet.

In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a picture of an athlete in this mythical “balls of the feet” position. For example, after looking around at pictures of wrestlers for this post I realized that none of them were on the balls of both feet. At best they would have one foot flat and be up on the ball of one foot but mostly you saw a lot of this:

Flat footed and ready to change levels.
Flat footed and ready to change levels.

As you can see, both of these guys are “flat footed” and yet they still look pretty “agile” and ready to move and respond. When moving around on the wrestling mat you spend a lot of time “flat footed” and rarely find yourself up on the balls of both feet.

When I brought this up with a guy who actually wrestles he laughed and said that being on the balls of your feet actually makes you less agile. He said that “you can’t change levels on the balls of your feet”. And in most cases this reduces your movement options.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Obviously being on the balls of your feet makes you more agile in some cases. If you are an infielder in baseball or a goalie in soccer and you are waiting for the ball to come at you then yes, this would be a good time to be in that position.

But even then, if the ball came right at you then you wouldn’t stay up on the balls of your feet – you would drop your heels to field the ball.

Here’s a guy named Derek Jeter – most people seem to think he was pretty good – showing us how being “flat footed” makes it easier to change levels and field a ground ball.

Derek Jeter with his feet flat so he can change levels.
Derek Jeter with his feet flat so he can change levels.

So, now that we’ve established that athletes in these metaphors already use the balanced foot position a lot more than you would thing, let me pose one more “challenge” to this metaphor…

Try doing a set of kettlebell swings on the balls of your feet. Or better yet, don’t and just imagine how awkward that would be. You certainly wouldn’t feel or look very “agile”.

So why is this?

If being on the balls of your feet makes you more agile then how come your body instinctively keeps your heels down a lot while moving or doing KB swings?

The answer is that being on the balls of the feet only makes you more agile in one narrow sense. If you need to get ready to run or jump then this position does make you more agile.

But if you need to change in your level and position– a.k.a. move your hips – then this foot position actually makes you less “agile”.

No one just stays on the balls of their feet all of the time. When you really think about it, most sports require a mix of being balanced on your feet to change positions and being on the ball of the foot to move once in those positions.

The big difference is that on the bike we never move our foot off of the pedal, we just need to be able to change hip position a lot. Again, since the foot doesn’t break contact with the pedal during the pedal stroke it makes it unlike any other sport in the world.

In other words, some metaphors from sports that require position changes and movement – like wrestling, football or baseball – don’t work. It can be like comparing apples to oranges, which leads to bad metaphors and confusion.

And bad metaphors have been used for a long time to explain why we do things in cycling that we now know don’t really make sense. In this case, the truth is that using a midfoot position on your pedals will help you improve your ability to move around on your bike, not take away from it.

A more balanced, stable foot will help you tap into your body’s own natural movement abilities instead of ignoring them. Riding mountain bikes is hard enough without handicapping yourself with bad foot position based on outdated metaphors that don’t really apply to our unique sport.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

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