April
14

Barefoot Pedaling – Do clipless pedals increase overuse injuries?

On my drive to Bootleg Canyon a few weeks ago I listened to the audio-book Born to Run. If you haven’t heard of this book before it is essentially about the barefoot running movement and a tribe of Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. It is a fascinating book that interweaves a great story with a harsh look at the reality of what the modern running shoe has done to our feet.

It chronicles the history of running and pinpoints when things started to go wrong. An activity that our ancestors did all the time suddenly started crippling modern man with injuries. I can not recommend the book enough – even if you don’t run it is still a chilling look at what our attempts to improve on the body have inflicted on us.

At the heart of it is how the foot works. The foot contains 25% of the total bones in our body and is a marvel of natural engineering. When running the foot is designed to pronate slightly, strike mid-foot and roll in, compressing the arch from the top. This loads the arch and allows it to spring some of that energy back into propulsion.

We screwed it up with running shoes by over-stabilizing it. There is a lot of evidence presented, both scientific and anecdotal, that supports the notion that we need to avoid restricting natural foot movement. Arch support and cushy heels have allowed us to develop a running style that creates lazy feet and an unnatural stride, both of which contribute to a very high injury rate. With the foot not working properly the knees, hips and low back are thrown out of alignment and suffer repetitive use injuries.

For a lot of people this is not really big news. There was an article in the New York Times about a year ago that talked about barefoot running and strength training. The Nike Free is a testament to this as well – it is basically Nike’s way of saying “yeah, we screwed up but we can still cash in on the truth”.

So, if this is the case with running and strength training, is it also the case with clipless pedals and shoes? The shoes basically do the same thing that the running shoe does – stabilize and restrict foot movement. They also provide arch support and an unnatural surface to drive into (too soft with running shoes and too stiff with clipless shoes). Hell, you can’t even walk straight in those things because of how much they alter your foot’s natural movement.

And being clipped in locks you into the exact same repetitive range of motion for thousands and thousands of RPMs. Your body was not made for this and instead lasts longer if there can be some minor differences in how it moves.

Maybe I’m wrong but I think that some of the knee, hip and low back injuries among riders is caused by the unnatural foot movement during hours and hours of pedaling with clipless pedals. A look at the injury statistics tells me that something is terribly wrong. One website I found (you can link to the article by clicking here) told me that 85% of cyclists are suffering from one or more overuse injuries at any given time.

Read that number again…85% of all cyclists. Since that number includes road cyclists the vast majority of those riders use clipless pedals. Here are a few other numbers from that site:

– 49% reported neck problems

– 42% reported knee trouble

– 36% reported groin/ glute pain

– 30% reported back issues

Based on the statistics, overuse injuries are at an epidemic level in our sport. Something is obviously wrong and I think I know what.

Just like people have realized that we need to preserve natural movement when we run and strength train we need to do that on the bike as well. Sitting on a little seat while hunched over with your feet strapped into tight, restrictive shoes that are attached to your pedals is pretty far removed from how are intended to move. It is no wonder that cyclists suffer more injuries than just about any other recreational sport.

I think that we need to get away from the unnatural way of pedaling and use a more “barefoot” approach. To me, “barefoot pedaling” means trying to restore more natural foot movement and posture. This requires a two part approach.

Part one is using flat pedals and shoes like the 5:10’s, which have pliable soles and no arch support. This will help the feet move more naturally and allow for minor deviations in foot placement. Part two is standing up to pedal as much as possible. This will get the neck and spine straight, the hips under the shoulders and utilize a more natural movement pattern.

Of course, I know that people will argue that they won’t be able to pedal nearly as long and far and with that I would agree – at least at first. Trust me, you will be able to go for epic pedals using the “barefoot” approach once your body has built up to it. However, based on the number of injuries in our sport I think that right now most people tend to ride too long and far anyways. They have unnaturally secured weak links to allow them to achieve performance levels their body is not really ready for.

If you are a professional and make a living from your riding then perhaps that is a fair trade off. There is a saying in high level athletics – where good sport begins, good health ends. Top athletes realize that high level performance has nothing to do with health and they are willing to make that sacrifice. However, to me it makes no sense for a rider who does not make a living off this sport to subject themselves to a repeating cycle of pain and injuries in order to gain a small mechanical advantage.

I know that not everyone will agree with me on this and I completely understand. The “clipless pedals are the only way to go” mentality is deeply entrenched in our sport and it won’t go away overnight. I just hope that this article has at least given you something to think about. Even if you are not ready to give up clipless pedals yourself you’ll at least think twice before recommending to a new rider that they need to go clipless as soon as possible.

At best I hope that you will at least try getting a good pair of flat pedals and 5:10’s and giving “barefoot pedaling” a shot and see how you feel. Stand up to attack hills and the trail in general. You should only be sitting to recover from your last standing effort and to get ready for your next. You may be surprised at how you feel both on the trail and, just as importantly, the day after a hard ride.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Randy says:

    Hey James with this and the other post you have about flat vs clipless I am about ready to go out and try it. Here is the question I posed on your other post:

    What pedals would you recommend to start with. I know about CB 50/50’s but what are some other good ones. Here are a few I have found. Please if you can let me know what you think:

    Wellgo WAM-B25 Flat Pedals

    Easton Flatboys

    Syncros Mentals

    atomlab trailkings

    Shimano DX

    And as far as the five tens go are they better than the Nike 6.0 or the six six one shoes?

    Thanks for taking to time to help man!

    Reply • April 14 at 8:57 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Randy – I use the Crank Bros 50:50’s and have had great success with Azonic A Frames as well. You can not go wrong with any of the pedals you listed, no one has a pedal that is just heads and shoulders above everyone else.

      All I have tried are the 5:10’s so I can not give accurate feedback on the Nike 6.0 or other shoes. Again, as long as they have a sticky rubber compound in the sole you should be alright. Hope this helps…

      Reply • April 14 at 11:09 am
  2. Sean says:

    Why do you hate roadies? What did they do to you? ; )

    Reply • April 14 at 11:06 am
  3. Kris says:

    Well I have been thinking about it for quite sometime so finally went ahead and got some flats and some 5.10s and I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Reply • April 14 at 11:33 am
  4. […] Do clipless pedals increase overuse injuries? | MTB Strength … […]

    Reply • April 14 at 12:28 pm
  5. Josh says:

    Hey James – I love riding both flats and clipless, but actually find my clipless pedals (CB Mallets) are easier on my knees due to the amount of float they offer. When riding flats with 5.10s my feet tend to stick in the exact same spot. Thoughts? That said, I’ve already been thinking about going to flats full-time this season – including for cross country riding – so your article definitely has pushed me to more seriously consider going for it.

    Reply • April 14 at 1:16 pm
  6. Trevor says:

    The SixSixOne Filter shoes are designed for clipless pedals, so even if you leave the sole uncut, it will be a much stiffer shoe.

    I ride DH and freeride on flats…but I still can’t get past clips for 4X/DS, XC and some DH racing. I just got the SixSixOne shoes and they’re 100% better than my Specialized XC shoes for making my feet feel “normal”….and this is coming from a barefoot trainer/Vibram FiveFinger owner.

    I’ve heard great things about 5:10, but I’ve never used them. Vans are always a classic too….you can even get softer ones…..biggest issue is the lack of a sticky rubber type compound.

    Reply • April 14 at 1:21 pm
  7. Tubby says:

    Interesting thoughts. While I agree about the overall concept that a barefoot is a healthier foot I am not sure how flat pedals are more analogous to being barefoot then clipless pedals. I will though this out there for agument sake and spur the conversation. A clipless pedal would be a closer match to being barefoot (at least in respect to a barefoot on a hard flat surface, ie the ground), thoughts?

    As far as overuse goes I think weak feet are the least of riders issues. I think overall strength deficiency and the mentality that the more riding the better has weak people riding longer then their bodies can handle. That would be the case with a flat pedal as well if the rider was still weak and riding too long.

    I can get an overuse injury from using my mouse for too long and my hand is clipped to it in a fixed position. So I don’t think the minor changes in foot position a flat pedal offers would help with overuse compared to a clipless with a sufficient amount of float. Riding clipless is hardly like being locked in.

    I ride both kinds of pedals and both have advantages and disadvantages but I think you are overstating the disadvantages of clipless and overstating the advantages of flats.

    Reply • April 14 at 6:29 pm
  8. Gerrad says:

    I destroyed a downhill with my flats and 5:10’s the other day leaving my riding buddy in the dust. He was using his clipless spds naturally. I feel like I have more confidence to “go for it” now since the switch to flats from clipless. Some people might not have this problem but I guess before I was afraid of smashing my face in because I was told to get clipless before I knew how to ride my bike.

    Reply • April 14 at 7:38 pm
  9. Tyler says:

    Hey James
    Really interesting stuff. I have a question about standing up to pedal. You describe getting the hips under the shoulders, and aligning the neck and back…..truly ‘standing up’ on the pedals. For attacking hills (pedalling up), I have been focusing on staying in good attack position, keeping my hips pushed back, chest down, shoulders packed, bending at the hips, and trying to engage my hips to drive the pedals in a piston-like motion. I usually only go to a more ‘vertically aligned’ position (like you describe) when I need a real blast of power on a really steep, short up that has good traction. I found the ‘vertically aligned’ pedalling position harder to maintain good traction on looser dirt/rocks as I couldn’t shift my weight as much or as quickly….also tougher to pull back on the bars to gain more rear wheel traction. Would you recommend against my bent at the hips/chest down uphill-attack pedalling?
    Thanks man, love your blog.

    Reply • April 14 at 10:18 pm
  10. Randy says:

    Couple points – ’cause I love the discussion:

    1) I would argue that cycling itself – in any form – is far from a natural human movement. As a species, we have 10’s of thousands of years of walking, running, lifting, moving etc. and (arguably) less than a 100 with the ‘artificial’ mechanical advantage that a bicycle provides. That’s simply not enough time for our bodies to evolve to what I think is a pretty ‘new’ form of (highly repetitive) movement. I would certainly concede that clipless pedals are probably one of the biggest contributors to this un-natural movement for all of the reasons stated by James and others – but as well because it provides a clipped in platform for you to apply for/aft pressure at the top/bottom of the stroke without engaging the lower leg (toe down/opposite toe up).

    2) Bad news is that I would pose that biomechanicly, it would be VERY hard to reproduce relatively constant torque rotation without clipless pedals – and I would argue, next to impossible while standing. For the terrain around here, not mastering the for/aft power at the top bottom of the crank stroke will doom you to lifetime of hike-a-bike trips (which, I’d argue, is a very natural set of human movements).

    3) I would STRONGLY suspect that the injury statistics quoted are heavily biased toward roadies. To that end, let’s kick ’em when they’re down 😉

    – if you buy into the ‘constant, exactly repetitive, un-natural movement is bad’ thing, then you’d certainly have to agree that endless riding on nearly homogeneous, unnatural terrain while striving for the most aerodynamic position in clipless pedals with almost no float MUST be the worst offender.

    – I think by now it’s widely known that mountain bikers (specifically AM/XC riders) are as a group more efficient pedalers than any other category of rider – largely due to the balance of strengh/power/mobility they MUST master to maintain traction on tough climbs. In the same context, there’s pretty much no question that roadies are way out in front in terms of continuous power output (Some 4 crosser or DH guy will undoubtedly point out the Australian that kept beating the “house” record for power output on flats – pretty sure this was ‘burst’ power, nothing that could be sustained over any kind of period). I would argue that mountain biking is the closest that we can come to “natural movements” in a sport that almost by definition is not “natural”. The balance, agility, mobility, core stability, and “whole body” awareness/fitness that mountain biking requires is as good as it gets.

    So… I’m in general with ya – I’m certainly going to try going with flats on a few rides. But sadly, I can almost guarantee that it won’t work for me this year – not because it’s not the right thing to do, but I’m virtually certain that I do not have the right technique or targeted fitness to climb what I need to climb in flats – perhaps James could suggest some targeted training for next off-season to get us producing a nice round torque in flats.

    Reply • April 14 at 11:08 pm
  11. Chris says:

    Well, I was going to make a long post, but I think Randy and others have covered it.
    Basically the analogy you have used is pretty lame since cycling is not in the slightest way a “natural movement” – no matter whether you are clipless, flats, or whatever.
    The two cycling physios I have spoken to both feel that the real weakness in cyclists is in the core and hips. If that is weak, then the knees and ankles will suffer and it really doesn’t matter what shoes they are wearing. Oh yeah – and both of them completely understood the difference between MTB and road physique. 🙂
    As I’ve mentioned before though – I do agree that people should get to know how to ride on flats, and that on crazy terrain, the confidence boost of being able to get off the bike in a hurry would really help some riders. One day maybe I’ll buy some good flats and some shoes just for the fun of it. 🙂
    chris

    Reply • April 15 at 7:06 am
  12. Walt says:

    Yeah, I think all those injuries are what happens to roadies because they are in the same static position for such a long time. We are talking their whole body… not just their feet. If you are really riding your mountain bike, you shouldn’t have that problem because you should always be changing your body position. If you are a trail rider, there are plently of comfortable spd shoes that don’t look like roadie slippers. I should mention that I do ride flats and 5:10 shoes when I can. I found that their is no difference really on the downhill between flats and clips. And for general tail riding, you do get used to it and I can see how you could be just as fast. (I just about am myself.) But I have found when climbing a rocky section in flats, my feet tend to bounce off the pedals no matter what I do. If there is anyone out there who has the solution to solve this problem? If so, I would ride flats all the time.

    Reply • April 15 at 7:47 am
  13. jake says:

    James,

    I enjoy your blog and have purchased two of your training programs, but I really feel you have gone around the bend with your clips vs flats argument. I get this is your blog, and you are sometimes thinking it through as you go. But I would encourage you to formulate a more coherent thesis before jumping into the ring. Your monocular view of this issue seems to cloud your thinking.

    You took an article dealing with foot strength within running and through a number of dramatic leaps of logic, applied it to riding bicycles, specifically mountain bikes to try and make a point. Given your respected position as the guru of mtb strength training, you are really undercutting yourself here. Which seems baffling given your usual stance on addressing the problems holistically. A couple of other comments have pointed this out also, but I really felt the need to say something.

    It seems that you are trying to get your clip/flat argument to fit into your usual correct imbalances view. But that simply isn’t the case. I really believe this is one of the few areas bike fit matters. If you are going to ride clipped in, then proper cleat placement is of paramount importance. If the cleat is misaligned, even by a couple of mm’s, then there is a huge chance of injury from the resulting misalignment. On flats, your foot moves around more freely varying foot placement and minimizing the chance to tweak something. If it feels awkward you are going to move your foot on flats. Why wouldn’t you do the same to your cleat? To prevent long term pain with either pedal type, using strength training to continue to balance the muscles in the lower body is crucial. Something you have very ably pointed out to the mountain biking community.

    I ride both types of pedals, find I am about as fast on either but I do try and ride flats more in the early season if my overall leg strength is low. My confidence factor clipped in or not is the same, but I have been riding clipped in for 20 years. Practice did a lot to build that confidence.

    Thanks for all the great training tips.

    Reply • April 15 at 8:55 am
  14. SteveO says:

    Hey, I swing both ways as a roadie with clips and a mountain biker with flats and 5.10’s. No doubt, the more constrained and static riding position on a road bike leads to more injuries than any mountain bike setup. But you can mitigate that by frequently changing positions and standing on a road bike. But, the real reason I am responding is because you don’t mention a very important injury prevention “mod” whether you ride road or mountain, which is: bike fit. Most mountain bikers idea of bike fit is setting the seat height and sag on their bike then off they go. But the swingers among us who are also road fags know there is way more to it than that. Spending bucks on a proper bike fit from the likes of Andy Pruitt and Retul has made a big difference in injury prevention on my roadie. I’ve used that knowledge to setup my mountain bike too. Something to think about…

    Reply • April 15 at 10:26 am
  15. […] D&#959 clipless pedals increase overuse injuries? | MTB Strength Training Systems […]

    Reply • April 15 at 12:17 pm
  16. Bryon says:

    Hey James:
    I read that NY Times article llast year and started walking in Vivo Barefoot & FiveFinger shoes exclusively for one year now. I felt my ankles, knees, and hips realign at first. I was sore but I kept walking a lot more and riding somewhat less. Anyway, spring is here and I just started to do some 15-25 mile and 1500-3000′ elevation change XC loops this last week using my carbon soled Shimano shoes and Eggbeater pedals. I don’t know if I could do that with my 5-10’s but I sure felt like superman on some of the climbs that gave me trouble in the past when I was in race shape.
    My posture has improved and my bike position is better and therefore my breathing is better too. I think it is all from the barefoot walking and I will continue to do “recovery” walks thought the race season.

    Reply • April 15 at 1:11 pm
  17. WhiteTrashInWasilla says:

    Well I started doing epics at the tender age of 50 riding the Denali Park road in Alaska 97 miles of gravel every weekend for the summer. Things were just hunky dorey, until I decided I need to try some crank bros. mallets. Within one week I was experiencing knee and hip pain. Now six years later after trying frog’s, knee saver pedal extensions, bike fits, and physical theray I gone back to platforms.

    Not being a “professional” of any sort, you are free to disregard any bits of wisdom I throw your way. Seems like common sense is out of vogue, especially with mountain bikers, so I will not be distraught by any negative comments. If however you do wish to listen to the accumlated wisdom of an old man try this recommendation.

    On your next epic, try some platforms. After an hour or so, look at the posistion of your feet on the pedals. Chances are it will be far different from your normal clipped in position. Keep riding and every so often look down again at your feet. You are now in your “natural” posistion. Your body is a heck of a lot smarter than your mind, the advice of your LBS, and perfect fit machine. It may behoove you to listen to it at some point. You can of course choose to do otherwise and remained clipped into your $125 pedals while wearing your ridiculous mountain biking shoes. You will gain that dubvious 3-4% improvement in efficency, and many injuries over time. You may rest assured however that your orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist will love you for the years of business you give them.

    Reply • April 15 at 2:54 pm
  18. Lon Hultgren says:

    One of the best reads of the year so far! I ride clips on the roads, Animal (BMX-type) flats on the Yeti with sticky 5-10’s. The flats have these little metal things that stick into the soft 5-10 shoe soles which really hold them down — in fact, I sometimes have trouble moving them once they are “stuck-in” on the little metal pieces. I think they are much more comfortable than my cleated bike shoes and I’ve got “sneaker-type” cleated shoes which are pretty comfortable.

    Reply • April 15 at 6:23 pm
  19. bikejames says:

    Great feedback and questions. I have a question , though. If bike fit was the real answer then why is there such a high injury rate among cyclists (surely more than 15% are investing in a bike fit)? Why do cyclists who have a bike fit still get hurt or have to go back to get things “re-fit” when pain pops up again? I’ve personally worked with several riders who spent big bucks on fittings and still ended up with overuse injuries so obviously it is incomplete at best, delaying and magnifying injuries at worst.

    I do want to point a few things out as well. I am not talking about one particular thing being the culprit here, I am talking about how the shoes (which are super stiff and do not allow for natural foot movement), the cleats (which do lock you into a more repetitive ROM) and sitting all the time (which puts you in a hunched position) all play a role.

    The shoes and being sat down all the time are the two biggest culprits and I would say that if you stood more and got some clipless shoes that had a more pliable sole and less arch support your would greatly improve the negative impact cycling seems to have on our joints.

    However, the cleats allow you to pedal with sub-par form in the saddle and get away with it. Most riders are not really spinning circles, they are pushing down through knee extension and pulling up. This action places more stress on the knees. Take away the attachment point and you are forced to drive more with the hips and stop pulling up, which is actually a more powerful pedal stroke. The top guys apply this true “spinning” to clipless pedals, most riders develop an unnatural pedaling style that is only possible through the clipless interface.

    Now, if you think that shoes so restrictive you can not even walk in them, being hunched over and pedaling with an unnatural style doesn’t cause any sort of orthopedic issues then we may just need to agree to disagree. I look at that package and see a recipe for joint pain and I think that we need to look at ways to drop an 85% injury rate.

    And I respectfully invite anyone who thinks that you can not pedal your ass off with flats to hit me up next time you are in the Grand Junction area and we’ll go for a ride. You may be surprised at exactly what a 7 inch bike with flats can get up with a rider who knows how to pedal with flats…

    Reply • April 16 at 7:43 am
  20. Allan Maxwell says:

    One observation about riding with a non-carbon soled shoe on a regular/platform pedal: You wind up with the arch of your foot over the pedal spindle rather than the ball of your foot. This is a hot, newish trend in the roadie world called mid-sole/mid-foot pedaling –seriously, look it up. This is a completely different pedaling position which will require you to readjust your riding position. You probably not to lower your seat and move it slightly forward. Not having a stiff sole will force you to engage different muscle as noted, but moving your foot forward on the pedal will also change the involvement of the calves. What does all this mean to you? Ease into it bro are you the overuse statistic to 86%.

    Reply • April 16 at 5:36 pm
  21. Randy says:

    “cleats allow you to pedal with sub-par form in the saddle and get away with it. Most riders are not really spinning circles, they are pushing down through knee extension and pulling up. This action places more stress on the knees. Take away the attachment point and you are forced to drive more with the hips and stop pulling up, which is actually a more powerful pedal stroke. The top guys apply this true “spinning” to clipless pedals, most riders develop an unnatural pedaling style that is only possible through the clipless interface.”

    Now that’s (IMO) exactly correct on SOOO many fronts. I’ll generalize even further – IMO, injuries in our sport are due to applying some kind of ‘technology’ to the biomechanical problem that allows you to instantly see performance results – short cutting the REAL solution which is proper technique FIRST, aids later. James is SOOOO good at focusing on this in his programs – making sure that each movement is perfect before adding ANY weight – but even us “apostles of James” forget that the same thing applies to the trail. Clipless pedals are a crutch to artificially bolster poor ‘spinning’ technique. As with any ‘cheat’, there are ultimately consequences.

    I would LOVE to have the lower leg technique to ‘spin’ properly on climbs in flats – that would be UBER cool. But I don’t – and I’m not going to suddenly find it this season. I get it. I’m using a crutch. Not possible to ditch the crutch this season.

    I also fervently agree with James that the combination of poor hip/back posture while riding combined with overly restrictive shoes/pedals is extremely suspicions. What I’d like to see is James knuckling down and building some programs that we can use in the off season to perhaps help us kick the habit next season 😉

    Now – on 5:10’s et. al.

    Could not agree more that humans are ruining just about everything by inserting technology between us and the earth – don’t get me started. Humans are not built to ‘move’ using high-tech arch supported, air assisted, things on their feet. However, I think we always need to use our brains a bit and THINK about what it is that we’re trying to achieve: for almost all of the human genome’s existence, fuel has been lean meat (protein), vegetables/fruits, and OCCASIONALLY and opportunistically (i.e. rarely) things like seeds, nuts, honey, etc. Movement has been dominantly on grass – certainly sustained movement at speed. How many people today are running on grass? – or even have the opportunity to do so? I would argue that running ‘barefoot’ on concrete or asphalt day in and day out will be just as damaging as what we’re doing right now. The ‘barefoot’ running movement is still relatively young – but I’ll be willing to bet that the right answer is a shoe that attempts to mimic the reaction of grass (and I don’t mean your Kentucky bluegrass lawn). This ‘real’ running surface does not have arch support – but it’s not asphalt either.

    Reply • April 18 at 8:35 pm
  22. Randy says:

    So another dumb question: what is the proper pedal stroke for flats. I just a pair of 50/50’s yesterday as well as a pair of 5.10’s bas15c shoes. I went with the cheaper freeride shoe to start plus they were on clearance at REI 🙂 Anyway pedal stroke? Thx!

    Reply • April 19 at 8:58 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Randy – It should be similar to running – you extend at the hips to drive down, scoop through the bottom with your foot and then return it to the top. You need a passive return where you are not actively pulling up and are instead unweighting the back foot, similar to what you learn to do through a Bulgarian split squat. I need to do a video to demo this better but the “extend knee, pull up” stroke that you get from clipless pedals is very unnatural and you had to “learn” it. Just riding flats will force your body to the “learn” how to ride flats. Nothing will substitute for practice…

      Reply • April 21 at 5:30 am
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    Reply • April 20 at 9:45 pm
  24. Chris Q says:

    I ride both clips and flats. Basically I ride clips when I’m mountain biking and flats when I’m on my slalom bike. I always ride flats on the slalom bike whether it be for the pump track, jumps or racing. I used to be a trials rider and I can bunnyhop my slalom bike over a bike box, so I don’t need clips to help me move my bike around. When I first started racing XC I raced on flats. Then I did my first 24 hour race in Canberra (Australia) in a pine forest. Pine forest has lots of corrugations and roots and I found that when I was sitting down pedalling across the rough ground my feat would move around on the pedals. I switched permanently to clips after this race. Yes this was before Five Tens. I do believe clips help out on low speed tech climbs when you need a bit of torque, it certainly helps to be able to pull up on a couple of strokes instead of just pushing down and cramming the bike into the frontsides of obstacles whilst climbing. Having said that, I think tech pinches on climbs and gate starts are the only times clips give you more power. I choose to ride clips because I enjoy the connected feel. Riding a suspension bike over rough terrain is one of the greatest feelings a person can know and I personally like the feeling of being clipped onto the bike.

    Recently I took Dad for a ride. I put him on my Cannondale Rush with the flat pedals and I rode my slalom bike with clips for the first time. It was horrible. I felt like I was standing on my tippie toes. Turns out my cleats, whilst towards the back of the available range of my shoe, are much further forward than where I would stand on flat pedals. This is my question: How does this foot position affect my pedal stroke and body? You are talking about a more organic approach which would suggest I ride with my foot further back. Before I started the DB combos program I was riding my xc bike a bit slouched making power with my lower back knees (I wasn’t that awful but you get the picture). Now I realise that I need to keep my upper body and hips more aligned and generate power with my glutes and bigger, more powerful deeper muscles in the quads and hamstrings. Would I make better use of my hips and core if I rode further forward on the pedals and less on my toes? Would I be less prone to injuries? I run a single 34t chainring and chain device on my XC bike and therefore climb out of the saddle a lot more than most people. Would this more organic foot position be more suited to the single ring style? I have moved my cleats back almost as far as they can go, in total I’ve probably moven them 7 or 8mm from where they were, and it now feels like I’m standing on the same part of my foot as I do with flats, so I can achieve a flats like postion with clips.

    This discussion has also pretty much sold me on the idea of some softer soled clipless shoes. I can’t stand little xc clipless pedals and have always ridden a clipless pedal with a platform, it just feels better. At the moment I’m riding a hard soled xc racing shoe but I do like the idea of somehting that really connects with the platform. I think a softer soled clipless shoe and large platform clipless pedal with the cleats back would be pretty close to your barefoot set up.

    Reply • April 22 at 3:12 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Chris Q – I need to do a video on this subject as it is a bit tough to write about without getting too wordy. However, I can tell you that the extreme toe forward position for most clipless pedals simply plays into people quad dominance and does make it harder to pedal with the hips. Getting more midfoot and standing more will help you get the hips into pedaling more And pulling up on the pedals is a bad habit that turns what should be a “passive” return into an active power movement, which is not what the legs were designed for. If you develop good leg strength for the downstroke you’ll never need to pull up to get over something.

      Hope this helps, I’ll post that video next week…

      Reply • April 22 at 7:12 am
  25. jeffB says:

    I use the shimano DX shoe with Crank Brothers mallet pedals. They feel very, very similar to platform pedals in that my foot is fully supported by the pedal body, and I`ll even hit the dirt jumps with them with my regular Vans on occasion. With this shoe/pedal combo my foot is in almost exactly the same place as it is with regular platforms. I have been riding clipless for 14 years on both mtb and BMX (even raced pro for a season), and I have to admit I`m considering taking the platforms from my 20″ (which I don`t ride much these days) and throwing them on the big bike and getting some 5/10 shoes. I actually like clipless, but they have made me lazy.

    Reply • April 24 at 9:35 am
  26. Joe says:

    A video would be great, James. I ride flats with 5.10’s.. and I am usually the only one riding flats when I show up at a trail around here in CO.

    Reply • April 25 at 5:40 am
  27. Trevor says:

    Alright. I did it.

    Five Ten Freeriders in the mail.

    I put flat pedals on my new slalom/4X bike, and took it out for a spin. Much to my surprise, my bike still moved….and quite quickly. I soon realized that even as fast as I can be riding clips, they were making me a lot more timid. My fear of unclipping mid run was getting in my way. Just riding around Boston streets, I was able to put my bike so much farther on it’s side because I wasn’t worried about being attached to it if it went out underneath me. I don’t need clips to jump or to stay on my pedals. Cornering has always been my biggest weakness, and I now believe that the confidence I gain will mean more time off than the extra power from the clips.

    We’ll see though. Hopefully I’m not taking this all back after the US Open……..

    Reply • April 27 at 9:37 am
  28. Alistair G says:

    All very interesting. As a runner I’m wearing a particularly soft and pretty unsupportive pair of Nikes which feel much better than the ‘hard’ Brooks I had previously. I’m also XC (24hr racing)and roadie rider and my wife is a Spin and Core instructor with Fitness First here in Sydney. Having done Core classes for a couple of years I can say this is the best thing I’ve ever done for my cycling. Also recently saw my bike physio and he moved my position forward slightly and moved my cleats back. More power and more comfort for longer and from what I understand uses the glutes more. Two lessons I’ve learnt – core strength and get fitted to your bike by someone who understands body mechanics. Actually for anyone in Sydney, AUS who wants this talk to Blair@thebodymechanic.com.au as he knows his stuff!

    Reply • May 5 at 3:23 pm
  29. Julie K says:

    I have been riding with flat pedals for years now, and have no intention of switching to clipless. I even ride them on my CX bike.

    Anyway, I have been using Specialized Taho shoes for years, as well. But, I recently gave 510’s a shot, since I was liked their stickiness. After several long rides, I started to develop knee pain issues that I’ve never experienced before, and nothing else (my bike setup, my pedals, etc.) had changed at all. I went back to the Taho’s, and gradually, the knee pain has disappeared! I do strongly feel that the either lack of arch support or the stickiness and lack of foot movement from the 510’s was the culprit for my knee issues.

    Reply • July 15 at 11:40 am
    • bikejames says:

      @ Julie K – if you go from a shoe with arch support to one without it and do not decrease your riding volume then you will probably develop some pain somewhere. Not sure if you tend to sit and spin but standing more will also help. Not familiar the the Tahoe shoes but glad you have something that works well for you, thanks for the insight…

      Reply • July 16 at 2:17 pm
  30. jason says:

    I’m a new rider who purchased a used bike with clipless already installed. Being big on natural body movement (i have pretty advanced taiji and yoga practices), I promptly replaced them with flats after essentially coming to the same conclusion before reading your article. Today I did some hunting to find a mountain biking perspective to validate my decision, and I was not disappointed. Great article and great comments…

    Reply • July 27 at 10:15 am
  31. Sam Preston says:

    I love it !!! I just tried out flat pedals for the first time yesterday in my 3 years of mtbing . I recently took a skills camp with Andy from betterride and went out to do my parking lot skills . I was amazed at how much more in control I was , especially with counter balancing. And I rode this crazy wheelie that had me literally thinking ” Am I really riding this thing this long ” I did hit a local 4wheeler trail for a bit as well , and did get a little spooked when my feet popped up from the pedals , but that was just from my cheating habits of lifting with the clipless pedals . I am sure that after a few more rides it will really improve my technical skills . Thanks for all that you are doing , you have been a HUGE help with my biking/athletic skills. Sam Preston

    Reply • July 30 at 5:14 pm
  32. […] Do clipless pedals increase overuse injuries? | MTB Strength … […]

    Reply • August 17 at 1:41 pm
  33. Dave says:

    Interesting conversations. I started riding mtb in the mid-80s and only had clips. I have clipless on my road and tri bikes, but never made the change on my mountain bikes, because of where I ride. About a third of my rides are in very remote areas, covered with lots of huge rocks, rock formations, and downed timber. I spend a fair amount of time hauling the bike up and down unrideable steeps and across trail-less areas that are literally bushwhacking only. Shoes that I can hike, climb, and run in are the only option. I couldn’t do the rides I do clipless, and I don’t think I lose much power with clips and shoes. My buddies like to go clipless, but they don’t ride everywhere I do, and when we go into less-demanding terrain, we all get around and over pretty similarly. And I noticed that I can get my feet planted on the ground faster than they can. If I raced, I’d go clipless for the ultimate power transfer, but not racing, clips work best for me.

    Reply • August 22 at 5:45 pm
  34. Don says:

    I’m new to mountain biking and so I’m a liitle late at finding this blog. I started with flats and then switched to combo pedals so that I could try clipless. I am using clipless only for rides on roads or paved/gravel trails. However, since I continue to fall (on stopping), I haven’t had enough nerve to try clipless on singletrack. After reading the comments and the original blog, I’m thinking why even try – I am 65 and don’t really need a bad fall in the woods!

    I did take some MTB lessons and they taught that staying on the saddle was the best way to climb. I thought it was to keep weight on the back wheel for traction. What is the correct standing position for climbing?

    Being in Canada makes finding FiveTens almost impossible. Any other ‘big name’ skater shoes that would be suitable?

    Reply • August 18 at 12:03 pm
    • bikejames says:

      You need to weight the rear and you can do it more easily seated but you can also do it standing. It just takes a lot more core strength.

      As far as 5:10s, no other shoe really compares. You can get them on http://www.zappos.com and they come with a 365 day return policy.

      Reply • August 18 at 2:20 pm
  35. Don says:

    Thanks very much for your response. I checked out Zappos. Unfortunately they don’t ship to Canada.

    Reply • August 18 at 6:16 pm
  36. Gloria Obyrne says:

    I think you’re absolutely right..a few weeks ago I got some clipless pedals and despite the learning curve required of falling and muscle memory I was determined to keep them..yesterday as I was getting out of the left pedal my knee twisted in a way that could have been very detrimental..I felt as if though repetitions of this movement over many bicycling miles could endanger my knee health..I decided then and there that there has got to be a better way!

    Reply • August 20 at 10:54 am
  37. JP says:

    If it is almost as efficient, why dont we see more amatuer racers riding flats? I rode my first MTB race a month ago and was one of the only guys wearing street shoes. I clip in when mucking around but didnt have the confidence for my first race after the pre ride. Just wondering why the “fast” guys are running clipless still?

    Reply • October 31 at 6:35 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Like I said, they are almost as powerful and efficient – in a race you want to go with what offers you the best advantages. I’m going to do a blog post on this soon but clipless pedals and shoes are like a weight belt – they allow you to improve performance but you shouldn’t “need” them all the time. In a race clipless pedals and shoes offer an advantage but if you can’t ride flats then you have some pedaling dysfunctions that the shoes and pedals are covering up. If they got better with flats they would be better with clipless as well.

      Reply • November 1 at 6:47 am
  38. sean p. says:

    In reference to your born to run realizations, the book discusses how the human body was designed to run naturally barefoot. And how all the plastics and cushioning are messing up our natural gait. I totally agree with this. But running and biking are entirely different. The human body was designed to run. Not to be on a bike. Evolution has developed our bodies into what they are today without taking into account bikes and pedalling. I’m not saying that flats are not the eu naturale of pedalling, but who really knows the eu naturale of pedalling? pedallin g is definetly not as natural as running. not yet at least. the good thing is, our bodies are very good at adapting at anything. even running or biking. heck we aren’t even designed for water but we have adpated by swimming. maybe we’ll grow gills in the future. or even bones on the feet that we can use as wheels. I use clipless. but my next bike will be on flats. Ride on!!!

    Reply • January 5 at 3:07 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I guess I look at it like this – just because you are on a bike does not change the optimal way to power lower body locomotion. Your body does not know you are on a bike and assuming that being on a bike changes how your body moves is not the best way to look at it. Same with swimming – there is an optimal way to extend your arm overhead and it does not matter if you are lifting a weight or swimming. Apply good movement to what you do, do not look at everything as something new.

      Reply • January 5 at 10:54 am
  39. sean p. says:

    our body movement/range of motion does change in a bike. just as it changes in running and swimming. and the optimal way of how to run, bike, swim as been challenged from time to time just like all other things. majority dictates that shoes help running. now they say our feet does not need shoes and actually damages our natural gait. in biking majority says that flexing/bending of the foot arch during pedalling is inefficient because you waste energy. now this idea that flexing of the foot/pedalling standing up is more optimal because it makes you stronger. im sure the accepted concepts of the correct/optimal way to swim will also be challenged if not yet already. the way i look at it, our bodies can adapt to anything we want to adapt to. whether it is the optimal/correct way of doing it or not. i was sold of the idea of barefoot running because of 1 proof the author mentioned. the way children run. i believe that the way children do things have a sort of universal truth to them if we look closer. so lets see how the little tikes do it on a bike and maybe that would offer us some insights. i like trying new ideas, challenging the status quo always produce positive results/insights. and if 5:10’s makes me stronger than SIDI’s, then i’m all for it. cheers bro!

    Reply • January 6 at 4:16 am
  40. Tappah says:

    On March 15, 2014 I sustained simultaneous bilateral patellar tendon ruptures. I’ve been building strength in the weight room and adding various mobility movements to my workouts, but you can imagine how hard it is to get cardio in when jogging more than 50 yards is still out of the question. The girlfriend bought me a mtb for Christmas to help with recovery and our first long ride, we went 19 miles and I was on flats. I had issues with my feet coming off the pedals at both high and low speeds and those instances of rapid unloading of the resistance on my legs followed by a reactionary involuntary contraction of the quads was wreaking havoc on my knees. I bought 50/50 spd’s and cleats and absolutely love them. They are set half way between the easiest and hardest settings (in terms of unclipping) and I’ve never had any issues of yet and I haven’t ridden a bike in over 10 years prior to this winter. If anyone would feel excessive wear and tear on the joint, I think I’d notice because there’s no way I want to risk another $30,000 surgery and prolonged indescribable pain… The clips are helping me reach my cardio goals and I’m developing a new passion beginning with rail trails then to single tracks. So coming from someone who’s experienced one of the most devastating rarest knee injuries in history, (look up bilateral patellar tendon rupture to see how rare it is, if you will), my knees are becoming stronger by being clipped in and they have not experienced any abnormailities due to twisting or jerking… I haven’t fallen yet either, though and I’ve been biking over ice and snow atop the mountain in Michaux Forest.

    Reply • February 4 at 11:00 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If you stand up more to pedal you won’t have your feet coming off the pedals as much and it will actually be better for you knees. Sitting down is terrible for you knees and results in a lot of force going through an unstable joint. When you stand up you get full knee extension and a co-contraction between the quads and hamstrings, which stabilize the joint.

      And overuse injuries are just that – they occur from a lot of overuse built up over time. You may not feel it now but odds are you will start to get some sort of knee, hip or low back pain from sitting and spinning with clipless pedals all the time.

      My advice would be to stand up more and not go on 19 mile rides right off the bat. It may take a few shorter rides to get the hang of it but once you do you’ll be able to ride just as well and be putting less wear and tear on your knees in the process.

      Reply • February 13 at 9:53 am

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