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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