How clipless pedals really work, why they are just like a “weight belt for your feet” and why you shouldn’t rely on them every time you ride.

One of the hardest things to overcome when having a discussion about the value and role of both flat and clipless pedals is that everyone knows that the fastest riders in the world use clipless pedals. Most World Cup and National Level DH races are won on clipless and every XC and similar discipline is won on them as well.

There has to be another explanation of how clipless pedals help increase pedaling power because there certainly isn’t a magic pedal stroke that only exists when you strap your foot the pedal.

Hell, you even have some studies that show a (slight) increase in power from using them too.

This would all seem to indicate that they are “better” than flats, right?

Unfortunately the answer is a little more complex than a simple yes or no. To answer that question let me pose another question to you…

In the weight room, can you deadlift more weight with a weight belt on?

I’m sure that everyone reading that question would agree that yes, all other things being equal if you strapped a weight belt on you could lift at least a little more weight than you could without it. This is why pro power lifter and Olympic weightlifters use them.

Now, ask yourself the same question we apply to clipless pedals…does this make lifting with a weight belt “better” than lifting without one?

Again, in this situation most of you reading this won’t be so quick to answer “yes”. Most of us recognize that just because you can lift more weight with a weight belt that certainly doesn’t make it “better” than not using one.

In this situation we naturally recognize the need to not use the weight belt all of the time for everything we do. Building your core strength and movement without the aid of the weight belt will help you be stronger and more injury resistant both in the gym and in the real world.

So the answer to the question of “is a weight belt better than lifting without one” is that it depends on the situation.

If you are using a max load and trying to break a PR on the deadlift then it might be a good idea to use one.

But if you are just doing a regular workout you should probably “train raw”, which means to use no support equipment. The strongest guys in the world know that the stronger you are “raw” the stronger you will be when you use the weight belts and other support equipment.

So, let’s bring this back to the question of “are clipless pedals better than flats”? And right now some of you may be wondering what the hell a weight belt has to do with clipless pedals and your feet.

The truth is that clipless pedals are really just a weight belt for your feet. They improve your performance through the same basic mechanism, which is to artificially strengthen the weak link the kinetic chain.

Now, this is where I have to back up and explain why this statement makes little to no sense to most cyclists. The reason is because we have been taught that clipless pedals enhance your performance by allowing you to use your legs in a different way than you can with flats.

We’ve been told that you need to pull up on the back stroke while you are pushing down with the other leg. The story is that this ability to use the hamstrings and hip flexors to pull up is what is adding additional power to the pedal stroke.

And that seems to make sense when you first hear it. On paper, that is exactly what you would design a machine to do.

But what we’ve found out is that this is not what is going on. There are 2 studies and an EMG reading I’ve found that show that this picture of the pedal stroke is a myth and doesn’t exist. If you aren’t familiar with the Mornieux (et al. Int J Sports Med 2008; 29:817-822) and Korf (et al. Med Sci Sports Exerc 2007; 39:991-995) Cycling Efficiency Studies I have them referenced in the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto.

What science has shown us is that the human body prefers to push down hard and let the trail leg return in a more passive manner. Just like when you run, you are pushing hard with the lead leg and pulling up just hard enough to get the trail in place to push hard again.

And, the dirty little secret among the pros and those have actually looked at the science is that clipless pedals can help…but not that much. Among the top riders we’re talking a few percentage points of an increase, which is huge for them but certainly not the huge difference we’re lead to believe exists.

In other words, take the pros clipless pedals away and they are still the fastest riders in the world. But take your average riders clipless pedals away and they are like a fish out of water.

Add it all up and something isn’t right. There has to be another explanation of how clipless pedals help increase pedaling power because there certainly isn’t a magic pedal stroke that only exists when you strap your foot the pedal.

And this is where the analogy of the weight belt comes back in. When you wear a weight belt you aren’t using your leg muscles in a different way or recruiting more of your leg muscles. Your legs produce the same power in the same way so that isn’t how a weight belt helps.

The weight belt helps because it artificially strengthens the weak link in the kinetic/ movement chain, which is the core. More of the power that you are producing with your legs gets transferred through the core and into the upper body, which is holding the weight.

It is this increased power transfer through the weak link in the movement chain that results in the increased performance.

And this is exactly what is happening with the “weight belt for your feet”, also known as clipless pedals.

The science has shown us that they don’t let you use your legs in a different way or let your legs produce power more efficiently. They just artificially strengthen the weak link in the movement chain, which is the foot.

By solidifying the foots ability to transfer the power being generated into the pedal, clipless pedals help a little more power make its way into the crank arms. And that shows up as increased pedaling power in the lab and in certain racing situations.

Plus, in mountain biking the foot can get knocked out of place from pounding down the trail so not having to worry about that can also help when you need to be your fastest.

But, just like with a weight belt, there are advantages to training “raw” and not letting the technology that can enhance performance become a crutch for lazy technique.

Even if you find that clipless pedals make you faster, using them all the time for every ride is still not a good idea. You need an opportunity to train your pedal stroke and technical skills “raw” to keep them sharp and reduce the wear and tear on your body.

This is why it is important that new riders not be rushed into clipless pedals too soon. They need the chance to train their pedal stroke and skills “raw”. Being rushed into clipless pedals can allow them to build bad habits and not allow them the chance to develop their skills properly.

This is also why it is important for every rider to spend some time on flat pedals. We would all see the problem with the guy in the gym wearing his weight belt every day, even for something simple like bicep curls. But we think nothing of strapping on clipless pedals every day for every ride, which is essentially the same thing.

The truth us that you will actually be faster on clipless pedals if you spend time on flats. It isn’t a matter of one pedal system being better than the other, it is about understanding how they exist on the same continuum and how they can work together to create a high performance rider.

I’d argue that by letting your ego get in the way – not wanting to show up for a group ride with flats and put up with the comments and/ or being a minute or two slower on a ride – you are actually holding back your performance with clipless pedals.

So, in conclusion, clipless pedals certainly do benefit some riders in certain situations. But that benefit is not derived from allowing your legs to do something different than what they can do on flats.

They do it by artificially strengthening the weak link in the movement chain, which is the feet. However, the tradeoff is potential bad habits and unnatural weak and tear on other joints.

This means that if you are going to use clipless pedals that you should have a strong base built on flats (I suggest at least a year on them exclusively) and that you still use flats to keep your pedal stroke and skills honest while reducing potential overuse injuries

Learn to ride on flats. After building a strong base on flats then you can consider using clipless pedals for racing and high performance purposes. But don’t use clipless pedals as an everyday crutch or think that you need to use them to be a really good rider. This approach will let you use both pedal systems to maximum effectiveness for your needs instead of getting caught up in the dogma of which is “better”.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

The Catalyst Pedal

The Catalyst PedalThe Catalyst Pedal from Pedaling Innovations is the world’s best performing, most comfortable pedal. It is the first pedal that looks first at how the foot and lower leg optimally move then applies that insight to the bike. The result is a patent pending design that supports your foot the way that nature intended, increasing power, efficiency, stability and comfort. Backed with a no questions asked 30 day money back guarantee, this is the pedal that gives you the performance of clipless pedals with the fun, safety and comfort of flat pedals.
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  1. Tamas says:

    I completely agree with you but LBSs are promoting clipless pedals no matter what. I understand their point because they will sell a pair of shoes immediately with the pedals – the customer has no choice – but it’s still completely wrong. They have the “full circle, more efficient” explanation and make you feel like you cannot be a real biker without clipless.
    After riding SPDs for two years and back to flats/510s for over a year I don’t see any reason to go clipless again. My technique improved a lot with flats and probably my strength too because I ride everything faster than before. 🙂

    Reply • September 3 at 8:56 am
  2. jason says:

    There is another aspect that often gets over looked as well. In any sport there is a point where you give up health for mechanical advantages. If your goal is to get in shape then you should be more focused on technique and movement, if you focus on the mechanical advantage just know you may be giving up some health.

    Reply • September 3 at 10:40 am
  3. McFeist says:

    I started riding in flats/5-10s last fall after having ridden with clipless pedals for 14 or so years. It has been the best thing I have done to improve my riding. I like your analogy of the clipless pedals being a weight belt of sorts. My legs have gotten much stronger where they need to be since switching over, and my knee pain has essentially disappeared now that I have strengthened my legs. I ride differently with flats. I stand a lot more, have a better attack position, and I am more confident about “scary stuff” on the trail. I am not a racer and will probably not go back to clipless pedals. Flats are just way too much fun for the type of riding I do.

    Reply • September 3 at 5:57 pm
  4. JonB says:

    While I’m totally in agreement that riding flats can improve technical skill level, the focus around just maximum output for a pro rider on flats vs clipless is a bit narrow, in my opinion.

    I’ve found the biggest benefit for me, being a fairly out of shape weekend warrior (thanks 60+ hour/wk desk job!) is the ability to change muscle group focus when I start getting tired on a long climb or towards the end of the ride. Being able to do a bit more pulling up on the back leg, although less efficient in terms of power generation, let’s me give my quads a much-needed rest for a short time. Now, it’s most certainly a crutch, but it’s a very useful one.

    Reply • September 4 at 8:36 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I’d suggest standing up more to give your quads a break, that will let you use the hips more and give the quads a break from seated pedaling. While pulling up certainly does change the muscle groups being used, there are other ways to accomplish the same thing.

      The need to pull up to give the quads a break is usually a sign of spending too much time sitting down and relying too much on that position as you power position. Get stronger with standing pedaling and you’ll be faster and not need to do some unnatural pulling motion to give your quads a break.

      Reply • September 4 at 9:03 am
  5. Dan says:

    Just have to jump in here because I love this subject. Switched to flats 4-5 years ago after following James blog and have never looked back. I ride faster and harder than ever before and am having way more fun especially on the sketchy stuff. My climbing gets better each year. Now one of the big things here is that I am always working out. I’ve done 4 of James’s programs. I did his 6 month xc interval program all on flats. I just turned 56 and am the oldest rider in our riding group and loving it:)

    @JonB Again I took James’s suggestion to stand up more and now it’s my go to pedaling stance when my quads get tired. It really works.

    Thanks James for all your help over the last few years.

    Reply • September 6 at 4:54 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback, glad the advice has worked so well for you so far. Standing pedaling is a valuable weapon that most riders never use properly.

      Reply • September 10 at 9:41 am
  6. Joe says:

    I think a lot of people riding clipless confirm the textbook definition of “Social Proof”. That is, “when people are uncertain about a situation, they look to others to see what they are doing, to decide how they themselves should act”. Someone got the ball rolling along time ago using clipless pedals on a mountain bike (probably came from road riding), and one by one, everyone has followed this train. The is even more underscored when they look at the pros riding clipless. Because of this, a good flat pedal and a good mountain bike shoe (i.e. FiveTen) are not found in Local Bike Shops.

    Reply • September 10 at 7:14 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You are totally right – it is the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes in real life. Most people just go along with what everyone around them is doing, often feeling that they are the only one who thinks something is wrong. But all it takes is a few people to call BS for others to start following suite as well.

      And yes, it is hard to get decent flats and shoes in most local bike shops. It just goes to show the unconscious pressure from the industry put on the consumer to not even consider flats a viable option.

      Reply • September 10 at 9:34 am
  7. Mike says:

    Hey James, I want to start using clipless pedals for some all day rides on gravel roads. What is your recommendation for the cleat position on the shoe? I’m thinking that I should put it as far back as possible, so that I can maintain the same mid foot position that I have become used to on my flat pedals. Am I on the right track?

    Reply • October 12 at 8:23 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      My first question is why do you feel you need to use clipless pedals for all day rides? They are really uncomrfortable and longer you ride in them the more your feet hurt. If you feet are sore or cramping then you won’t be able to pedal as hard. IMO, the longer the race/ ride is the more flat pedals are preferable, especially the Catalyst Pedal since it delivers the same performance as clipless and is far more comfortable.

      But, if you are going to use them then yes, you should try to have the cleats more mid-foot. You also want to get a pedal that has a pedal body that can help support your foot since having a stiff sole balanced on a tiny platform isn’t the same as the platform itself providing the support. Your foot is made to work with a stable platform, not a stuff sole.

      Hope this helps and please let me know if you have any more questions.

      Reply • October 18 at 2:17 pm
  8. james caissy says:

    Pedals are the most important choice for mountain bikers. I have ridden many different size bikes (17″ to 21.5″ frame sizes) and enjoy a good hard ride provided I am riding flats. All of my joints and muscles prefer flats and I ride 5 days a week which really punishes quads and hips. In order to change to flats you will make a few adjustments that after very few rides provide the confidence to remain on flats. Mountain bikes came after road bikes and remember, they used to come with seats 2″ higher than the handle bars, the frame components were all of similar size and v brakes. Riding that today with flats or clip less would be much harder than riding today’s sweet designs where you feel like you are in a balanced cockpit skipping over everything in a straight line with amazing control.
    try it for 10 rides and see what you think. You will make adjustments for the up and overs and lengthy tech rock gardens and very soon be riding everything you were on clip less. you will be amazed and probably develop a whole new style of riding.

    Reply • October 20 at 8:14 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback and suggestions.

      Reply • October 24 at 8:32 am

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