Can clipless pedals interfere with balance, reaction time and the efficiency of muscular contractions?

While most people don’t think about them in the same way, your feet are just as important to your body as your hands. They are a main contact point with the ground and having strong, healthy feet is important for performance and health.

In this episode of the MTB Strength Coach Podcast I interview Andy Clower, an athletic trainer and strength coach based out of Berkley CA. Andy is a true expert on the mechanics of the foot and made some interesting points in an article he wrote concerning the difference between true barefoot training and minimalist shoe training. After seeing it I knew I had to get him on the podcast to share his insights into what really happens when you restrict natural foot movement.

In this interview we discuss the impact that natural foot movement can have on balance, reaction time and the efficiency of muscular contractions in the legs. These are things most mountain bikers have never thought about but make a huge impact on the trail.

During the discussion he makes a great case for spending some training time off the bike completely barefoot. He shares some ideas on how he integrates barefoot training into new client programs so they don’t get hurt by getting into it too fast.

I think that Barefoot Training and applying its lessons to the bike – something I call Barefoot Pedaling – is an essential element for every rider. The best way to do this is to spend some time on flats. It will help you pedal with more power and endurance while also inflicting less wear and tear on your body. Plus, as you’ll find out in this interview, it can impact a lot of other things you never knew existed as well.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Again, this isn’t me saying this, this is a university trained athletic trainer who doesn’t even ride bikes. He is simply sharing what he knows about the foot, how it functions and what happens when you mess with it too much. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interview, please post a comment below this blog post if you have any. Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson


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  1. WAKi says:

    Ha! I feel so smartass lvl up! I’m a regular internet bloke and I figured it out myself. I was just pounding this concept into some blokes head on pinkbike, less than a month ago!

    Totaly agree, and I mean you can feel it on uphills as well, it’s so much easier to do a track stand or just pedal slowly when looking for a line. It is way better to stall for a moment, look and then move on,rather than just sprint into something only to put the foot down and get off the bike due to bad line choice. I mean this an argument that should get into XCers head looking for performance enhancement.

    Reply • January 30 at 9:26 am
  2. Leith says:

    Good info here. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply • January 30 at 6:08 pm
  3. TrevorB says:

    Good interview!…..Anybody who has tried flats will quickly realize that the foot has a much broader range of movement on the bike. Similar to what all these new shoes offer, flats allow you to pronate your foot inward as you pedal forward preventing misuse knee injury.

    My wife happens to have a masters in PT and the first thing she taught me many years ago was to walk correctly after 3 knee surgeries. She is a big proponent of these softer shoes and has taught numerous patients to do the same thereby relieving their knee pain.

    When you walk/bike in such a manner your tib fib aligns with your femur correctly thereby preventing knee pain by creating more shock absorption. This in a nutshell is why I love flats and so glad you turned them on to me!!!

    I’ll see if I can get my wife to comment on this so everybody can understand the mechanics better.


    Reply • January 31 at 11:14 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience, I’d love for your wife to post any additional info she may have.

      Reply • January 31 at 12:28 pm
  4. Scott says:

    Excellent interview. I can attest to the benefits of going barefoot. I wore orthotics for over 20 years and was under the impression I just had “bad feet”. I was fitted for them after a tennis related foot injury and became so physically dependent on them over the years that I couldn’t walk barefoot around the house for more than an hour without becoming crippled with foot pain. A few years ago, after reading “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, I realized much of what was mentioned in the book sounded familiar to the experiences I had had leading up to my original foot injury. My podiatrist had basically put my foot in a cast that never came off. My feet weren’t “bad”, they were just very weak. Over the course of several months I weaned myself from the orthotics. My feet have now been orthotic, and more importantly, pain free for over two years. Not only that, but I can absolutely contest to an increase in balance and agility on the tennis court (I do wear minimalist-type tennis shoes when I play). And yes I do ride flats…

    Reply • January 31 at 2:30 pm
  5. John (aka Wish I Were Riding) says:

    I enjoyed the interview, thanks for posting it. I’m still not sure I get how the actual technique of riding flats differs from clips in regards to the actual foot. I’m fully committed to spend some serious time on my new flats, because I do believe it will help teach me some things about my riding. However, I’m not sure I get the barefoot part yet. Maybe I’m just being dense… On the other hand, I have been having serious tightness and pain in the outside of my lower legs (mainly while SSing which I haven’t done in a while), and I’m partly hoping the larger platform of the flat pedals might relieve some of those problems.

    Reply • January 31 at 7:43 pm
  6. Lisa says:

    Shoes hinder how our feet work. As children its better to let them go barefoot to build the muscles. Our shoes wear in to our feet and if we wear our shoes wrong that will also hurt our feet and the rest of our body. What He said about the receptors is so interesting !! My though about the difference in clips and flats is that many clips are just the hardware for the clip, the flats are a larger flat surface. Just my thought. So the flat gives a large flat surface.

    I am all for flats!! I love them and wont go back to clips.

    Reply • February 1 at 6:56 am
  7. Christian says:

    Nice interview.

    The part about the brain perceiving foot restriction as a threat
    made a lot of sense to me.

    That “tightening up” Andy described is how I’ve always felt when riding
    clipless. I feel somewhat vindicated… its not “just me” but how a normal body/brain
    should respond to having its movement restricted.

    Flats for life!

    Reply • February 2 at 10:46 am
  8. adam rutter says:

    Hi James, I am a final year physiotherapy student from Britain. i started a blog today to give some general advice regarding injuries and some preventative tips. this podcast is fascinating and does have some close links to what i was talking about in my first post.
    keep up the good work, you continue to give me ideas relating to my rehab process with patients

    Reply • February 2 at 2:46 pm
  9. Neil Barstow says:

    Hi James,
    So, Crocodile breathing,
    Interesting. I find I CAN breathe into the stomach and yes I am getting more air for sure, but it feels like I am having th let go of my ab’ recruitment to let the belly drop on the bike. How can I protect my lower back whilst releasing my belly like this? I am sure it must be possible but do you have any queues please James. I am thinking back to the Saurai book you recommended “the rings”? And how he proposed that one should always old the stomach as if about to be punched down there!

    Thanks for bringing new life to my biking

    Reply • February 4 at 4:04 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      If you notice on my video I posted about fixing your hip hinge movement I had Chad send his breath to his lower back and obliques, not his belly button. Belly breathing may be a bit misleading – you need to breath into the belly but don’t just relax the abs and let the belly push out. It is more about sending the breath into the lower back and sides and feeling the sides push out, not the belly button. When you can do that then you can keep tension in the core to protect the spine while belly breathing.

      It takes practice and won’t happen right away. That is why I have my clients start off each training session with 10-15 crocodile breathes before warming up – I can explain it and show them once but they won’t “get it” for a while.

      Hope this helps, glad my info has helped you enjoy riding more.

      Reply • February 5 at 8:19 am
  10. Don says:

    Finally took your advice and got a pair of 5 10’s with flat pedals. After a couple of rides I’ve noticed my right foot is solidly stuck to the pedal but my left foot has been occasionally slipping. Any ideas on how to fix? Skills wise(betterride alum) everything works the same as being clipped except the real wheel lift. Found I’ve been cheating by being clipped in and struggled at first getting the wheel up.

    Reply • February 7 at 9:20 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Make sure that you are dropping your heels, especially the left foot. Odds are the clipless pedals have taught you to ride on your toes with your foot pointed down, which will cause your foot to slip off without the false attachment point on the pedals.

      Also, split squats are one of the best exercises to fix that so make sure you are doing them in your program.

      Reply • February 7 at 10:36 am
  11. Ken says:

    Today I took my first ride on 5.10’s and flats, and here’s what I noticed: I felt more comfortable on the bike going downhill. It seems like i’m less tense and more aggressive and natural. But there’s definitely a learning curve, as my foot slipped off the pedal a few times on some short rocky climbs when I did fast shifts and things got bouncy. The other thing is jumps and drops. It feels like the bike wants to leave my feet, so I don’t feel so confident hitting little jumps like I used to. In facct, they feel a bit scary now. What’s the trick to staying connected to the pedals when hitting jumps and drops? What should I be practicing?

    Reply • May 6 at 5:05 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Drop your heels when you are standing up on the bike and get off your toes. That will help keep your feet planted. As far as jumping and doing drops you just need to start over with some smaller stuff and relearn how to keep you feet planted, just like you had to learn to hit them when being clipped in. Now you see that you were relying too much on the clipless pedals and it just takes a month or so of riding flats to iron most of the bugs in your technique but once you get it you’ll be much better off.

      Reply • May 6 at 9:58 am
  12. mark says:

    I’ve been riding flats for years never been clipped in never plan to. My biggest complaint about clipless pedals is the bad habits it teaches new riders. They become so dependent on being clipped in when you take that away and put them on flats. The can not do manuals or tail lifts anymore. A small jump seems awkward and looks unbalanced. The argument I always hear is they make me climb faster or overall faster. I just tell them for everyday riding and learning use flats. You will learn bike control and balance faster on a good set flats and cut the learning curve down. Glad to hear something that backs up my disbelief in clipless pedals will try to pass this on to some of the new riders I ride with

    Reply • August 22 at 3:09 pm

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