Special Report: Top 3 Clipless Pedal Myths & How to Build a Better Pedal Stroke

This is a Special Report I put together last week that includes the Top 3 Clipless Pedal Myths and How to Build a Better Pedal Stroke. I just wanted to make this resource available to those of you who are interested in my Barefoot Pedaling theory and want to try flats but still have some questions and for those of you who are already part of the tribe and need some info to help you answer the questions I know you get from other riders.

In addition to debunking some of  the common myths surrounding clipless pedals I also include 3 exercises that will help you build the type of powerful, efficient pedal stroke seen in top riders, regardless of whether they ride flats or clipless. Once you put these exercises to use you’ll find a lot of what you thought were “advantages” of clipless pedals were, in fact, just a way for you to cover up the hip and core weaknesses present in so many riders.

Please take a second to click on the link below to download your special report and please feel free to send it to friends, post in forums and basically use it to help spread the word about how riders really do have a choice when it comes to pedal selection and that flats are every bit as good on the trail.

Top 3 Clipless Pedal Myths & Building a Better Pedal Stroke

-James Wilson-

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  1. cookie says:

    James, great doco. Could you make any suggestions for pedals suitable XC/Trail riders in regards to pedals? I’m no DH rider but am keen to trip flats as I agree for 90% of what I do it could be a better solution then SPuD’s


    Reply • March 1 at 9:47 pm
    • bikejames says:

      You can’t go too wrong with many pedals in the $50-$100+ range. I’ve used Azonic A-Frames, Acros A-Flats, Crank Bros 50-50’s and Kona pedals and I can’t say that any of them were “better”, although the Crank Bros rattle a lot and I know guys who’ve had them fall apart.

      Reply • March 3 at 4:03 pm
  2. wes says:

    Thanks for all the free information. Love the podcasts as well. Really getting excited about the mountain bike this year on my 50/50 pedals. If I can’t spring for the 5:10 shoes I’m thinking of some sticky spray for some old trail shoes. It’s all a work in progress. My bike is old and too small but fine for developing my skills and engine. I want to be the guy with the crap bike that smokes the guy with too much bike. Thanks James for all the inspiration.

    Reply • March 2 at 8:10 am
  3. ChrisQ says:

    That’s a really complete collection of some of your best information and ideas yet.

    Excellent work and thanks for making it available.

    Reply • March 2 at 8:32 pm
  4. Don says:

    I’d have to disagree with your assertion of clipless pedals being the source of overuse injuries. Through what mechanism? Just as you ask for evidence or studies showing the increase power available from using clipless, I would ask where are your studies showing that the overuse injuries are due to clipless pedals? I would assert that most overuse injuries are due to lack of consistent training, weekend warriors with no midweek training pushing too hard on the weekends. Other overuse injuries are typically due to increasing training quantity too fast, or overtraining. I think that back when clipless pedals didn’t have float, they were the source of injuries for some people, but all clipless pedal systems on the market today have more than enough float available. This is in contrast to flat pedals where you have zero float. This might seem counterintuitive to some people. They probably think, “I have infinite float on a flat pedal, I can move my foot anywhere”, but that’s not what float refers to. Float is important with regard to the natural motion your foot makes DURING a pedal stroke. Clipless pedals, which have float, allow your foot to rotate naturally during the pedal stroke. Quality flat pedals, with all of the pins for traction, in combination with sticky-soled shoes, don’t allow the foot to rotate at all during a pedal stroke. If your foot is able to rotate freely during a pedal stroke with flat pedals, then those are some greasy pedals. My case in point being that as we see an increase in flat pedal use for extended XC/Trail style riding instead of just DH/DS, we will probably see an increase in overuse injuries due to the inherent lack of float in flat pedal systems.

    Reply • March 3 at 3:20 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Float is not the same thing as natural movement. Float is 2 dimensional and natural foot movement is more of a “rolling” movement that takes place in 3 dimensions. Even though the sole of the shoe is staying in the same place with flats your foot is still able to move in the shoe in a more natural way. You can’t even walk straight in clipless pedal shoes so how can they let your foot move naturally? Whn you run your foot doesn’t “float” on the ground and so it doesn’t need to on the pedal either. Float was invented to combat the fact that stuffing your foot in a tight shoe with a stiff arch and then attaching it to the pedals was so unnatural that something had to be done to let the foot move somewhat.

      Barefoot Running doesn’t have studies supporting it yet it has gained a lot of credibility and momentum so if strapping your feet into overly cushioned and supported shoes can cause overuse injuries in runners then why not in cyclists as well? Logic plays a role in this argument as well and logically, natural movement always trumps man’s attempts to outsmart mother nature.

      My foot is able to articulate the same way in my 5:10 shoes on my flat pedals as it is in when running and walking in my Nike Frees, try it and you’ll see. Besides, if they had the cleat and float thing figured out then why is there a push in some circles to change the cleat location to a more mid-foot position?

      Reply • March 3 at 4:13 pm
  5. brad johnson says:

    James, do you recommend the flat pedals with a large strap over the top? There is a company in GJ making them. Or will the flat pedal efficiency work better w/o the straps?

    Thanks for your input.

    Reply • March 14 at 7:26 pm
    • bikejames says:

      If they are being used simply to help keep your foot on the pedal and not to help you “pull through the top” then I don’t see a problem in using them. However, 5:10 sticky rubber shoes and good flats make them unnecessary. Like everything else, it all boils down to how you are using it.

      Reply • March 15 at 4:58 am
  6. Marcus says:

    ‘Logic plays a role in this argument as well and logically, natural movement always trumps man’s attempts to outsmart mother nature.’ A quote from your response above, which I don’t agree with.

    Cycling is not a natural movement, it is the introduction of an artificial device for moving over the ground and so flat pedals do not introduce any level of natural movement.

    As a bare foot runner myself (five toes) I’ve found them a great help with running, smoothing out my stride and reducing pain and injury to my knees and shins. Bare foot running has also helped focus my running to the ball of my feet which in turn has helped with my cycling, strengthening calf muscles and ankles. Something I’ve not found riding with flats, which only seems to emphasize use of quads and glutes, hence not requiring input from other muscles in the leg and reducing potential maximum power input.

    Would you argue against the idea that maximum power delivery is through the ball of the foot and not through the whole flat foot?

    Reply • March 16 at 9:27 am
    • bikejames says:

      We just have to agree to disagree here – if you think that your foot moves the same way on flats as it does with clipless pedals and shoes then I don’t know what to say as you are not experiencing the same thing I am. How much time have you spent on flats? The science is clear – you can produce power just as well on flats as with clipless pedals.The idea that flats emphasize the glutes and quads and don’t require input from the other muscles and therefore reduces power is (I don’t know how else to say it) ignorant.

      And I’ll ask you the same question I’ve asked everyone else – why is cycling different than running? If your body has an optimal way to power movement then why does that change when you get on a bike? If natural movement is better then why not try to figure out how to apply it to the bike?

      I have run this idea past a number of well respected coaches, trainers and therapists and no one has said I’m off base with this. It only seems to come from people who have, at best, a passing knowledge of this subject. I don’t mind answering questions but you have to step your game up if you want me to be able to converse on an intelligent level with you.

      Reply • March 16 at 2:59 pm
  7. Anne says:

    Running is not the same as cycling. James, while I love what you do and I love your training programs, I don’t necessarily agree with what you said about clipless pedals.

    If running has overuse problems (which is due to the significant stress on the joints that any form of cycling doesn’t create), what about skiing? snowboarding? rock climbing? They all require different shoes that are by no means comfortable to walk in, but make it easier to engage into different sports. Just sayin’. I’d like to hear more bio-mechanics on this rather than a slippery slope.

    I do think that too many people are dependent on clipless and should be able to ride with either flats or clipless. One too many times I’ve heard people are too afraid of their feet slipping on flat pedals, which just goes to show you they don’t have light touch on the bars and not enough weight in the feet.

    Reply • March 16 at 9:51 am
    • bikejames says:

      The overuse injuries in running are not from impact, they are from the unnatural mechanics forced on the foot by running shoes. This is the same thing that happens with clipless pedals and shoes – they do not allow for natural foot articulation and therefore place stress on the other members of the kinetic chain.

      And the biggest difference between running and cycling and the other sports you mentioned is that with them you are not involved in leg powered locomotion like you are with running and cycling. The cyclical, repetitive ROM your legs go through represent the problem, not just stuffing your feet into uncomfortable shoes.

      As I said in the special report, clipless pedals and shoes have a place and, in the hands of someone who is not using them as a crutch, can act as a legitimate performance enhancer. However, I still think that shouldn’t be your everyday riding shoes.

      And why is running not the same as cycling? If your body has an optimal way to power locomotion with the legs then that remains true even on the bike. Just because those that came before us saw it as different doesn’t make it so…people used to think the earth was flat as well.

      Reply • March 16 at 2:48 pm
  8. Marcus says:

    I wasn’t saying that flat and clip pedaling motions are the same, just that neither is more natural than the other. Both are adaptions to an artificial device. And while I admit to mostly riding with clips toady, I started out with flats 30 years ago and I still slap a pair on every year just maintain that ol’ muscle memory. The science is not clear on the relative power delivery of each pedaling method, the only study I’ve seen seeming to show that most proficient riders only unweight the pedal on the back stroke, not pull, but still coming to the conclusion that clips do allow for an more efficient delivery of power.

    Yes ok, pedaling with flats still requires the interaction of all the muscles in the leg, but at a significantly different ratio. E.g. on a short steep, very lower rpm climb, where squats and lunges (as you rightly promote) pay dividends and really help, my only option with flats is the push through and down. Unlike with clips where I can augment my fore foot pressure with a pull up with my back foot.

    And like running, pedaling goes through repetitive cycles of advice. Roll the foot, heel strike, flat foot, bare foot, short stride, long stride, circles, squares, triangles, ankling, etc and on and on. Often supported by very little science and fact and more often by opinion and a new book to sell.

    Why is it, when we rotate the pedals around using our arms, we use our entire arm’s muscle groups to pull and push the pedals around and that this method is not applicable when using our legs where muscle groups are in essence similar?

    Reply • March 17 at 11:24 am
    • bikejames says:

      Flats are more natural as they allow for foot articulation in all 3 dimensions while clipless pedals only allow it in 2. Plus, you can’t pull through the top, which is another unnatural way to power motion allowed by clipless pedals.

      And why, if the science shows that the best cyclists don’t pull through the top, would you want to do that at any time. If you’re tired how does switching to a less powerful and efficient method help?

      If you’ve read the book Born to Run then you know the trouble started when we started giving advice in the first place and not letting the running stride develop naturally. The conflicting advice comes from trying to fix other bad advice.

      Lastly, we don’t walk on our arms, they are anatomically different than the legs so trying to compare how we rotate cranks with the arms and legs is like trying to compare them in running, which obviously would make no sense.

      Have you read the special report or taken the time to google the studies I mention and see what they say?

      Reply • March 17 at 12:07 pm
  9. M. Griffin says:

    I have found that I went through the scenario that James describes.

    I was new to mountain biking a couple of years ago and everyone around me said that I would be better off with clipless pedals. Sounded good to me, feet stay on the pedals, you can pedal more efficiently (pulling instead of just pushing), and you get new shoes, and interesting technology (pedals)… how could that be a bad thing.

    So I purchased some shoes, and some pedals and off I went, convinced that I would be better, faster, stronger – superman on a bike. I spent a whole season riding clipless pedals and felt pretty good about my progress (never having been on clipless pedals before and new to mountain biking) I was faster, my technical riding improved, i could climb stuff that I couldn’t before and stuff my buddies couldn’t. All good…

    Some how I happened across James and his passion about “barefoot” pedaling and it started me thinking and I decided to give it a try and switch back. But this time I got some equivalent technology – no more crappy cage pedals and spanked sneakers that were okay to get muddy. Interestingly, I was still faster, my technical riding was just as good (maybe a bit better), and I could still climb just as well.

    In general I think that the urban legend that clipless would make me better did not the pedal technology. I believed I would be better and I was. I believe that to some degree the clipless pedals did improve my riding because they forced me to keep my feet where they belonged on the pedals and not mashing them with the arch of my foot. They also forced me to thing more about my form because I couldn’t just put a foot down whenever I got in trouble.

    My preference is flats, but I’ll continue to use clipless when the course is of the less technical variety.

    I really enjoy all of the banter regarding this topic and others, it really makes one think and question what they are doing instead of just going with the flow. Thank you.

    Reply • March 19 at 10:14 am
  10. vapor says:

    “Yes ok, pedaling with flats still requires the interaction of all the muscles in the leg, but at a significantly different ratio. E.g. on a short steep, very lower rpm climb, where squats and lunges (as you rightly promote) pay dividends and really help, my only option with flats is the push through and down. Unlike with clips where I can augment my fore foot pressure with a pull up with my back foot.”

    Marcus, this problem with flats is caused by a lack of balance, and that lack of balance is interfering with your pedaling. The weight of your legs moving around while going slow and working hard is difficult to balance. It seems easier with clips, but this “pulling up” is creating tension that is only being used for balance. The tension from “pulling up” is not making your pedaling better. Focus on a stable core and strong hips while practicing this with flats and it will seem as easy as with clips.

    Reply • April 6 at 3:05 pm
  11. tom says:

    Ok I made the change from clipless to flats and went on a twenty mile cross country climbing fest. I could feel the change in my pedal stroke and actually felt quite good being able to dab my foot in corners like on my dirt bike. But WHAT THE HELL! 48 hours after that ride my hamstrings are so stiff I could hardly walk. I’m talking agony…ice and hot tub here I come.

    I will stick it out cause I like the feeling but is it my stroke or just the fact that my hamstrings are now being used like never before.

    thanks for cool article

    Reply • June 21 at 4:53 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Yeah, funny how your hamstrings start kicking in when you take away the attachment point. It will get better, it just points out how dysfunctional your peal stroke can be with clipless pedals since your hamstrings are supposed to be working with your quads to power lower body movement.

      Reply • June 22 at 7:25 am
  12. tom says:

    I toughed out the clipless pedals for a year and crashed many times. I don’t care what anyone says you just cannot get the damn things out in time when things happen in a microsecond, I don’t care how fast you are. My Mavic shoes and decent flats feel great on my feet so going down hill is a lot more fun. One guy posted it takes only 5 milliseconds to unclip well a lot of shit happens in 2 milliseconds and your late to the party.
    Jumping with flats is like a said the same on the moto bike you just need to get your timing down and you won’t get launched into space. Ha!
    You will never win everyone over cause some people are just professional complainers and will always bitch.
    Good luck.

    Reply • June 22 at 3:32 pm
  13. Craig says:

    If clipless pedals don’t give you better pedal power why do road bikers use them? Do you really think a rider in the Tour de France would have a chance using flats? If you can get just as much power to the drive train with flats you would think there would be a lot of road bikers making the switch.

    Years ago toe clips were invented to help transfer more power to the pedals and it worked (the people using them won more races) pretty soon everyone used them. Then clipless came along and the people that used them had the advantage so everyone else followed.

    I’ve been riding/racing bikes for 35 years and have always used some sort of clip for the additional power to the pedal, not for keeping my feet on because that is not what they were designed for.

    Reply • June 27 at 4:45 pm
    • bikejames says:

      Weight belts and powerlifting gear help you lift more weight but that doesn’t mean that you should need them every time you train. Yes, clipless pedals can help you enhance your performance but if you use them every time you ride they start to become a crutch, not a performance enhancer. If you really own your pedal stroke and power you then using flats will result in a minimal drop off.

      I’m also talking about mountain bikers, not roadies. For most mountain bikers the mental stress of being clipped in negated any power increase. Most riders who take me up on my challenge and at least give flats a try report no noticeable decrease in power and a major increase in confidence and fun, which actually leads to them riding faster overall. Mountain biking is not road riding on dirt and what works well for roadies doesn’t mean much on the trail.

      And the real power advantage from clipless comes from the stiffer sole and stronger connection to the pedal, which results in less power leakage, not from pulling up with the trail leg. There is no magical pedal stroke only allowed through clipless pedals so the truth is that you can have a powerful pedal stroke with flats, and in fact your pedal stroke with flats should look the same as in clipless pedals.

      Reply • June 28 at 11:00 am
  14. Singletrailer says:

    Hey there fellas

    Partially correct from all parties involved here.

    Clipless will always outweigh flats when it comes to roadies.
    The clipless action will help produce maximum power with the most efficient stroke technique.
    Whereas Trailers like myself have the full freedom of sole(foot)movement on flats for those 1m drop offs,body weight transitions when zigzaging through single trails etc etc.
    I am in no way running down clipless but i do it for the competitiveness too buy boy the enjoyment and love for the sport comes first for me,and flats give you the freedom to express that.

    Reply • June 29 at 11:20 am
  15. The coolkid says:

    Two things:
    1. logically overcoming the weaknesses combined with clips is the best, if you can merge the two techniques, right?
    2. If clips make up for weaknesses, they allow you to get more work done without building the muscle, so, at the same amount of muscle (almost has to be a constant in an experiment, like me comparing myself to Cadel Evans or Dylan Johnson), clips ARE faster and are an effective speed boost right out of the box.

    I’ve only met one guy my speed on platform pedals. I was 13 and had never seen the trails before. I rode twice a week or so. He was 15-18 and rode those trails everyday.

    Also, clips increase endurance as well as the ability to throw the bike sideways and control its weight as it’s bouncing through a rock/root garden.

    Reply • February 7 at 8:05 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Appreciate your input but your understanding of the clipless vs. flats debate is a bit uneducated – it is not an “either/ or” debate, it is whether clipless pedals are “better” and should be used all the time by all riders. Here is an article I wrote that explains it a bit better:

      The truth is that flats make you pedal stroke and skills better and that clipless pedals do give you a slight performance advantage but using them all the time is not the best way to learn to ride. You can also check out this podcast to learn more about why flat pedals enhance your balance and reaction time and create less wear and tear on your body:

      Lastly, while you may be able to get out of your pedals effectively the truth is that most riders don’t share that view and more riders than not have suffered some sort of needless injury from not being able to get unclipped. Forcing new riders into clipless pedals right off the bat is not necessary or ideal. Sam HIll has won DH World Championships on flats, Nathan Renny laid down one of the highest power outputs ever on flats and trials riders don’t use them so they obviously aren’t “better”, just different and flats offer advantages and lessons that clipless don’t meaning that you are not as good as you could be if you don’t spend some time with them.

      Reply • February 8 at 8:25 am
  16. Shawn says:

    Hey James I’ve recently switched to flats from clips and am having a ball – the only negative thing i can’t seem to remedy is that my outside toes on my left foot seem to go numb during rides longer than an hour – My shoes are 5:10 impacts , I’ve tried different insoles with no luck – any ideas ?

    Reply • June 8 at 7:54 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Don’t know that I would mess around with insoles, you may just need to let the feet build up a tolerance for longer rides on flats. The feet are being used in a different way and it takes time to build up the endurance with that new movement.

      You may also need to make sure that the shoes fit snugly so your toes are not jamming into the front of the shoe and that you don’t sit down most of the time. Standing up will change the pressure points for the foot in the shoe and can relieve some of that numbness. Hope this helps…

      Reply • June 9 at 10:07 am
      • shawn says:

        Thanks James I will give these tips a try

        Reply • June 10 at 12:12 pm
      • Shawn says:

        I talked to a friend today and he said it is possible that my seat is causing the problem – pinching a nerve or circulation issues – this makes sense as I switched to flats and a new bike/seat at the same time – ever heard of a seat making toes numb ?

        Reply • June 10 at 6:01 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          You might need to get wider pedals and/ or check your foot position, if your little toe is hanging off the edge of the pedals it can cause it to go numb.

          Reply • June 11 at 1:48 pm

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