Some people may wonder why I care so much about foot position on the bike.
I mean, does it really matter that much? Can’t we just ride what feels good and call it “personal preference”?
Well, foot position does matters…a lot. Your foot is constantly sending feedback to the brain and it plays a huge roll in your balance, movement efficiency and power generation.
So I guess you could say that foot position only matters if things like balance, movement efficiency and power generation on the bike matter to you.
Joking aside, it is extremely important and there is a “right” and a “wrong” foot position to use on the bike. When you use the right foot position you can create authentic movement the body works for you, when you use the wrong one it creates compensations that cause unbalanced positions and wasted energy.
The problem, though, is that in today’s world most people have weak and “dumb” feet that have spent way too much time inside shoes and sitting around doing nothing. And when you come into mountain biking with feet (and other things) that need help it can make it confusing about which is the best foot position based on authentic movement and not just a compensation that looks better.
To make matters worse you have a lot of mis-information and half-truths surrounding this subject being perpetuated by tradition and coaches who have staked their reputations on the ball of the foot position being “right”. This has created a virtual onion-of-confusion as multiple layers have been built around the foot position question, making it very hard to know what is the truth.
Which, if you think about it, seems pretty crazy in this day and age.
There is actual science, movement principles and real world results we can look at that cut through the layers of confusions. And when you do they point pretty decisively to the mid-foot position being the far superior position.
Which brings me to my latest podcast.
Just like I did with the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto – where I systematically shared all of the information surrounding the pedal stroke to dismantle the traditional arguments surrounding clipless pedals – I’m attempting to do the same thing with foot position.
Now, to do that I’m going to have to go deep into this subject. It takes far more than an elementary level understanding of things like movement principles, the science and how they apply to the bike to really understand what is going on when you change your foot position.
But that is exactly the problem…the vast majority of bike skills coaches and others engaged in this conversation don’t look at themselves as movement coaches. They spend little to no time learning about how to fix movement off of the bike and how that movement should then be applied to the bike.
Instead, a lot of them rely things I call “parking lot and pump track tricks” to make someone who doesn’t know better feel like they are improving without actually supplying the fundamental movement patterns they need on the bike to see long term, sustained progress.
Getting someone to go onto the balls of their feet to improve their hip hinge and pumping is an example if this. Pushing someone into an unbalanced foot position that creates a hinging compensation pattern is not the same thing as teaching someone to move better on the bike.
But again, you need a slightly deeper level of understanding on this subject than “this a squat and this is a hip hinge” to know that.
Besides this common myth I also take the time to go into the other arguments surrounding foot position – other athletes push through the ball of the foot, pro riders use it, you need it for agility, etc. – and show you how they are either being taken out of context or, once again, when you look at them with a more complete understanding of the subject you can see how they don’t really apply.
– Being on the ball of the foot when on your pedals stems came from the false assumption by guys from the mid- to late 1800’s (wearing bowler hats and handlebar mustaches with no way to test their theory) that pedaling a bike was like running or walking and since you pushed through the ball of the foot when you did that you needed to push through the ball of foot on the bike as well.
– This sounds great…until you start to look at the science and movement principles that we have added to our knowledge base since then.
– Science once described as “a beautiful theory destroyed by an ugly fact”, which is what you have going on here. The theory was great…but more recent findings present ugly facts that have to be dealt with.
– BTW, there has never been a “Council of Smart People” who sat down and looked and this stuff along the way. For some reason, a lot of people just assume that this council has occurred and smart people have already done this research and declared that public opinion (in this case being on the ball of the foot) is backed by the facts when this is not the case at all.
– Back to the matter at hand, your lower leg (feet, ankle and calf) act in two different ways depending on a very simple question…Does your foot lose contact/ come off whatever it is on?
– If the answer is “yes”…like when running, walking or jumping…then you do want to push through the ball of the foot since you want your foot to break contact with what it is on so that you can propel your center of gravity through space.
– If the answer is “no”…like when bending down to pick up a box/ child or lifting in the gym (squats, deadlifts, lunges, etc.)…then you want your heel to stay down so that both ends of your arch are supported and your center of gravity can stay balanced over your feet.
– In the case of riding a bike, since our feet are staying on the pedals then the answer is “no”. And since your feet are staying in contact with the pedals as your bike carries your center of gravity through space you want to have your heel supported as well.
– This is a simple yes/ no question. There is not third option that becomes available just because being on a bike is “different” no matter how much people want there to be. Just because you don’t understand how to square this away with what you think you know doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.
– Because it violates this basic movement principle, being on the ball of your foot on the pedals creates several problems including…
– Unbalanced feet
– Compensations that look like better movement to the untrained eye
– Extra tension in the calves/ feet and upper body
– Poor power transfer into the pedals
– Extra stress on the ankles and knees
– Makes it harder to recruit your hips (the muscle group that drives the pedal stroke)
– Want some science? Here are a couple studies that by themselves are interesting but when you connect the dots between what they find you see something very important…
J.R. Van Sickle Jr, M.L Hull/ Journal of Biomechanics 2007 – This study showed no difference in power or economy between pushing through the ball of the foot and the mid-foot pedal position. They thought that there would be a decrease in those factors since you couldn’t use the ankles for leverage and push with them. However, this wasn’t the case and they found that pushing through the ball of the foot wasn’t “better” or the optimal way to apply power into the pedals. In fact, they also found that the mid-foot position took stress off of the calf and Achilles tendon, theorizing that it was instead being placed on the hips.
ELMER, S. J., P. R. BARRATT, T. KORFF, and J. C. MARTIN. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 2011 – This study found that the hips (glutes and hamstrings acting to extend the hip joint) were the major drivers of the pedal stroke at all intensity levels. This means that the quads are never the major driver of the pedal stroke.
– Collectively, these studies have shown that:
1 – The mid-foot position also allows for better recruitment of the hips.
2 – The hips are the major muscles used in the pedal stroke.
– So, if your hips are the major drivers of the pedal stroke and the mid-foot position allows you to better recruit the hips then it would seem that the science favors a pedal that optimizes this foot position and hip recruitment.
– Despite science, movement principles and real-world results all pointing to the use of a balanced foot position there are still several arguments used by the ball-of-the-foot backers to support their claims of it being a better foot position. I’m now going to address each of them…
– #1 Other athletes push through the ball of their feet and it is needed for agility.
– Two problems here. First, even though we are looking at athletes that are running and jumping (making them a “yes” to the movement principles question covered earlier), this is only true some of the time.
Even these athletes still use a balanced foot position, especially when needing to change levels (which also makes them a “no”). If you look at a shortstop fielding a ground ball then you’ll see both heels in contact with the ground.
Every athlete referenced using this analogy also makes use of the balanced foot position as well as part of their movement skills. We are basically being told that we are the only athletes who never want their heels to contact the ground.
– The second problem is that we are looking at the wrong athletes to draw comparisons. There is another class of athletes that always get forgotten about when this discussion comes up and they share more in common with us that athletes that run and jump.
These athletes ride something that carries them through space, just like our bikes do with us. These athletes include surfers, skateboarders, moto riders and equestrian riders. And when you look at them you see an almost exclusive use of the balanced foot position.
Saying that you can’t be agile with your heel down doesn’t stand up when you look at these athletes. Surfers almost never have their heels off the board and they don’t have any problems moving. Skateboarders also keep their heels down except for when they come off the boards. But even then, when they are landing a jump they don’t have their feet extended, they are trying to get and keep their heels down so they can best absorb the impact.
So when you look at the athletes that share more in common with us they use a balanced foot position and do it because they know it helps them be more agile. Being on the ball of the foot actually decreases agility for these athletes so you can’t say it always improves agility…it only does so in a few select cases that have nothing to do with riding a bike.
– #2 Olympic Lifters push through the balls of their feet.
– First, Olympic Lifters both start and end with a balanced foot position. They spend way more time with a balanced foot position that being on the ball of their feet.
– Second, if you have had good O-Lifting coaching you know that you are literally supposed to jump off the ground and then stomp your heels back down (we’re talking full Cleans/ Snatches and not just Power Cleans/ Snatches here i.e. real O-Lifting). So while the feet may not come off much, the intention is there and so at that moment it becomes a “yes” sport so the comparison isn’t valid.
– Last, while you do push off the ball of the foot at the moment of max power, O-Lifers quickly get their heels back down. There is a distinctive sound to the stomp a good lifter makes from how fast they are able to transition back to a balanced foot position. They do this because they know they cannot effectively absorb the load as it drops back down until their heels are down so they can use the hips – you can’t change levels to absorb impacts when balanced on your toes.
– #3 When you jump or land from a jump you use the balls of your feet.
– While I technically addressed this one by explaining the basic movement principle behind how the lower leg works but I’ll address it since it is a common reason given.
– Once again, most jumps will start and end with a balanced foot position and will spend more time there than on the ball of the foot.
– You can’t generate force from a dead stop as effectively while balanced on your toes, which is why a long jump and vertical jump both start from a balance foot position. On the bike we don’t get the luxury of being able to use the elasticity in the muscles like you can when running (there is no load on the leg as it comes up to do so) making each pedal stroke more like overcoming a dead stop than bouncing along while running.
– And while you do contact the ground first with the ball of the foot when landing from a jump you are quickly guiding the heel down so it can make contact with the ground and you can start to use your hips to absorb the impact. The heels have to come down or else the landing is much harder on the knees and ankles and is much harder to stay balanced when landing.
– #4 You need to use your ankles for suspension and/ or for power generation.
– I already shared the study that looked at using the ball of the foot vs. the mid-foot position. It found that you didn’t need the ankle for power generation and that doing so placed more stress on the lower leg and less on the hips.
– When looking at the “Landing from a Jump” argument I explained how the ankle isn’t used to absorb impacts as much as guide the foot to where you need it so the hips can absorb the impact. Even if you want to land on the ball of the foot you still need to heel to be supported in the process of using the legs for suspension. If you stay balanced on the ball of the foot then you’ll have a harder time using the hips, actually making it harder to absorb impacts.
– #5 The pros use the ball of the foot instead of the mid-foot position.
– While this is technically true in some cases, there are a lot where it isn’t. Google some pictures of flat pedal riders like Sam Hill, Connor Fearon and Brandon Semenuk who use a decidedly more mid-foot position at least some of the time.
– Pro riders also came up practicing the ball of the foot position and never really tried the mid-foot position. In an interview with Connor Fearon he told me that he starts out on the ball of this foot because that is what everyone tells him to do but his feet naturally go to the mid-foot position once he gets going.
– The truth is that pro riders have a lot going for them and would probably kick our butts no matter what foot position they use. They are outliers and it makes it hard for normal people to read too much into what they can do and get away with.
– Up until the Catalyst Pedal, no flat pedals were made to support the mid-foot position which makes it hard to compare.
– The world of sport is full of examples of the pros being wrong. One example is the Fosbury Flop…at one point Olympic and World Champions where using a scissor kick to high jump, which proved to be an inferior technique. You have to be careful pulling out the pro-rider card because they have been wrong in the past.
– #6 It helps you move better/ pump/ hip hinge on the bike.
– There is a difference between a compensation pattern and authentic movement. The two may look similar to the untrained eye but they are very different.
– Authentic movement comes from a balanced position and ends in a balanced position, requiring the body to use the most efficient and balanced pathway to get there.
– Compensations occur when the body runs into a “roadblock” along that pathway and has to find a way around it.
– Authentic movement rely on the body’s natural alignment and stability, which requires less energy and puts less wear and tear on the body.
– Compensations go around the body’s natural alignment and create extra tension to make up for a loss of balance, which requires more energy and puts more wear and tear on the body.
– For example, coming up on the toes when squatting is a compensation pattern. Somewhere the body ran into a mobility or strength “roadblock” but it found a way to keep coming down…shift the weight to the toes. While allowing you to come down further, this unbalances the foot which requires the calves and feet to stiffen to keep you balanced. This results in a weaker movement that puts more wear and tear on the body (extra stress on the ankles and knees).
– When you put someone on the balls of their feet it creates an unbalanced foot since your weight has shifted forward. The body recognizes this and pushes the hips back slightly to compensate and keep you balanced over your feet.
– If you struggle with your Hip Hinge with a balanced foot, then because going onto the balls of your feet will put you into a Hip Hinge compensation then it will technically be easier for you to go into and out of that Hip Hinge…but it comes at a price and it isn’t the same thing as using and teaching authentic, balanced movement.
– First, it creates extra tension in the body to make up for the loss of balance at the feet (this is another movement principle that you can’t avoid no matter how much you don’t want it to exist).
– This tension shows up primarily in the feet, ankles and calves. Just try it for yourself…go from a mid-foot position to the balls of your feet, wait 15 seconds and note how much tension is now in these areas.
– The tension also shows up in the upper body. When you hold onto the handlebars it allows you to use the upper body as well to offset the loss of balance, making your “feel” balanced. Again, get up on the balls of your feet and then put your hands on something…notice how the feet and lower leg feel more relaxed but you’ve picked up some tension in the upper body.
– This mix of tension in the feet/ lower leg and in the upper body not only wastes energy (these muscles are now more metabolically active and using more energy) it also makes it harder to move and react to the trail (these muscles are also not available to assist with movement since they are acting as stabilizers to make up for the loss of balance at the feet).
– Second, being on the ball of your foot makes it harder to recruit your hips. The heels must be supported to optimally recruit the hips when the foot stays in contact with what it is on and when you don’t have the use of the stretch-shortening-cycle (remember that the muscles are not under load as they shorten and come up on the backstroke). This movement principle and the J.R. Van Sickle Jr, M.L Hull/ Journal of Biomechanics 2007 study show that it is actually harder to recruit your hips while being on the ball of your foot, which points even more to the hinging being a compensation and not authentic movement.
– Recognizing the difference between a compensation pattern and authentic movement is an important part of being a coach in any sport.
– Knowing how to fix compensations and turn them into authentic movement is something every coach should have a plan for.
– If someone cannot do a Hip Hinge/ get into the Attack Position on their bike the first thing to do is to check it off of their bike. Not on a trainer or with someone holding their rear tire to hold them up…just them standing flat footed on the ground while getting into and out of their Hip Hinge.
– You can’t fix basic movements like the Hip Hinge while on the bike or with skills drills. You have to check and fix the Hip Hinge off of the bike and then the rider can easily apply it to the bike.
– Pushing someone into an unbalanced foot position that creates a hinging compensation pattern is not the same thing as teaching someone to move better on the bike. You should be able to hinge from a balanced foot position both on and off the bike and the hinge should be fixed off the bike instead of parking lot and pump track “tricks” being applied to make up for not knowing how.
– The worst part is that once you put someone on the balls of their feet everything they “learn” from that point on is going to involve some sort of compensation. This means that they are not learning authentic movement skills to apply to the bike but instead a series of compensations that look better but fail to create balanced movement on the bike.
– So by this point I have addressed every common reason or analogy used and explained how they were either wrong or not being taken in their true context.
– I’ve also explained how being on the ball of the foot actually puts you in an unbalanced foot position that forces you into a compensation pattern, which is not the same as helping you create an authentic Hip Hinge on the bike. This puts extra stress on their knees, ankles and feet and makes it harder to recruit the hips.
– If you want to continue to believe that being on the ball of your foot is still a good idea despite everything I have presented here then I would expect that you have something to present that I am missing…some study or movement principle I am not aware of, something other than just your opinion or wishes.
– With that said I also know that there are some people who are going to cling to this notion to the bitter end. There a lot of egos and money tied up in the current paradigm and human nature isn’t to embrace change as much as double down when presented with something that challenges a long held belief.
– But honestly, in the same way some people want to believe the earth is flat no matter how much evidence you show them. And that is the point where this conversation seems to have gotten…a lot of people in denial about the evidence and using catch-all phrases like “riding a bike is different” to give themselves the mental wiggle room they need to feel comfortable with the lack of evidence supporting their views.
– We also need to feel alright with someone feeling “bad” about their previous ideas. First, no one can make anyone feel a certain way and we need to be adults here and not be so sensitive. Second, as a sport we can’t improve if we are wrapped in cocoon of denial when it comes to there being a right and wrong when it comes to things like foot position. Our gift to the next generation is to go through the tough parts that come with growth so they don’t have to go through the madness we’ve endured.
– Foot position matters…a lot. It dictates balance, efficiency of movement and power generation. Outside of “tradition”, the ball-of-the-foot supporters have nothing to support their notions. With science and movement principles supporting it, the mid-foot position promises to help you ride better and create less wear and tear on the body in the process. The choice is yours.
My hope with this podcast is to move this conversation forward with real science and movement principles. While I love this sport, in some ways cycling seems to be the least scientific of any sport I’ve worked with in how it ignores stuff like this and instead clings to tradition and acts as an echo chamber for people to just repeat the same tired old arguments.
Outside of “tradition”, the ball-of-the-foot supporters have nothing to support their notions. With science and movement principles supporting it, the mid-foot position promises to help you ride better and create less wear and tear on the body in the process.
While the choice is ultimately yours, hopefully after listening to this podcast you’ll be able to make a truly informed decision that will help improve your performance, safety and fun on the trail.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems