Why you don’t need stiff soled riding shoe for flat pedals

While this advice is being directed at flat pedal riders, the advice holds true for clipless pedal riders as well. In short, you do not need a stiff soled shoe when riding flat pedals. Most riders get confused on the subject because they assume that since clipless pedals have stiff soles, they need stiff soled shoes for their flat pedals as well. The problem is that we think that clipless pedals have stiff soles strictly for performance reasons when, in fact, it is an attempt to solve the problem of how unnatural the clipless pedal interface is with the foot.

Because of this difference a stiff soled shoe is unnecessary and, one could argue, actually counterproductive from a natural movement point of view.

While having a stiff sole can help in some situations that I’ll go over later, in general there is a huge difference between the foot and pedal interface on flats vs. clipless pedals – on flat pedals your foot is able to drive into the pedal itself while with clipless pedals the sole of the shoe must provide the platform for your foot to drive into.

The reason that you must have a stiff soled shoe for clipless pedals is that the attachment point with the pedals is too small to drive your foot into (your foot is actually touching less than one square inch on the pedals) so the soles of the shoe itself become that platform your foot needs. Without a stiff sole providing some sort of platform your foot would be forced to balance on and drive into the attachment point itself, which would be very uncomfortable and inefficient. The stiff sole acts as an intermediary of sorts, allowing the foot to drive into it and then transferring that force into the attachment point with the pedal.

On flats a very different dynamic is allowed to take place. Because the actual interface with the pedal is so large (you have several square inches of actual contact space with flat pedals) your foot can use it directly for support and to drive into. Just like running, your foot is allowed to naturally interact with the surface it is touching instead of relying on an artificial means of support and energy transfer. Because of this difference a stiff soled shoe is unnecessary and, one could argue, actually counterproductive from a natural movement point of view.

Your body is designed to let the foot articulate as needed so it can interact directly with the ground and this doesn’t change when you sit on a bike. When you stiffen the sole of the shoe to act as the support for the foot you also change how the foot can articulate – the stiffer the sole the more you are “locking” the foot into place and interfering with how it would naturally articulate. You can not change how one joint moves without placing more stress on some other joints and over time that locked up foot can come back to haunt you.

Now, with all that said a stiff soled shoe can improve performance and safety in certain situations. For example, I like to ride with 5-10 Impacts when riding downhill or freeride type trails because the thicker, stiffer sole will provide more cushioning if I have to eject mid-air and come down hard on my feet. I don’t like them as much for trail riding because I find the sole too stiff for lots of pedaling and my feet feel more comfortable with a more minimal soled shoe like the 5-10 Spitfires or Freeriders.

A stiff soled shoe can also provide a more efficient power transfer into the pedals for racing situations – but at the expense of altering how your foot moves which can cause problems over the long run. While the idea that the same shoes that make you faster can also hurt you over the long run is new in cycling, it is not a new idea in sports. In fact, I originally learned of this idea that shoes that can increase performance can also cause long term overuse injuries while running track in high school.

In the track world we all knew that even though your racing spikes made you run faster, you didn’t train in them. They were for race day and high performance practices (which were rare) because the same things that those shoes did to give you a short term performance increase on race day would tear you down eventually if you used them too much in training.

In other words, just because something made us faster didn’t make it “better” and understanding how to juggle what would allow us to train injury free with what would make use faster was part of the game. The truth is that having a super stiff sole on a riding shoe is not only unnecessary, it is potentially harmful if used exclusively over the long run. Find a pedal and shoe system (flats and 5-10’s work real well) for your everyday riding that allows your foot to move freely and drive directly into the pedal interface itself and save the stiff soled shoes for specific racing/ performance applications.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Mike says:

    Keep preaching it James. Because of you I’m fast becoming a flat pedal convert. Everything you’re saying makes so much sense ~ like I would have known these things for myself if I only I gave them some thought. I realize that you’ve said you’re not anti-clipless, but I can no longer see the point of using clipless pedals for myself. I don’t race and I never will. As a 52 year XC rider, my goals are merely to be a strong and competent rider for as long as time will allow. I’m out on the trails for my own enjoyment, and not to compete with anyone. Am I looking at this the right way? Can you see any reason for me to use clipless pedals

    Reply • September 4 at 9:41 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, I really can’t. I have never used them and my goals are pretty similar to yours – I don’t race and don’t give two craps about being the fastest guy on the trail, I just want to flow and have fun. I really think that a lot of riders have bought into clipless pedals based on myths and half-truths and once they know the real truth they can make a more informed decision, which, for a lot of riders like you, is to just have fun with flats and leave the clipless pedals to the riders who are looking for every performance advantage they can for racing.

      Reply • September 4 at 9:57 am
  2. Jonathan says:

    I have Impacts, and I have Freeriders. Your comment about preferring Freeriders for trail riding mirrors my own experience. Disconnected–too isolated from the bike. That’s how I feel when pedaling in the stiffer shoes.

    And I agree w/Mike: Keep preachin’ it.

    Reply • September 4 at 10:12 am
  3. Tony says:

    Coach…thanks for affirming what I always had a feeling was correct relative to clipless v platform and special shoes v shoes that get the job done without breaking your feet. I have been using platforms and 5/10’s for several years. Works great for me!

    Reply • September 4 at 11:00 am
  4. Anne says:

    I use my impacts for all riding. Love them. While they may be heavy for most riders, for me they do the job and keep things from hitting my feet hard and hurting them (like branches, rocks, narrow rut I’m riding in that used to be a trail).

    Converted permanently to flats last year after ACL surgery. Being able to move my foot around on the pedals is huge for me.

    James: Any recommendation for strengthening your feet (e.g. arches and ankle areas)? That’s going to be huge on getting me more comfortable with less foot support.

    Reply • September 5 at 9:45 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Barefoot training is the best thing you can do. I’m sure you’ve noticed but I almost never have shoes on in my exercise demo videos and that is how I train. Heavy deadlifts with no shoes on will get your feet pretty strong…

      Reply • September 5 at 12:02 pm
      • Anne says:

        Thanks James, appreciate your thoughts. Keep the rubber side down.

        Reply • September 6 at 10:18 pm
  5. TR says:

    I ran clipless last year and went back to flats this year. I’m 99% that I’ll never go back. This article is just another reason to not switch back. It did take some time to adjust but well worth it. I hear a lot of horror stories locally about people having hard crashes and after riding those same trails I’m convinced that at least some of those crashes are due to not unclipping in time. I’ve had a few instances this season where being clipped in would have led to serious injury. Thanks for all the good info and tips James!

    Reply • September 5 at 11:27 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      It always amazes me how people just pretend that rider’s aren’t getting seriously hurt every day by not being able to unclip in time. I’ve personally come across 2 guys on our local trails waiting for medical evac and the first words out of their mouths was “I couldn’t get unclipped in time…”

      Reply • September 5 at 12:01 pm
      • Jonathan says:

        I routinely meet people who are afraid or intimidated in their riding due to having clipless thrust upon them as the one, true path.

        Reply • September 7 at 6:27 am
  6. Julie says:

    “I like to ride with 5-10 Impacts when riding downhill or freeride type trails because the thicker, stiffer sole will provide more cushioning if I have to eject mid-air and come down hard on my feet. I don’t like them as much for trail riding because I find the sole too stiff for lots of pedaling and my feet feel more comfortable with a more minimal soled shoe like the 5-10 Spitfires or Freeriders.”

    Us women-folk with feet smaller than the smallest available men’s size only have 1 choice in 5-10’s, and they are thick and clunky. Argh argh argh….!!!! Hopefully the shoe manufacturers will come around to let us in on the fun.

    Reply • September 5 at 12:11 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I am realizing that 5-10 needs to do a better job of educating its female customers about their shoes. All of their shoes are available in women’s sizes – if you go on their site you’ll see the size conversions from men’s to women’s sizes but you can get any of their shoes in your size.

      I just got my wife a new pair of Freeriders and she likes them much better for trail riding than the women’s Karvers. I’ll pass this on to the guys at 5-10, it is too bad that so many women don’t realize they aren’t stuck with the one “women’s specific” shoe they make.

      Reply • September 6 at 11:03 am
      • Julie says:

        Thanks James for your reply! I forgot about this thread until just now as I was searching for women’s flat pedal shoes. I had a look at the sizing chart – you’re right! The problem with just picking an equivalent men’s size is that they are usually just too wide. I will try some on though. I know other women who wear the men’s shoes and seem to like them. Although, some actual women’s size Freeriders would be super sweet. Anyway, just a plug for flat pedals & five ten’s – a few weekends ago, I did a 45 mile 10,000′ of climbing mtn bike ride in my old tattered women’s Karvers and was totally comfortable. Flats & five tens ftw! 🙂

        Reply • November 28 at 1:23 am
  7. Joe says:

    greetings James

    sorry… i’m long winded

    after riding clipless since 1998, i’m a recent convert to flats thanks to you. (and a digital ‘hi five’ to Dirt Rag for featuring you)

    understanding that my experience is not the common theme here: i never ever had problems getting free of my clipless pedals. i understand that some people do, but that was not a motivating factor for me.
    i also loved how much confidence clipless pedals gave me to tear ass on the trail. coming from a skiing background, being clipped in was second nature.

    i could bunny hop as well.

    not so much anymore.

    the recent case of ‘hot foot’ was what motivated me to follow up on the whole flat pedal thing.

    i’ve only gone on two rides with my new set up (wellgo magnesium flats & the beloved 5.10 freerider) – 1 dragging my son in the burley on a gravel road & a trail ride.
    without a doubt, riding is more exciting, largely due to how un-confident i feel not be clipped in. just rolling down the driveway feels crazy.

    on the trail ride ( a trail i’ve ridden many times) i felt like a total noob. on the steep uphill sections my feet would occasionally come off the pedal on the up stroke. (bit of a hold over from the clipless world i assume)

    on the technical parts of the trail… i am pathetic. scared sh*tless when i try to ‘hop’ anything & looking more like i’m having convulsions than “bunny hopping”.

    but i’m determined and my ‘hot foot’ is already gone. the day i can truly ‘bunny hop’ over something as huge as a cigarette butt, i’m going to send you the video.

    also: thanks for inspiring me to do something i know i’m going to love but would never have even considered previously.

    Reply • September 5 at 4:34 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks for the feedback on your experiences so far, I’m sure some other riders can relate. Make sure you check out my Foot Placement Tips video if you haven’t already as it will help a lot with feeling more planted on the pedals. You’ll get it figured out, it just takes a few weeks to iron things out but you’ll end up a better rider for it.

      Reply • September 6 at 11:06 am
  8. Jon Laterveer says:

    I found that I had no business using clipless, unless you move well and have no mobility or strength imbalances using clipless will make you mechanically sick! I to ran track in highschool and the reference to spikes is very accurate! My clipless will be for my races only, maybe not even that once I get efficient on flats .

    Reply • September 5 at 5:15 pm
  9. Gregg Howard says:

    Yes and No. That’s the way I feel about the clipless and flat pedals. Been riding bikes all my life (71 yrs) 35 years on mountain biles. Started on flats, as that is all they had at that time and progressed through clips and into clipless. Raced at a pretty high level for 10 years and never had a lick of problems. But, after reading your opinion on clipless pedals 7 months ago, I bough some HTs and 5 Ten Impacts and started relearning how to bunny hope and fell in love with flats again. A lot more freedom on the technical scary stuff! Have been riding them steady for the last 7 months. I still ride with a fast group of XC riders several times a week and have noticed that I am quite a bit faster on clipless. Others have noticed it as well. Good call using the flats when you just want to ride … but just like Fords and Chevys, full suspension and single speeds, each is different and have a place I feel. Lastly, appreciate your effort James to educate us … as change is one thing that keeps you young… Never too old to learn or relearn something new/old.

    Reply • September 6 at 1:41 pm
  10. Ray says:

    I’m really appreciating all this info you’re putting out there, James. I’m enjoying flat pedals and standing a lot and use my dropper more like a raiser, for when I’m gassed and really need a break. Otherwise, it’s in the down position 80% of the time.

    Here’s my question: Does rider weight influence shoe choice standing/flat pedaling?

    The reason I ask is I’m 200lbs. and find that everything I use in mtbing is better if it’s stouter/stiffer. For instance, I upgraded my fork from 32mm to 34mm stanchions and feel much more confident on descents and cornering. Also, I went from a 4.5lb steel frame to 6lb steel frame and immediately felt more responsiveness and power transfer.

    I’m currently riding with AMP Straitline pedals and 5.10 Freeriders. Should I get some Impacts/Sam Hills? My reasoning is that since I’m heavier, what you consider stiff, Impacts, I may consider normal. Maybe Freeriders are too flexible for big guys. Thanks for any thought you have on this.

    Reply • October 6 at 12:31 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I am going off of how the foot naturally works and while your weight may make that term a bit more relative (although I weigh 175 so I’m not too far behind you) I’d still suggest using the Freeriders as an everyday trail shoe. Your bike getting stiffer means that it doesn’t flex as much under you but you want your sole to flex so you’re kind of looking at apples and oranges with the comparison but I can see how the two could seem related. However, the only real test is to try them for yourself and see, some people really like the stiffer sole.

      Reply • October 8 at 6:34 am
      • Ray says:

        Thanks for answering. I tried on a pair of Impacts and found them to be too clunky and stiff. It felt as if I had hiking boots on and I couldn’t feel the pedal as easily. I’ll stick with the freeriders for now.

        Reply • October 8 at 4:34 pm
  11. John says:

    I had a rather uncomfortable riding experience at Coldwater Mtn in Alabama yesterday. On the Bomb Dog DH section, I started to experience what felt like a stress fracture in the middle of my left foot, primarily in hard cornering situations where the g’s were pushing me in the pedals more. I have 5.10s and Straitline flats. I kept having to stop until the pain subsided and then head down some more until it got unbearable again. I thought may I needed new 5.10s or harder soled shoes for DH action, but after reading this I’m concerned I might have medical concerns.

    Reply • January 13 at 9:50 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, I’d suggest getting it checked out. Anytime there is pain you want to get it checked.

      Reply • January 13 at 10:08 am
      • John says:

        After further research, it is very likely plantar fasciitis. Sounds like other people experienced the same type of pain and used orthodics to relieve the issue.

        Reply • January 13 at 12:43 pm
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          While orthotics may help they won’t fix the real problem which is that you feet are weak and tight. Try taking a tennis ball and rolling out the bottom of your foot on it – just step on it and smash the ball between your foot and floor and roll it around. You should also try spending some more time barefoot, either just walking around your house or even taking into your strength training by wearing minimalist shoes like Vibrams or Nike Frees. Those solutions will work much better than just relying on orthotics.

          Also, if you are trying flats after years in clipless it take a few rides for your feet to wake up and adapt. Good luck, the good news is that the issue can be addressed and fixed.

          Reply • January 14 at 9:28 am
  12. John says:

    Hi James I realize that this is an old thread but I thought I would shoot you a comment. I also ride plaforms, having switched from clipless because when I got old I found that my knees were happiest when I could make constant micro adjustments with my feet on the pedals. Something one can’t do in the clips. My concern is shoe design: the skate based flat shoe design came from the needs of downhill riding who basically park their feet mid-sole and hang on. There really isn’t a mountain bike shoe that responds to the needs of trail/XC riders who require something that enhances the rotational movement of the foot. The 5-10 Freeerides are OK but far from great. I use use running shoes because when pedaling I am essentially running on pedals. The Brooks Adrenaline works reasonably well because it has great rotational characteristics with a slightly stiff (for running shoes) sole. I also like Salomons because of their lacing system. I also made a pair of shoes by grinding the lugs off a pair of old Shimano clipless MTB shoes and glueing 5-10 soles on. Actually works well although the surface area is not great.

    Reply • September 10 at 7:24 pm
    • John says:

      I ride on minimalist running shoes all the time, as I seldom wear any other type of shoe in the first place. They work well. Indoor running/soccer shoes or martial arts shoes work well also.

      Just keep experimenting dude.

      Reply • June 26 at 10:23 pm
  13. Bicyledh says:

    You are correct about driving the foot’s energy directly in to the pedal. This means learning how to apply force perpendicularly to the pedal while maximizing the start and end force points on the rotation circle; the ankle stretches in both directions to acheieve maximum force distance through the pedal stroke. The final push from the foot pointing down uses the remaining lower leg muscles.

    A stiff soled cycling shoe makes it easier to ignore that you are losing power because of the additional control gained through a stiffer shoe. Using a flexible shoe helps train pedalling skills. You can practice not delivering needless force in a non-perpendicular direction. Also, not using clipless can teach you to keep continuous force in to the pedal while hitting bumps. Of course, you can only react so quickly, which is what clipless is for: to stick the feet to the pedal and be as efficient as possible.

    Cycling can be thought of as eccentric squating. When squating, the feet are planted on the floor, as this is the more efficient position. Power is lost, from the hips, when the heel is raised. A stiff sole makes it easier to push using the entire foot, where otherwise your force is directed and lost in to the foot muscles. The force directed in to the foot muscles causes stress and plantar flasciitis. Running/walking is not the same as squatting or cycling, so your comparison between the usability of both shoes is not good. Typical running shoes have their own problems, and minimalist barefoot shoes function closer with the intended form of forefoot striking. Also, barefoot shoes need to be as flexible as possible in all directions, the opposite from cycling shoes.

    Reply • April 30 at 8:13 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Thanks foe the thoughtful reply, although I do have a few points I’m not sure are totally true.

      First, there have been several studies that have shown that you don’t need to push and pull with the ankle to produce max power and, in fact, that method has been shows to take stress off of the main drivers of the pedal stroke, which are the hips.

      Second, not sure how the pedal stroke can be thought of an an “eccentric squat” when there are no eccentric forces during the pedal stroke. Since you are not lengthening the muscle under load there it can’t be eccentric. The pedal stroke is like the pushing part of a a lunge or step up.

      Lastly, your foot works best when it can move freely and the surface it is on provides the support. When you get a pedal under your foot that support the arch you don’t need as stiff soled shoe since the pedal body is preventing the flex. That is the idea behind my Catalyst Pedal design and it has proven to give you the power of a stiff soled shoe without a stiff soled shoe.

      Overall I think we are on the same page but some of the things you pointed simply are not true and are just talking points for the clipless pedal industry. The truth is you don’t need or want a stiff soled shoe for anything and cycling is no different. Find ways to let your feet and body move naturally and you’ll be better off in the long run.

      Reply • May 2 at 2:17 pm
  14. Adam says:

    I made the switch to clipless because of some advice from a friend from work and the guys I sometimes ride trails with. After a very long ride I did last summer my right knee started hurting. It hurt every time I went riding. (after about 10km or so)I ran a half marathon with no pain, So I could only conclude that the clipless system was to blame. After a bit of reluctance, I went back to flats and the knee is way better. I wish I had seen this post last year and stayed with the flats all along. I am riding/bikepacking a 230km trail over 3-4 days next month with the flats. I’ll see how the knee holds up. Thanks for this post James. Everyone needs to do more research on this before making the switch!

    Reply • May 29 at 11:40 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Sorry to hear about that but I’m glad the article helped confirm what you found out the hard way – clipless pedals can be tough on the body.

      Reply • May 30 at 11:53 am
  15. Eric H. says:

    Great conversation! I’m looking for a platform pedal that will work with minimalist shoes (Vivobarefoot Motus). I don’t know if the shoe would stand up to the wear produced by spikes on pedals, and due to their flexibility I wonder if the spaces created by the structural members of the pedal platform (as opposed to a solid platform) would create uneven pressure on the foot. I’m trying not to purchase special shoes for every activity: cycling, work, working out at the gym.

    Any ideas on a pedal that might work?

    Reply • June 5 at 12:51 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You should check out the new Catalyst Pedals I created, they allow your foot to apply more even pressure on the pedals and so you don’t need a lot of pins to hold the foot in place. Abel James – The Fat Burning Man – uses them with his minimalist shoes and likes them.

      Reply • June 6 at 8:08 am
  16. Eric H. says:

    I like the idea of The catalyst pedals. I am interested in how the pedal allows for the use of the big toe. My understanding is that the arch of the foot is maintained through the engagement of the large toe as the forefoot comes in contact with the ground. Unless the large toe presses against the ground the foot will pronate causing misalignment along the hip, knee, and ankle. Am I correct on this? What has been your experience in maintaining correct arch?

    I have another question. Why did you not make the pedal the full length of the foot? With that not have provided the greatest surface area and the most balanced loading of the foot on the pedal? I’m not implying that your design is wrong; rather, I suspect you have considered the idea and abandoned it in favor of the current design.

    I am thinking of getting a trike, so I will need some sort of foot strap to keep my feet from continually slipping off the pedals. I won’t, as the video implies, require the strap to do bunny hops.

    Thanks for your time and your input.

    Reply • June 7 at 10:29 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Good questions. First, it is really the big toe knuckle that you want planted to help secure the arch of the foot. In fact, when evaluating new clients I have them stand on 1 foot for 10 seconds and watch to see if they are gripping hard with the toes to maintain balance – if they are it usually indicates some core strength issues. So you don’t really want or need the big toe itself on the pedal to secure the arch.

      Second, I didn’t make the pedal longer because I wanted to minimize the chance of rock strikes and I also wanted to leave the big toe “free”. If you catch a toe on a rock and your toes can flex then you can push through it but if they are secured and can’t flex then you are more likely to crash or flip. We have a lot of rocks on my local trails and a lot of the design came from making sure that the pedals didn’t increase the chance of hitting rocks or causing wrecks.

      Hope this helps.

      Reply • June 8 at 9:35 am
  17. Eric H. says:

    The other day I went to the gym and rode the stationary recumbent bicycle. Instead of using the clips or placing the ball of my foot over the pedal I placed the center of my foot over the pedal. Not only did I find that that I pedaled just fine, my output (watts) was as high or higher than before, and I felt like I was using my glutes more than before, and my calves were not taxed as before. I was wearing standard tennis shoes. The grip of the shoes barely held my feet on the pedals. Given that a fully reclined position of a street recumbent places the feet above the seat, I believe that I will need a mechanism for keeping my feet from slipping off the pedals. I will have to experiment once I have the trike.

    I now understand your reason for limiting the length of the pedal. On a recumbent, and especially for a velomobile, there is no chance for catching a toe. A clip-on full-length platform with a heel cup might provide more surface area, therefore less pressure on the foot (a real bonus for recumbent cycling that often leads to tingling an numbness in the feet). Plus it would keep the foot free while remaining over the pedal spindle when seated below the pedals. Perhaps further riding on my part will convince me that I need neither a longer platform nor a heel cup.

    Thank you for your responses.

    Reply • June 11 at 10:45 am
  18. Eric says:

    Great info. I’ve been dealing with plantar fasiitis for years. I stared cycling again a couple years ago because walking aggravated my condition. I want to try the catalyst pedals and see if it helps. 5 10 Freerider shoes you recommend are pretty soft and flexible. Do you recommend a stiffer sole shoe for plantar fasiitis?

    Reply • April 24 at 9:41 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, I recommend a pretty pliable sole shoe so that the foot can move more naturally. You’ll also find that a stiff soled shoe makes it hard to apply pressure into the Catalyst Pedals and that they will feel and perform better if you can feel the pedal as you apply pressure into it.

      Reply • April 26 at 11:33 am

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