As a mountain bike coach I often wondered why there seemed to be a disconnect between foot position on the bike and foot position in the gym. For a sport where we “needed” to be on the balls of our feet, in 13+ years of training riders I never had someone lift that way in the gym to make it more sport specific.
I noticed that even dynamic, explosive movements like Box Jumps, Olympic Lifts and Kettlebell Swings would start and end with the heel down. In fact, I would often emphasize driving through the heels when lifting and getting the heels down when landing from a jump, effectively trying to minimize the time someone would be creating or absorbing force without their heels down.
It was this disconnect that got me thinking about why I needed stiff soled shoes on my bike but not in the gym. I couldn’t figure out why I got on my bike and my foot turned into a weak, unstable mess that needed stiff soled shoes to maximize performance.
And that was when it hit me…
On the ground I can get heel pressure but on my bike I can’t.
Since my heel is unsupported by the pedal body and hanging in space, I can’t apply pressure through my heel. This compromises my foot’s stability, requiring a stiff soled shoe to try and compensate.
But a stiff sole supporting the heel isn’t the same as the heel being able to apply pressure into the pedal body, which still compromises your movement in three important areas:
1 – Heel pressure allows for better hip recruitment and less stress on the knees.
This is why I would emphasize to my clients in the gym to drive through or get get their heels down ASAP when landing from a jump. The brain uses pressure sensors in the heel to recruit the hips and without that pressure you are literally not able to recruit the hips as well.
The hips are the main muscles for creating power and absorbing impacts, plus they keep stress off the knees and low back, making heel pressure a must for performance and injury prevention.
2 – Heel pressure allows for more balanced forces going into the pedal, making it a more stable platform for your feet.
Being able to apply pressure through the ball of the foot and heel means that you are now pushing down on both ends of the pedal instead of in the middle. Since the pedal is a rotating platform, applying pressure on both ends makes it easier to stabilize the platform and modulate pressure to either end as needed.
When you have one pressure point in the middle through the ball of the foot and no support under the heel you end up with an unbalanced platform and no way to shift pressure on the pedal body itself, which makes it easier for your foot to roll off the pedal.
3 – Heel pressure allows for better use of the hips when cornering by allowing you to roll the pressure back onto the heels (just like cornering on skis), helping to set your edge and get your hips into a better position.
To get good pressure into the bike to set your edge when cornering you need to be able to shift the pressure from the ball of the foot to the heel. This is the same technique used for cornering on skies and it allows you to drive the bike into the corner, helping to maximize your traction and exit speed.
When you look at how the foot works you see that it isn’t about being on the ball of the foot or the heel but the ability to apply pressure through both as needed. When you have nothing under the back of the arch then you can’t apply pressure through the heel, taking away that option.
This is why the mid-foot position on your pedals is the best way to apply functional movement to the bike. By supporting both ends of the arch you allow for better hip recruitment and balance, basically applying the same movement principles you work on in the gym to your bike.
The take home message is that how you move off the bike is how you want to move on the bike to maximize your performance and reduce your risk of overuse injuries. That means that if heel pressure is important off the bike then it is important on the bike as well.
But here is the problem…the cycling industry is ignoring these facts. Because they don’t line up with the usual narrative of needing to be perched on the ball of your foot these movement principles and their application are brushed aside when brought up.
And while this is frustrating, the biggest problem is how this mindset affects how pedals are made. Designs that are too small to connect both ends of the arch are the standard, leaving riders with sub-optimal choices for applying the best foot position.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the pedal that I designed and brought to the market you would have no options for a true mid-foot optimized pedal. The Catalyst Pedal is literally the only pedal in the world that will let you apply pressure on both ends of the arch, giving your foot the freedom it needs to thrive.
One day we’ll look back on the foot position advice we are getting today and wonder what took us so long to get this figured out. Once you experience the difference that being able to apply pressure through the entire foot makes to your riding you’ll know that the future of riding belongs to the mid-foot position and the pedals designed to support it.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems