Correct shoe size: Bike fitting and avoiding common foot pain

Correct shoe size: Bike fitting and avoiding common foot pain

Are you looking to upgrade your cycling shoe or wanting to buy your first pair? Do you suffer painful feet and looking for a solution? Here we look at what to research when it comes to experiencing a perfect shoe fit and knowing what related benefits to expect from your next bike ride.

Buying your first or second pair of road shoes is a time often spent experimenting. We tend to see riders using a cheaper shoe to start because it takes riding years to become versed in practical benefits of more expensive models. This makes sense and we often encourage new riders to buy a basic velcro strap shoe with a nylon base. Whats important at this stage is not so much the materials but the correct recommendation in shoe size to avoid suffering on the bike.

Big shoes is a very big problem. Its liekly the largest issue when it comes to painful feet. One thought to why riders fresh to clipless (cleated shoes) buy big shoes is that they replicate the familiar feel of leisure footwear. In order to support and accomodate pressures applied to a walking foot there's an excess of space inside the shoe. But when riders translate that experience to a cycling shoe the result is frequent discomfort. Issues such as burning foot or numbness can be symptoms of a cycling shoe worn too big.

Important to note is that trying on a shoe and walking about in the store isn't going to replicate the pressures experienced while seated and pedalling on the bike. So, if you're new to cycling or simply havent experienced comfort, its worth ridding yourself of thoughts as to what makes a good shoe, namely extra width and length. For the sake of saving money and future pains, its also worth learning specifically what makes a cycling shoe different.

Firstly, let's look at what makes the fit.

cycling shoes compared to trainers

The information gained here is based on years of fitting shoes as well as bike fitting. With the hundreds of clients we've assisted, we can help you avoid the biggest and most common pain points stemming from badly fitted shoes or wrong models chosen for your feet.

Dispersing myths about shoe fit

A professional bike fit starts from the foot up. Obviously we look at your body measurements and flexibility levels alongside other physical idiosyncrasies affecting your performance. But when it comes to setting your ideal positioning on the bike, the foot is the starting point. The shoe itself needs to be taken into great consideration. How well a shoe fits your foot is going to dictate where a cleat is positioned, how much support you get in each pedal stroke, and how much comfort you can sustain on longer rides.

Lets look at three reasons riders choose the wrong shoe

1. Do you think freedom of the foot is better?

So the issue we found and something that commonly causes pain such as burning and numbness is that the shoe isn't offering support where its directly needed. There's a typical thought the shoe should be comfortable because you're going to be riding potentially six hours or endurance style riding. The running logic is to buy something that allows free movement, accomodate foot swell and pretty well mimic a walking shoe. As we will see, this logic is incorrect.

2. Have you got a wider foot?

Another reason someone might want to buy a bigger shoe is if they have a wide foot. A rider in this case may believe they'll experience discomfort caused by their foot being pressed and squeezed within a limited area inside the shoe. Again, they decide to increase the length to accomodate width.

3. Believing reviews, marketing and advice without self analysis.

There's a lot of money poured into the cycling industry when it comes to promotion. At times it's hard to distinguish the real innovation and solutions from the selling hype. Basically there are rules you can follow to ensure you're buying a shoe for your riding priorities, as opposed to following the masses because the reviews/forums/other riders say so. In saying this, buying a shoe because of an attractive sale and not checking if the shoes is the appropriate size or model, is a great way to waste your money while kissing comfort goodbye.

 foot pain from cycling shoes

Ironically, when a rider buys shoes to big one result can be terrible foot pain such as burning at the ball of the feet

Consequences of the big shoe dilemma

I was riding with a friend on a 100 mile charity ride. it was summer in QLD and the temperatures soared. My friend was getting uncomfortable and mentioned her burning feet. At one point we had to stop so she could get some relief and take her shoes off. Once we completed the ride her shoes were immediately removed and while I queued for a leg massage, my friend baked in the glory of free feet. Now her feet weren't the problem, and in some ways nor were her shoes. However the fit wasn't compatible and the shape of the base wasn't ideal. The result of burning was so bad it affected her enjoyment and performance on the bike. That's what bad cleat placement can do. Just like saddle sores from a badly fit bib short, big shoes do not mean better comfort. 

Why big shoes hinder both performance and comfort

So we've looked at the three main reasons riders tend to buy a big shoe. We've looked at how a rider can suffer if they don't take precautions with fit and models. Let's define why proper fit matters and, what exactly is proper fit?

As you may or may not know, we use a combination of bike fit experience and the tools engineered by the team at Selle Italia; the IdMatch bike fit system. This will not only provide bike fit, but also accurately places the cleats on the shoe for the most efficient ride. If you would like to know more about cleat placement options, head here.

IdMatch bike fitting and cleat placement

Data from our client post-IdMatch bikefit. This information will assist in positioning cleats

Foot comfort can be helped with soft heel pads, supportive mouldable inners or ratchet systems. When it comes to fitting shoes there are a combination of factors that make up the shoe that you can consider:

  • The material of the upper
  • The laces, velcro or ratchet systems
  • The inner, including the inner sole and arch support
  • The base

All work together to provide the best support needed for your foot and bikefit. When you're standing out of the saddle, for instance climbing a hill or coming in to a sprint, you place extreme pressure on the ball breadth of your foot, but as much as you apply downward force into the base of your shoe you also pull with upwards force as each foot is released from the bottom stroke. Both contact points are important when it comes to your shoe fit. In particular the accuracy of the aligned contact point between the foot base and the pedal becomes significant. This is because your cleat placement must be fitted where support is needed most: the widest part of the foot base.

So, while we can cover other parts of the shoe another time during chats on bike fit, we'd say the compatibility between your foot and the holes in the shoe base defines how you receive the most from your shoe performance and comfort. Let's then focus on the base holes, which is dependant on the shoe length.

The shoe base has several holes where you attach your choice of cleats (Shimano, Look or Speedplay being the most popular). There is an approximate centimetre where the cleats can move fore and aft into the ideal position and secure a particular part of your foot to the pedal. You may also adjust float (movement from side to side, and the proximity to the crank.

The position and angle of your cleats will help or hinder the alignment of your bike fit because, firstly, the point of pressure exerted down into the pedal is delivered through the widest part of your foot.

shoe fit for cycling

That means the ideal location of the cleat, the areas needing most support, are at the widest points. Both inner and outer metatarsals act to locate the breadth of your foot. Some call it the ball, though this includes the padding and isn't accurate enough. Ball breadth is a more precise description.

In comparison, a walking shoe supports more area of the foot to accomodate the spread of your toes, the widening at the heel the spanning of the ball as well as flex. But cycling is more like wearing stiff heels - the pressure is absorbed by a very specific territory on the foot. Support between the inner and outer ball width is crucial.

A shoe that accommodate your ball breadth will mean the holes on the sole of the shoe (where the cleat is placed) are set correctly. Paradoxically when you buy your shoe too big or too long to accommodate width, or because you think it's going to be more comfortable, the cleat will always have to be pulled all the way back, because that's where the widest part of your foot is situated and the most pressure located.

fitting cycling shoes

These cleats appear to be pushed forward, but note a small gap of space seen below the top screw. The shoe fits well, with no issue reported after 2 years of use.

Now, when you don't get the cleat positioned correctly, where the cleat is attached above the ball breadth you'll encounter common problems like burning or numbness. You just aren't supporting the area that bears the most weight.

Solutions for fitting: Wide feet, bunions, different sizes

The other issue is that you might have two differently sized feet. We commonly see half a size difference - which is generally fine because the cleat holes have a centimetre of fore and aft grace. You should fit for the larger foot and use an inner, or a gel heel stopper inside the shoe to prevent movement of the smaller foot. If the difference is significant, we can assist by ordering two different sizes. Yes, our shoe company Vittoria can tailor them!

solution for cycling shoes

Another recommendation could be q36.5 Unique shoes. The Unique shoes were developed with the use of advanced body-mapping and the study of elastic energy storage. Like the consistent goal throughout the Q36.5 operation, these shoes were created to be as comfortable as they are efficient and one factor is the softening of the load with the use of a specific absorption material.

But while there are Company claims, we do not advise anyone buy online because you risk the likelihood of loosing money, time and riding comfort if you get it wrong.

If you believe you have a wide foot, firstly get fitted. We meet a lot of clients who believe they've a wide foot but in fact are average. Its the circumference of their foot that is wide. Hence, widening the base alone is not always the answer here because the girth of your foot includes the height and width of the upper foot.

Recently I had a client mention they had a width measured at F. This is the largest I would experience. However, the client did not resort to ordering wide. She tried her preferred shoe, the Vittoria Revolve, and it accommodated her feet because of the forgiving height of the upper. It was completely unnecessary to either increase the size or compromise by ordering a wide sole.

But for those convinced the base needs wider, you also may benefit from kangaroo leather that naturally stretches and shapes the foot.

Kangaroo leather is soft, pliable but provides stability where the shoe needs it most. Vittoria: La Tecnica

Secondly, the concept in many rider minds is that they should have room, but unless you've extreme issues like bunions, calluses, corns or hammertoe or extreme swelling in summer, a cycling shoe should fit like a glove. And from the toe to the end of the shoe box, we'd suggest five mil and at most, at most and not always preferable, one centimetre.

Feet do come in many widths. From AAA, AA, A, B, C, D, E, EE, and EEE. It's no surprise some riders have difficulty. But some research will help. Get in touch with a bike fitter or a knowledgeable experienced bike shop, and they should be able to find you a shoe to fit correctly. The rule is, while your shoe style should consider the ball breadth girth the size chosen should not be rule girth more important than length. After all, feet don't tend to change or stretch in length. Width yes, and the top of the foot sometimes, but not length. This should be the consistent marker for fitting.

If you've trouble from the medical issues listed above, then you may need to order a wide fit or a naturally stretch material like leather.

Avoiding swim foot while adding power

What you'll find with a shoe that fits correctly is that your foot doesn't move like a wet fish inside of the shoe. A foot with unnecessary movement wastes energy. If you get onto a trainer between and use a pair of loose shoes compared to a new well fitted shoe you'll notice a different in power output. So, if you're wanting to improve performance and add small performance gains this is an area to look at.

Now, the last point I want to make and returning to our original statements, the shoe is the first place you start at bike fit. If you haven't got the correct shoe, you may need to re-drill the base, which we don't recommend to get ideal cleat position.

Carbon v/s nylon v/s carbon composite

I would definitely suggest the very, very final point is when it comes to deciding on a shoe, and this is especially relevant for people with very petite feet. This is 36 35, maybe 30 sevens, and even 38, you can get a great shoe, but you're often limited by what the sole material is. We found a string of females having to resort to nylon and not even a carbon composite option, because many manufacturers don't make soles for people with petite feet in carbon.

carbon sole q36.5 unique cycling shoes

Carbon is a material celebrated for being super stiff. You can get different grades of carbon. You can get carbon composite as well. Be aware of carbon, which wraps around your foot. Unless, you're perfectly fitted you can experience a pain that is impossible to solve. But in general, carbon is a great material for using on the base as the stiffness helps to increase your power output as well. While you may not think this important, for the common athlete this also translates to less fatigue and better endurance.

With little movement inside the shoe, good support from the well placed cleat and a carbon sole -  you can generate more power. A nylon based shoe allows for flex. And when there is flex, there's wasted energy. But for smaller foot riders, if you can't find a shoe that fits, don't be tempted to go up a size just because it's a carbon or a carbon composite.

Small Feet: Common problems

It's not just limitations in sole material for small feet riders. The smaller shoe can cause a bevy of different problems because manufacturers often use outdated foot size data that suggests a shorter foot equals a thinner foot. We find this data very untrue and particularly in women a small foot can require a wider circumference. If this is the case, to avoid problems from tight fit order the wider shoe and do not increase the length.

The other point is that, if you have a narrow shoe on a smaller foot, the cleat can show quite a bit of overhang. Once there's overhang of the cleat there is flex that can cause you difficulty in engaging the pedal. If you've small feet and think its you that can't clip in the good news is its probably the shoe and cleat! You'll need a spacer to help build strength in the cleat to allow clicking in and out freely. It's similar to a shim, quite a fine flat piece of plastic, which you can actually put underneath or between the cleat and the shoe. If you're unable to locate, you can trace around your cleat on fine, hard plastic and use that.

wilier q36.5

The Cycling Shoe that fits

These basic tips cover shoe features and importance of correct sizing. We understand that the proper shoe fit bares great importance on your performance, comfort, bike handling and enjoyment on the bike.

If you're interested in cleat placement and would like to know more about professional fitting, please tap on the button below for information


professional cleat fitting
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