Getting cleat position just right contributes massively to how comfortable you are on the bike, reducing muscle fatigue and promoting an efficient pedalling movement. Cleats in the wrong position can result in knee pain, calf cramps, hot foot and an inefficient stroke which will reduce endurance and power output.
Knee pain and hot foot (discomfort that manifests itself as heat in the foot) are uncomfortable to say the least. They detract from the pleasure of riding. Knee pain can result in injury if not addressed.
The cleat under the ball of the foot position may seem counterintuitive at first but it works. It allows the foot and calf to contribute to both pedalling technique and power output. While some pros of old locked their ankles and still did pretty well, they are in the vast minority.
If you read my piece on the scrape the shoe pedal action, you will already know that the pedalling motion should include the downstroke and a slight pull back before letting the other leg take over. Having the cleat under the ball of the foot enables the lower leg muscles to contribute to that. Having a locked ankle doesn’t.
So, cleat position is important for power output, endurance, comfort and avoiding injury. All reasons enough to get it right.
The first thing you want to do is sit on the edge of a table or kitchen worktop and look at your feet. Note the angle at which they sit naturally. Most of us have our feet so the heels are closer together than the toes when at rest. This is the angle you will want to mimic in the pedal.
It is important to note that your feet may not be the same in terms of cleat position. None of us are perfect and many of us have slightly different cleat positions for each foot. While sorting out cleat position initially, mirror the position on each foot. Then as you refine the position you can move each foot individually as necessary.
Next, put your shoes on and note on the side of the shoe where the ball of your foot sits. The ball is the big bony bit slightly behind the big toe. This is where we want the cleat to sit. Note where the ball is on the shoe and fit your cleat so it is at the centre of that point. Add the angle you noticed when sitting at the table and position the cleats to something similar.
Tighten the cleats, mount the bike and clip in. If you have a turbo trainer, warm up for 10 minutes or so then get into some efforts. Feel how comfortable the cleats are and ride as long as practical at the time. If your feet feel comfortable and you can get the power down, you’re done. Just make sure all screws are torqued correctly before going out onto the road.
If the cleats don’t feel right or you begin getting hot foot, move the cleats back or forward slightly and try again. Rinse and repeat until you get comfortable. This might take a while but is a necessary part of setting up the bike so bear with it. The more time you invest here, the more productive and enjoyable time you will get on the road.
Once you have the perfect position, take a picture of the underside of the shoes to mark where the cleats sit. You can use this for reference if you change cleats or shoes in the future. It will save a lot of time!
GCN have a huge library of useful videos, this is just one of them on cleat positioning.
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Credit to GCN for that.