Replacing the flimsy insoles of your cycling shoes with cycling sport-specific inserts or footbeds may be the answer to your pedaling pain problems!
Like a mechanic whose car leaks oil or the handyman with a front door falling off its hinges, I’m not always the best patient. When I notice pain while riding or stiffness in a new and unexpected area, my initial course of action denies its presence and hopes it will go away.
A classic case of “Do as I say, and not as I do” that questions the rationale and credibility of someone who portends to advise to the contrary. Guilty as charged with no suitable defense!
Neither the mechanic’s car nor the handyman’s door is going to fix itself. When I noticed pain in the back of my knee one day while riding, I dismissed it as nothing that more riding wouldn’t cure. The pain persisted and traveled to the outside of my knee, making it clear my leg wasn’t going to heal itself.
To their detriment, cyclists can be masters at pain procrastination. Still, they are experts in being keenly aware of listening to their body and reacting to even the slightest deviation from optimal.
Do as I say and not as I do!
Having consulted patients and written on the subject various times, it should have been evident that the pain in my knee may very likely be due to an improper bike fit. Specifically, a saddle that is too high or back or a crank that is too long.
However, the only evident truth was that my bike hadn’t been taken off the trainer in over a year, and I had changed nothing during that time. That included the cycling footbeds I have had in my favorite cycling shoes for years.
Then it dawned on me! It wasn’t my saddle height that got higher, but rather the distance between it and the pedals that got longer! How could that be, you ask? The answer may be found in those worn-out insoles!
Old Insoles Can Cause Poor Leg Alignment
When weight or force is applied upon an unsupported arch, the bones and supporting structures often cannot withstand the stress. Your arch will flatten, which in turn causes the bones of your lower leg to rotate inward, and in effect, your leg gets shorter.
This compounds the problem by making the distance between the saddle and the pedals even greater.
Inward rotation causes a lengthening of the iliotibial (IT) band, resulting in inflammation where it connects to the outside of your knee and pain behind the knee from repetitive reaching for the pedals.
Flat Feet are a Common Problem
Whether the price I have to pay for standing upright or a genetic gift from my parents fished from our shallow gene pool, I have identified that the root of the undeniable foot pain I experience is the flawed structure of my feet, commonly known as ‘fallen arches’ or ‘flat feet.’
Once acknowledged, the situation has been corrected by replacing the insoles of my work shoes with an over-the-counter pair of orthotics (a shoe insert that supports the abnormal movement of your foot).
When I developed similar symptoms while riding, I corrected them in much the same way.
The Theory Behind the Mind-Body Benefits of Cycling Footbeds
Every time we take a step, our arches absorb the impact and adapt to the ground beneath our feet to keep us upright. When our heels strike the ground, it signals our hip, knee, and ankle muscles to stabilize our leg. When this fails to happen, it creates the ‘shortened leg’ scenario described earlier.
When we are cycling, we lack the stimulus of the heel strike, which occurs when walking, but there is a tremendous load applied to the foot. The result is a weak or non-existent signal between our brain and muscles. This deficiency causes a failure of the muscles to fire in proper sequence when pedaling, and an inward collapse of the foot results.
The appropriate cycling footbeds can improve the brain’s awareness of where our feet are positioned in space, a concept known as proprioception. By providing feedback to the nerves on the bottom of our feet, our brain is stimulated to signal the muscles making our leg stable. Proprioceptive awareness counteracts the tendency for our arches to compress, our leg to turn inward and may allow for more stable power transfer.
The Theory Behind the Stabilizing Benefits of Cycling Footbeds
Much less of a leap of faith, the benefits of providing stabilizing support through footbeds are more visually logical. A well-fitted footbed improves contact across the entire base of the foot and spreads the load over more surface area, thereby relieving pressure points.
The insole serves as a mechanical block of arch collapse, and through the support, provides the stability you may need.
Cycling Footbed Facts
The Debate Surrounding the Usage of Cycling Footbeds
The foot is one of the most intricate structures of the body, and its proper function relies on the synchronous interplay of a host of variables. It is likely for this reason that cycling insoles cause great debate in the bike-fitting world.
Cyclists have used cycling insoles for many reasons, including injury prevention, increasing power, improved comfort, and increased pedaling efficiency. The theory supporting the utilization of footbeds to improve lower limb alignment seems sound, but the scientific evidence doesn’t necessarily support this claim.
In a systematic review of the topic published in the Journal of Foot and Ankle Research, the authors reported that despite subject-specific biomechanical effects, the utilization of cycling insoles provided no benefits in power output, oxygen consumption, or even comfort.
Due to the scarcity of research, the study’s authors recommended that bike fitters and clinicians take an individualized approach for managing injury and correcting alignment issues. This option is of particular significance for cyclists exhibiting hip and knee issues until there is further evidence to the contrary.
Conclusion: What Works For Me May Not Work For You
After much trial and error over the years, I have determined that the insoles which work best for me are the cycling-specific insoles designed for low arches produced by Sidas. They provide the right combination of support and comfort, which my feet need, in a lightweight and breathable insole. It seems like they are durable, too.
Don’t take my word for it, though. The usage of cycling insoles in itself is very individualized, and each person’s foot is unique. Your cycling footbed choice should also be.
The key takeaway is that if you are experiencing discomfort in your legs while cycling and have exhausted all possible causes, sport-specific insoles are a potential solution.
I use these cycling shoe inserts- https://amzn.to/3hhDIbt
Do you use cycling-specific insoles or footbeds? What is your experience? Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.
Check out this Virtual Case Study if you are suffering from ankle and foot pain when you ride!
Semi-retired as owner and director of his private Orthopedic Physical Therapy practice after over 20 years, Chris is blessed with the freedom to pursue his passion for virtual cycling and writing. On a continual quest to give back to his bike for all the rewarding experiences and relationships it has provided him, he created a non-profit. Chris is committed to helping others with his bike through its work and the pages of his site.
In the summer of 2022, he rode 3,900 miles from San Francisco to New York to support the charity he founded, TheDIRTDadFund. His “Gain Cave” resides on the North Fork of Long Island, where he lives with his beautiful wife and is proud of his two independent children.
You will read him promoting his passion on the pages of Cycling Weekly, Cycling News, road.cc, Zwift Insider, and Bicycling. Chris is co-host of The Virtual Velo Podcast, too!