Health Column: Proper shoes critical to cycling

This is the first of a two-part series dealing with proper foot care. Part II will appear in the Sept. 1 edition.

Cycling is an excellent means of exercise, but a cyclist needs to select not only a bicycle that meets his or her specific needs, but proper shoes — the most important piece of cycling equipment. Cycling shoes must have a stable shank to efficiently transfer power from your feet to the pedals. The lack of shank support in sneakers allows the foot to collapse through the arch while pedaling, which may cause arch pain, tendon problems, or burning under the bottom of the foot. A rigid shank protects your feet from the stress of pedaling.

Investing in a cycling-specific shoe is a good idea if you have had pre-existing problems with your feet or wear orthotic shoe inserts. Most orthoses control the arch and heel and, for cycling, usually require critical forefoot balancing. Riders with mild bunions or hammertoes should select a wider, deeper shoe that will accommodate the deformity.

Select a shoe that’s right for you among models designed for racing and mountain biking. For the casual rider without known foot problems, cross-training shoes provide the necessary support across the arch and instep in a shoe that can be used for other purposes. They also provide the heel lift that cycling shoes give. Combination cycling-hiking shoes have become popular and meet the needs of the casual rider.

The use of toe clips and their degree of sophistication begin to separate the casual rider from the more serious devotee. Toe clips range from traditional clips to newer shoe-cleat ensembles — “clipless systems” — that resemble ski bindings. Many companies model their units on the French manufacturer Look. A Look-compatible unit will offer the most diverse combinations of shoes and clips from which to choose.

Proper shoes and clips or cleats working as a unit are important to achieve maximum efficiency in transferring power generated by the hips to the foot. For most efficient pedaling, shoes should extend fully under the ball of the foot.

Biomechanics, the study of external forces on the living body, plays a crucial role in efficient, satisfying cycling. When you’re seated on a bike, your hands on the handlebars, your shoulders and the front axle should all be in line.

By enhancing the biomechanics of the foot, podiatric physicians specializing in sports medicine can improve the mechanical functions of related body parts. If, for example, an experienced cyclist’s knees hurt after a 30-mile ride, the problem may be a biomechanical imbalance. A podiatric physician can alleviate the pain by correcting the imbalance through prescription orthotic shoe inserts. Training and conditioning methods should also be evaluated.

To preclude pain before it starts, podiatrists advise stretching the major muscle groups used in cycling — gluteals, quadriceps, calves and hamstrings — before and after getting on the bike. Riders should start slowly and work up to a normal rate of pedaling. The seat is at the proper height when knees are slightly flexed and hips are over the knees.

Podiatrists recommend the use of a pulse monitor for a cycling-based training regimen. Some models strap around the chest, while smaller units wrap around the wrist or the thumb to display the pulse rate as you ride.

Dr Peter Kilfoil is a podiatrist with offices in both Southold and Riverhead and has been a member of the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine since 1984.