Cycling Cleat Positioning and Adjustments

by | Feb 27, 2023

How to position and adjust cycling cleats is equal parts science, art, and personal preference.  If you have a bike shop install your cleats, or put them on yourself, it is usually along the lines of “that looks about right”.  And that may well be right for some people, but is just as likely to cause problems for others. Giving careful consideration to cleat positioning is important because this can have an impact on:

  • Foot pressure – affecting sensory nerves and blood flow. Incorrect placement for the individual may contribute to foot tingling or numbness, “hot feet”, or other discomforts.
  • Muscle recruitment to both stabilize the foot on the pedal, and to power the pedal stroke.
  • Speed of acceleration, force transfer, energy use, and rate of fatigue.
  • Stance width, as in how far apart your feet are on the pedals, which can affect the pedal action and resultant knee and hip happiness.
  • Foot to knee to hip alignment and movement pattern–for better or worse.

The principles of cycling cleat positioning apply equally to anyone using cycling shoes and cleats, and for all versions of cycling, including mountain bike, road, gravel, tri, TT, and track.  However, there can be considerations and limitations for each version of cycling, interplayed with the type of bike and pedal system that is used.

The Purpose of Cycling Cleat Positioning

Before diving into the details, let’s step back and look at the overall objectives of cleat positioning:

  • Force transfer: shoes and cleats are the intermediaries for converting biological energy into mechanical energy to propel the bicycle.
  • Force transfer efficiency: to achieve the above with good efficiency to maximize mechanical gain and minimize body energy use, fatigue, and strain  (the biological costs).
  • Injury prevention: cycling is a sport of repetitive motion in which the lower limb action is constrained by a pelvis anchored on a saddle (mostly but not always) and the feet mechanically attached to the drivetrain.  These constraints can induce inflammation, strain, and injury unless the body is allowed to function within acceptable parameters.

Hence the role of cycling cleat positioning is to help meet these objectives: the ability to propel the pedals and do no harm in the process.

Because of the intersection of the biological and mechanical, correct cleat positioning requires an understanding and assessment of both aspects: the body and the equipment.

The BODY

Cycling cleat positioning should be done with at least some observation and assessment of the body that will be wearing and using the cleats.  This includes both the foot structure and movement patterns of the cyclist.

The Foot

1st and 5th Metatarsal joints cycling cleat positioning

Identify 1st and 5th metatarsal joints

Examination and consideration of the cyclist’s foot is needed to determine cleat placement, as we want to reference the foot structure and identify landmarks on the feet to help inform the positioning of the feet.

Two key landmarks are the bony prominences of the 1st and 5th metatarsal joints (MTJ).  The 1st MTJ is commonly called the ball of the foot.  The 5th MTJ is the equivalent on the little toe side.  These will be most pronounced if bunions are also present but are usually easy to see and/or feel through the shoes.

We also want to observe the slope angle from 1st to 5th MTJ. The 5th will be further back than the 1st, but only just or a lot?  This will influence the range for fore-aft adjustment.

Off Bike Assessment

Hip to Foot Alignment

We want to allow for the natural alignment of the kinetic chain from foot to hip while pedaling.  Observation of off bike posture and gait can help provide insights into what the person might prefer on the bike, with regard to foot orientation  (straight, heel in, heel out), stance width (narrower or wider), and knee tracking between hip and foot  (vertical or angular).

The EQUIPMENT

Bike

The main influence of the bike on cycling cleat positioning is the width of the bottom bracket shell, which determines crank angle length and therefore crank arm Q factor (see article on stance width), which may influence the need to modify or adjust the medial-lateral positioning of the cleat.

As we go from road bike to gravel bike to mountain bike to fat bike, the bottom bracket shell gets wider to accommodate an increasingly wider tire in the frame, and this in turn moves the crank arms and pedals further apart.  This can present issues for cyclists who are sensitive to stance width changes.

Pedal System

For the purpose of this article, we will refer to the two major pedal systems, commonly defined by both the riding surface and the number and pattern of holes on the sole of the shoe for attaching the cleats:

road and mountain bike cleats

3-hole road and 2-hole mountain bike cleat types.

Road:  Large cleats with a 3-hole triangle pattern  (note: there is also a 4-hole rectangular pattern specific to Speedplay cleats, but these all ship with a 3-hole adapter plate so you don’t need a Speedplay-specific road sole on the shoes to use them.

Mountain: Small cleats with a 2-hole side-by-side pattern.  Usually, the shoe will have a plate featuring a forward mount or rear mount option, so 4 holes in total, but only two are used.

What about gravel? Depending on the expected gravel terrain, gravel cyclists will use either road or mountain bike pedal systems.  Road style to save weight and if off-bike time is not planned for, or mountain style for rougher terrain, dust, mud or off bike hiking.

What about indoor exercise and spin bikes? Most indoor bikes in gyms or spin classes feature a mountain bike style pedal, typically of a hybrid style that is flat on one side for regular gym shoes and click-in on the other side for use with cycling shoes. The notable exception is Peloton which uses a road style pedal (Look Delta).

As a generalization, road systems offer less forward / back but more rotational adjustment than mountain bike systems, but a bigger factor can be the brand of pedal systems and model of the cleat.  For example, the Wahoo Speedplay road pedal system offers independent adjustments for fore-aft, medial-lateral, and rotation. With Look style systems (including Look Keo, Look Delta, Shimano SPD-SL, Time RXS, Time Iclic, Garmin Vector, and Favero Assioma) the medial-lateral and rotation adjustments can have interference such that one adjustment limits the range of the other adjustment.  Not a problem until it becomes a problem!

Cleat Model

understanding shimano road cleat float

Shimano SPD-SL road cleat models showing float difference.

Most pedal system makers offer a selection of cleat models that differ in function or adjustment.  These different models are a common source of unknowing confusion for the novice who does not understand the functional differences.  Nor is one brand of red cleat the same as a red cleat from another brand!  If in doubt about what cleat brand and model to use with your pedals, consult a bike shop, bike fitter, the manufacturer, or the internet.

The most common design difference between models is float range  (how much free-play there is for the foot to pivot on the pedal),  E.g. Shimano SH 10 (red), SH 11 (yellow), SH 12 (blue); but other differences can include ease of engagement/disengagement from the pedal, E.g. Shimano SPD mtb cleats SH 51 vs SH 56; Wahoo Speedplay Standard Tensions vs Easy Tension or, off-bike traction  (E.g Look Keo vs Look Keo Grip)

Shoes

Not to be overlooked, but the shoes are what you attach the cleats to.  Not obvious to novice cyclists, but not all cycling shoes are compatible with all cycling cleats. There are 4 broad types of cycling shoes, based on the intended purpose and cleat compatibility:

  1. Road: 3-hole cleat mounting pattern, limited outer sole for traction  (often just a heel pad).
  2. Mountain: 2 x 2 hole mounting pattern, notable outer tread for off-bike traction
  3. Indoor / Spinning: 2-hole pattern, minimal outer tread
  4. Hybrid: 3-hole outer pattern, 2-hole inner pattern. Can be used with road or mountain bike cleats.

Some road shoes have fixed mounting holes, and others have sliders that increase the range of fore-aft adjustment – which is generally a nice feature to have.

Major Cycling Cleat Positioning Adjustments

There are 3 major positional adjustments to be considered when installing cleats.

Fore-Aft

The fore-aft position is defined by where the pedal axle lies under the foot.  Most road cleats have a mark on the side denoting the centerline, where the axle is effectively rotating under the foot.  For mountain bike cleats this is through the center of the cleat bolts.

Midwaypoint between 1st and 5th metatarsals - cleat position setup

Identify 1st and 5th MTJ and midway

Historically the general guideline was to set the cleat such that the pedal axle was under the ball of the foot  (1st MTJ) but the generally accepted position now is more rearward, halfway between the distance from the 1st to 5th MTJ.  This would be considered a neutral position, suitable for most riders.

Mounting the cleats forward of this MTJ midline will facilitate faster accelerations, and increased torque on the pedals, but at a cost of more calf muscle recruitment to counter the torque and stabilize the foot for transferring force to the pedals.  This stabilizing effect can promote more of a plantar flexed, toe down/heel up pedaling style.  This in turn can drive increased pressure into the forefoot and may promote foot numbness or aggravate a Mortons’s Neuroma condition.

A forward cleat position may be favored by a cyclist for events of relatively short duration with high power demands, such as track events or criterium racing.

A more rearward position (closer to the 5th MTJ) may be preferred by cyclists looking to reduce forefoot pressure or reduce the workload of the ankle stabilizer muscles for longer duration events. Gran Fondo, Century riders, endurance gravel and mountain bike racers, and long course triathletes are candidates for a rearward position.

For a video on how to measure your feet and set up your cleats in a neutral fore-aft position, take a look at this show and tell from our friends at Bicycle Energy Lab.

A midfoot position is a cleat placement such that the center of the cleat and therefore pedal axle is behind the 5th MTJ.  This places the pressure behind the primary boney structures of the forefoot and under the arch instead.  There are some advocates for this, particularly among ultra-distance athletes, but it is not recommended for the majority of cyclists.  However, some individuals are highly sensitive to forefoot pressure resulting from typical cleat placement and find pain relief by setting the cleats up in a mid-foot position. The challenge in doing so is that the typical shoe–cleat interface does not allow for that much rearward movement, hence…..

Cleat extender plates

Speedplay Extender R20 on shoe close up

Cleat Adapter baseplate for Speedplay.

These are useful in situations where you want to move your cleats further back than the combination of shoe mounting holes and cleat design allows for.  Cleat adapter plates are available for 3-hole road cleats, Speedplay cleats and mountain bike cleats to allow for a greater range of rearward cleat placement.

These are not just for a mid-foot position.  Sometimes even a neutral position between the 1st and 5th MTJ’s is not possible.  This can be due to one or more factors:

  • Old-style shoe design with forward cleat mounting holes. (SIDI are the most reliable example)
  • Fixed position mounting holes, not sliders
  • A foot with a long arch and square forefoot, with not much distance between 1st and 5th MTJs

Medial-Lateral

The medial-lateral adjustment is a side-to-side adjustment that affects your stance width on the pedals.  Stance width in turn affects your knee and hip alignment–for better or worse. A stance width too wide can also cause a cyclist to ride with their heels in closer toward the frame, in an effort to try and bring the legs under the hips.  So what appears to be foot abduction requiring more cleat rotation is actually a stance width issue that may be resolved with a medial foot shift.

Those who prefer a narrower stance width, or are on a bike type with a wide bottom bracket and wide pedal Q factor may want to move their cleats toward the outside of the shoe, which will move the shoe (and feet) closer to the frame.  Check that there is still clearance between the shoe and crank arm and chainstays, as well as between ankles and crank arms.

For a wider stance width, there are more options for moving either the pedals and/or feet further apart.  These include:

If a cyclist on 3-hole road cleats (Shimano SPD-SL, Look, Garmin, Favero) requires a lot of both medial-lateral adjustment and cleat rotation, this is difficult to achieve with only cleat adjustments, as the rotational adjustment can eat up the sideways adjustment, or vice versa.  In these situations, address the rotation with the cleat and the lateral with one of the modifications above.

Time brand road cleats are notable in that they do not offer medial–lateral adjustment, but do offer two different stance width options by interchanging cleats from one shoe to the other.  Speedplay cleats, on the other hand, offer excellent independent medial–lateral adjustment.

Most mountain bike cleats offer a good range of medial–lateral adjustment, but at the end of the range, this may make disengagement from the pedal more difficult if the shoe tread is binding on the pedal when trying to release.

Rotation

Appropriate rotation of the cleat is important to allow for natural gait action on the bicycle.  The knee is not a simple hinge joint.  There is a slight twisting action of the lower leg (tibial rotation) during the pedal stroke and if that is inhibited, knee pain often shows up.  The importance of this was realized in the 1970s with the shift from using toe clips on flat pedals to using the first “clipless” pedals with cleats nailed to the bottom of the leather-soled cycling shoes.  Widespread knee complaints ensued.  The founder of Fit Kit Systems developed the Rotational Adjustment Device (R.A.D) to help identify the appropriate alignment for the cleat on the shoe before it was nailed on.

Pedal manufacturers subsequently designed in “float”, expressed in degrees, which is an amount of free play to allow for tibial rotation during the pedal stroke.  Float is not the same as cleat rotation, but makes it less critical for most cyclists to get the rotation set precisely.

Many road bike pedal systems offer cleats with different amounts of float, from none to a lot.  Too much float can be as problematic as too little float.  Very few cyclists benefit from a zero float cleat. Most need a modest amount E.g  Shimano SH-11 (yellow) cleats or Look Keo grey cleats.  Some people require significant wiggle room, best achieved with Speedplay Zero or Look Keo red cleats.

Mountain bike pedal systems usually have a generous amount of float and are not designed to offer much in the way of rotational alignment.

Setting cleat rotation is about aligning the cleat on the shoe such that the cyclist’s tibial rotation through the pedal stroke is takingAdjusting rotation place within the cleat float range, not out of range and pressuring the cleat retention spring.  Most cyclists ride with some amount of “heel in” foot orientation on the pedals, usually between 2 and 4 degrees. This feels the most natural.  A few will function with their feet straight and parallel to the frame, and a few outliers prefer to ride heel out / toe in.  The pedaling action should feel natural and not forced.

Walking and jumping gait can provide an initial basis for setting up cleat rotation (see instructions for doing this using the Cleat Key), but this needs to be confirmed on the bike.  This may be accomplished through feeling the float range while riding and making sure there is no inhibition; observation by a fitter; or finding a fitter who still owns and uses a R.A.D.  Note that foot alignment and therefore preferred cleat rotation can change depending on pedaling effort.  Test rotation under both light and heavy loads.  Once cleat rotation is set, the degree of rotation can be measured and noted using a cleat key.

Additional Modifications

Along with the 3 major positioning adjustments, there are a couple of other modifications that may be done to one or both cleats to address specific issues.

Wedging

varus cleat wedge for speedplayWedging is to cycling cleats as canting is to ski boots.  The objective in both cases is to ensure that foot pressure is distributed evenly across the width of the pedal (or ski).

A cyclist may exert unintended pressure to the outside of the pedal via the shoe and cleat (more commonly than to the inside) due to foot structure, and this can be compensated for by installing a plastic wedge, appropriate to the cleat style, between the cleat and shoe sole.  The intention is not to force the foot flat, but to fill a void and improve pressure distribution to alleviate hot spots or pressure points in the foot.  When wedges are used the most common arrangement is for the thick side to be toward the crank arm side of the cleat.  Wedges are typically used in 1-degree increments, and often only one is used.

FORM Universal Leg Length Shim Stack

Shim stack to go between shoe and cleat.

Shimming

Shimming refers to stacking a cleat up off the cycling shoe to change the distance from pedal to hip.  This is generally only done to compensate for a diagnosed leg length difference in the cyclist.
Shims are available in 2mm or 3mm heights and can be stacked to achieve a variety of heights.  A general guideline is not to stack more than 50% of the leg length difference.  So if a cyclist has an 8mm leg length difference, the maximum shim height used would not be more than 4mm.

Shimano SPD-SL 10mm Cleat BoltsAs both wedging and shimming elevate some or all of the cleat of the sole of the cycling shoe, the supplied screws then become too short for appropriate engagement in the cleat nuts.  A wide range of screw lengths are available to address this issue, and are either supplied with consumer kits for wedges and shims, or available in small bulk quantities for bike fitters to have on hand.

John Higgins

John Higgins

John is an elite level bike fitter who works with non-elite cyclists - although a few have won races! Many don't race at all, but ride for fun, fitness, or to compete against themselves. John has worked with 18-80 year olds (and younger and older), novices, age groupers, masters racers and all levels of weekend warrior. These include road riders, mountain bikers, triathletes, tandem riders, tourers, commuters, bike packers and gravel riders and racers. All share a love of cycling and just wanted to ride more comfortably, and in many cases faster. John is the owner of Fit Kit Systems, and provides bike fitting services through BikeFitr (bikefitr.com)

3 Comments

  1. Matthew Sale

    Great article!
    Thank you John for publishing very significant information that contributes to the proper procedures of cleat adjustments.

    Prevention is always better than the cure.

    Regards

    Matthew

    Reply
  2. Stephen

    Should I switch from a 2 hole to a 3 hole setup? I have intense knee pain that has kept me off the bike for a month. I’m an avid mountain biker but have since switched to road due to a geography change. I road without cleats for years and never experienced this type of pain but this being my first time on them I figured I set them up wrong. I’ve tried everything and I think the float to compensate for no rotational adjustment just isn’t enough for my duck foot stance. A little bummed since I’m missing a great season. This article has a great bit of knowledge to work with and any further input would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks!
    -Stephen

    Reply
    • John Higgins

      It definitely sounds like something is set up wrong, but going from 2 hole to 3 hole is not the obvious solution. 2 hole mtb cleats generally offer a lot more float than 3 hole road cleats (Speedplay being the road exception). If you prefer a strong duck foot (heel in) orientation on the pedals and are a large guy the issue might be stance width more than cleat rotation. You may need some pedal extenders. Hard to make an assessment and offer a solid recommendation with the limited information provided. Any bike fitters nearby? Could well be worth a visit to one.

      Reply

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