Tips to Combat Cycling Hot Foot
Cycling ‘Hot Foot’ is a rather common experience to new and sometimes even intermediate riders. It is a burning or numbing sensation in one or both feet that prevents the rider from a comfortable and efficient pedal stroke. ‘Hot foot’ is more commonly referred to as Metatarsalgia, which is a condition where the nerves and joint tissues near the ball of your foot are repeatedly squeezed by the long metatarsal bones which run through the foot, all the way to the toes. This constant squeezing over time leads to a pain in the base of the foot. New riding, increased distance, or poor gear often contribute to this condition.
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Hot foot can be a painful experience and can turn a long ride into an utterly miserable one. It’s a misunderstood condition, but with a little help and care, it can be prevented or even fixed during the ride. Listed below are some tips to improve or even prevent cycling hot foot:
Blood flows to working muscles to deliver oxygen and glycogen (fuel) while removing waste and lactic acid. As with all working muscles, the increased blood flow causes your feet to expand. Cyclists should as a rule wear ½-1 full size larger shoe than their regular shoes to allow for the swelling of feet. Be cautious to not compromise your blood flow by tightening the straps on your shoes too tightly. The last possible cause in this space is shoe width. While you may have the ideal cycling shoe size, it may not be the right width for your foot. Having the right shoe size and width makes all the difference, so be sure to look out for this when deciding on cycling shoes.
Make sure your cycling shoes have ample ventilation and easy adjusting straps, such as an Atop locking mechanism or reinforced Velcro alternative. Always be on the lookout for comfort factors, such as ventilation, decent width, and a decent-sized toe box to keep your toes sufficiently protected.
A sole that flexes, in theory, is less efficient but may provide some relief in terms of foot pressure. If the hot spot is across the entire ball of the foot, a more flexible sole will help spread the pressure to other areas of the foot. If the hot spot is centralized to one location of your foot, a stiffer sole may be the answer because the pedal may be causing pressure in that one location.
Cleats that are small in nature (SPDs for example) are great for spin classes and mountain biking. These cleats have very little load bearing areas as compared to the shoe sole and could easily be the culprit of centralized hot foot (pain directly above the cleat). For road or triathlon riding, consider a larger cleat that has a greater load bearing area and covers more of the shoe sole. Also, a cleat that is positioned too far forward will place increased strain on the balls of your feet, cutting off blood flow and causing the hot foot sensation. Move the pedals back to have a more evenly distributed pressure on the soles of your cycling shoes.
Generally speaking, it is better to wear thin cooling socks that offer decent ventilation. Thick cotton socks will only absorb moisture, keep your feet hot, and take up space in your cycling shoe that could have been used to cater for swollen feet. Thin socks prevent blisters and can be doubled up (layering) for colder rides. Thin, cool socks enable a better shoe size selection and a more natural feel for the shoe. Since the shoes are where you are attached to the bike, you want a comfortable and confident feeling to generate efficient power to the rear wheel.
When you’re not comfortable in the saddle, you’re more likely to seek comfort and/or performance through force and acclimation. This leads to premature exhaustion and potential injury. Too often, the force sought by punishing the pedal in a downward direction generating increased pressure on the balls of the feet. The key is to make adjustments to provide yourself with a more comfortable riding position so as to increase comfort and efficiency. Your bike should fit like a glove so that your pedal stroke is generating maximum power without inviting injury or waste. If the simple task of pedaling results in hot foot, consider seeing a certified bike fitter.
Most cyclists pedal in squares with 95% of the power coming from ¼ of the pedal stroke. Envision the pedal circumference as a clock with 12 at the top, 6 at the bottom, 9, and 3 at left and right respectively. Most riders begin applying force to the pedal at 2; maybe 1 if they’re somewhat efficient, 3 if not. Force continues through about 6 (at most). This type of pedal stoke is inefficient and creates pressure on the balls of your feet. If cyclists were to pedal more like skiers and begin applying force at 11 or 12 and continue through 6 or 7, they can double the power generated with each stroke and eliminate the pressure on the balls of their feet. Pedal stroke should be in ovals while applying pressure to the pedal across the top and bottom of the pedal strike.
Climbing is all about the power-to-weight ratio; how much power you are generating vs how much you are carrying up the hill. This equation comes together at the point where your foot is attached to the bike. This is where the ugly truth reveals itself and the search for additional power begins. The natural reaction to an incline is to increase pressure on the pedal in the form of the square pedaling stroke. As previously mentioned, pedaling in ovals will not only eliminate hot foot, it will improve your climbing skills.
Make sure you have corrective insoles if required to provide the proper arch support. For those cyclists who do not need arch support but want to squeeze as much power out of each stroke by using arch support, be careful. Some brands offer insoles that proclaim increased power. Wearing improper insoles may be the cause of a problem and not a solution. Use good judgement and at the first sign of pain, question the cause and seek professional help.
The frustrating truth around cycling hot foot is it’s rarely only one of the abovementioned factors that is causing the problem. It’s often a combination of several factors. The most common causes of hot foot appear to be poor shoe selection and/or poor pedal stoke but all of these issues should be considered when taking corrective actions.