Despite changes in materials and construction techniques, not much about the shape of cycling shoes has changed over the years. Cycling shoes, like rock-climbing shoes and soccer cleats, are notoriously constricting (and uncomfortable) footwear, as they hold the big and little toes in bunion and bunionette configuration, respectively, for prolonged periods during rides. They also contribute to hot spots, ingrown toenails, plantar fascia pain, hammertoes, and other foot problems. To our knowledge, and based on our experience, there is absolutely no reason why cycling shoes need to have tapering toe boxes, toe spring, and heel elevation—three problematic design features that appear in most conventional cycling (and non-cycling) footwear.
Dr. Marty and I are avid road cyclists, and we’ve long been searching for a foot-healthy cycling shoe. We believe that a cycling shoe with a sufficiently wide toe box to allow for natural toe splay (enabled by Correct Toes, ideally) would help reduce chronic lower limb injuries in cyclists and may even boost power output and improve performance.
In a completely flat shoe that’s devoid of heel elevation and toe spring, the foot and ankle naturally maintain a more dorsiflexed position, which in turn "loads" the posterior lower leg muscles and tendons and enables them to participate more fully in the pedaling effort. A completely flat support platform (i.e., a flat sole) also allows the main foot arch (aka the medial longitudinal arch) to function as nature intended, which is crucial in recruiting maximum foot strength and power. The medial longitudinal arch is naturally stabilizing and strong when the foot is placed on a flat surface and when the toes are allowed (or encouraged) to splay.
As we see it, cyclists hoping to preserve foot health have, at this particular moment, three main choices for achieving this goal:
1. Perform surgery on their cycling shoes2. Purchase custom-made cycling shoes3. Adopt an alternative shoe/pedal set-up
Whether you’re a Cat. 1 racer, a bike tour participant, or a weekend warrior, we hope that at least one of these three approaches will work for you and your specific cycling needs. Let’s take a closer look at each of these options.
1. Cycling Shoe Surgery
I think we can all agree that it's preferable to do surgery on shoes instead of feet. In the absence of a truly foot-healthy road cycling shoe, we’ve taken to altering our existing cycling shoes using a number of techniques taught to us by renowned sports podiatrist Dr. Ray McClanahan. The techniques we employ to improve foot health and create more room for the foot and toes inside the cycling shoe require several sharp tools and a complete willingness to butcher your prized possessions.
Note: Please exercise extreme caution when using sharp instruments to modify your cycling shoes.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of hacking and slicing up your expensive cycling footwear, we encourage you to hold off for the moment until the ideas and methods we discuss here have had a chance to sink in. Better yet, we encourage you to practice these techniques on an older pair of cycling shoes first, to get a feel for the increased comfort these modifications can provide. Performing surgery on your cycling shoes is best done in a calm and relaxed state, not immediately after a multi-hour ride in which your too-tight shoes provoke extreme rage. :-)
The five techniques we use to favorably modify cycling shoes are:
1. Slicing up the toe box2. Severing the sole plate3. Tweaking the fastening system4. Reshaping the toe box with a hammer5. Removing the liner and adding two unobtrusive pads
Technique #1: Slicing Up the Toe Box
We use a surgical scalpel to create vertical slits around the entire toe box of our cycling shoes, though in most cases, a sturdy utility knife can work just fine. These slits, which should penetrate through the shoe’s upper, allow the toe box to expand more easily when your foot and toes are inside your cycling shoe (the slits also create an additional ventilation source). The extra room in the toe box that this technique creates is significant, though your toes may still feel a little cramped (most cycling shoes are fiercely tapering in the toe box). Slicing the toe box of your cycling shoes is arguably the most important surgical technique you can employ to improve foot health and comfort when cycling.
Update: Since this article was first published, I've actually removed (with a scalpel) entire rectangular sections on the medial and lateral sides of my cycling shoes' toe boxes to make more room for my first and fifth toes, respectively.
Update: Another technique to help open up more space for your big and little toes in your cycling shoes is to use the FootFitter Ball & Ring Shoe Stretcher. This is a great tool for improving roominess within your cycling shoes and can be used on almost any shoe to great effect.
Technique #2: Severing the Sole Plate
Severing the sole plate of your cycling shoes is a definitive statement to the world about your dedication to natural foot health principles. We used a hacksaw to saw through the sole plates of our cycling shoes in two key locations: Just behind and just in front of the cleat. Severing the sole plate just behind the cleat (i.e., on the heel side of the cleat) helps minimize any heel elevation present in the shoe, while severing the sole plate just in front of the cleat (i.e., on the toe side of the cleat) helps reduce any toe spring that may be present. These two surgical strikes on your cycling shoes have the cumulative effect of creating an almost zero drop situation, which puts your entire foot on a level plane and may allow you to better recruit your lower leg muscles with each pedal stroke.
Technique #3: Tweaking the Fastening System
A few simple tweaks to the way you fasten your cycling shoes can favorably affect the health of your feet and toes. Many cyclists choose to tighten their laces, straps, or buckles to a severe degree thinking that a tighter shoe translates into increased power transfer and performance. A healthier (and no less advantageous) approach to fastening cycling shoes involves tightening only the topmost strap or closure to ensure your ankle is firmly secured. Consider leaving the other straps or fastening devices lower down on your foot (i.e., the straps or closures closer to your toes) slack, as this creates more room for your forefoot and toes. Because the topmost strap is firmly secured, your foot should not shift around within your shoe.
Technique #4: Reshaping the Toe Box With a Hammer
This technique was suggested to us by a reader named Kat, who says the following:
I recommend adding a new technique to your list: Crushing the hard toe box tip with a hammer (you can use a hammer to soften other parts of the upper as well). Crushing the hard insert in the toe box can add lateral room to a shoe that may have enough toe box volume, but may be too narrow or too tall. This can create a more “flat” but “wide” toe box.
Indeed! This technique brings a whole new meaning to the term “putting the hammer down.” As always, be careful when wielding tools that have the potential to maim.
Technique #5: Removing the Liner & Adding Two Unobtrusive Pads
The final technique we use to modify cycling shoes for foot comfort and health involves removing the included (optional) liner and adding two unobtrusive pads.
Many cycling shoe liners have a built-up heel, which creates unwanted heel elevation and takes up valuable space within your shoe. Removing this liner helps get all parts of your foot on a more level plane and improves the roominess for your forefoot and toes. Removing the shoe liner, in some cases, may cause your foot and ankle to shift in your cycling shoe, which can be annoying and detrimental to optimal performance.
To solve this problem, consider adding a tongue pad to the underside of your cycling shoe’s tongue. This pad will serve as an ankle bumper, so to speak, keeping your heel fixed snugly against the back of your shoe and eliminating any foot or ankle shifting.
A metatarsal pad is another important pad to place inside your cycling shoe, as it helps spread your foot’s transverse arch, repositions your forefoot fat pad to a position that cushions the heads of your metatarsal bones, and helps reduce or eliminate hotspots by better distributing the forces placed on your foot. A metatarsal pad can also keep your foot rooted in place within your now roomier cycling shoe. Here is a video that demonstrates how to place metatarsal pads in shoes. Strutz foot pads, a sort of mobile metatarsal pad, are another great option that you can use in many different types of footwear, including cycling shoes, for improved foot comfort and function.
2. Custom Cycling Shoes
The second major option for those seeking healthier cycling shoes involves purchasing a pair of custom-made cycling shoes. There are a handful of folks around the U.S. and other parts of the world who specialize in hand-building cycling shoes for unique sets of feet. In most cases, buying custom cycling shoes involves submitting a foot tracing (perform this while wearing Injinji toe socks and Correct Toes) or using a custom casting/molding kit provided by the shoe builder.
At this time, we don’t have any recommendations for specific companies to contact, but a little online searching on your part will reveal a few options to consider. When reaching out to these companies, bear in mind that your request for a completely flat-soled and wide toe box cycling shoe may be highly unusual to them, as they are still used to building more conventional shaped cycling shoes. Be persistent in your design requests and make sure you get what you want. The cost of buying custom cycling shoes is not cheap, with most pairs costing in the range of $1,200 to $1,500, so it’s extra important that everyone is clear up front about the shape and design features of the shoe.
3. Alternative Shoe/Pedal Set-Up
A third and final option for those seeking foot-healthy cycling footwear is to adopt an alternative shoe and pedal set-up. Specifically, consider using a flat pedal with a thin and unobtrusive strap (such as Power Grips or Bicibands) that keeps your foot in place through the force of dynamic tension. This easy-in, easy-out set-up provides a broad and flat support surface upon which to pedal, and perhaps most importantly, it offers you the opportunity to use the footwear of your choosing, which can mean a zero drop, wide toe box athletic shoe of the kind that we at Natural Footgear offer.
We’ve found that the Topo Sante, with its generous toe box, Boa® Closure System (a common closure system in conventional cycling shoes) and (relatively) stiff sole, works perfectly in combination with this pedal/strap set-up to enhance foot comfort while preserving power transfer between the foot and the pedal. The other great benefit of using the Topo Sante for cycling is that you can wear your Correct Toes while on the bike!
Flat pedals come in a variety of styles, weights, and materials, and you can use Power Grips or Bicibands with all standard pedals. We’ve found this combination of products (i.e., Topo Sante shoes and a combination flat pedal/strapping system) to be the golden ticket when it comes to cycling and foot comfort and health. Natural Footgear co-founder Dr. Marty Hughes recently switched to this new system, and here is what he has to say about it:
Since adopting this new set-up, I no longer use my modified road cycling shoes; even with the surgical techniques described above, I just can’t achieve the same level of comfort and enjoyment that I can from my flat pedal/healthy shoe arrangement.
That being said, this alternative shoe and pedal set-up may take some getting used to. For those accustomed to clipless (i.e., “clip-in”) pedals, adopting this new (and in some ways, old) system may seem like a step backward, especially as it concerns power transfer between the foot and the pedal. But having personally used this system, I can tell you that any fear of this I may have had quickly dissipated once I was able to get a few rides under my belt.
Another consideration is pedal strike (i.e., the pedal striking the ground), which only rarely happens with clipless pedals. With the flat pedal system, you have to be particularly mindful on sharp corners to keep your inside foot elevated, so as to avoid scraping the pedal against the pavement and falling as a result.
All in all, for me personally and the riding that I do, the flat pedal/strap/healthy shoe combo is the perfect way to achieve a balance between foot comfort, foot health, and performance on the road.
So there you have it! You now know the three major options (and five modification techniques) for improving foot health and comfort while cycling. Note that, even after performing the shoe surgery techniques described above, your cycling shoes should last almost as long as they would have if left untouched. I used my modified cycling shoes for over 8 years, and I couldn’t possibly have been happier with their durability.
You should also note that, even with the modifications, the toe box of most cycling shoes still isn't wide enough to accommodate natural human toe splay, and in most cases, trying to use Correct Toes in conjunction with these shoes will usually not be possible or constructive. I was able to use Correct Toes in combination with my modified cycling shoes, but it required considerable alterations to both the shoes and the toe spacers.
Here’s wishing you many miles of happy, pain-free pedaling!