Addressing forefoot pain, plan A: Cleat position adjustment

I’ve had two pairs of cycling shoes, the Shimano RT33s and the Shimano MT5s, that I’ve gotten along with quite well. Notably, neither shoe is all that great for stiffness. Back in their day, the RT33s were rated a 5 on Shimano’s 12-point stiffness scale, while the MT5s were rated a 4. When I took the RT33s on an audax ride in 2015, their only failure was that, after eight and a half hours of pedaling, my feet felt like they had contorted around the small SPD cleat. Otherwise, they were perfect for the job.

Surely, this could have been addressed by a slightly stiffer sole, I thought.

Not long ago, I took a gamble on stiffer clipless cycling shoes, namely with the Shimano XC5s. On that same stiffness scale, they’re rated a 7, supposedly due to carbon reinforced plastic on the outsole. As I stayed well within the house of Shimano, I was expecting a similar level of comfort to the long-serving, up-for-retirement RT33s, only with better comfort on longer rides.

Imagine the rude awakening I had when I took the XC5s riding four hours on SCTEX…and suffered the agony of lateral forefoot pain in both feet in the closing kilometers. What had started out as “hot spots” on my feet became a legitimate ache at the third hour of continuous pedaling.

Next came the Northwave Core Plus shoes. My first impressions were quite positive: better ventilation and roomier fit than the XC5s; an even stiffer sole, according to my tootsies (sadly, no two shoe makers have a standard scale for measuring stiffness); and that suave, swooshy, low-slung aesthetic that only road cycling shoes have.

Unfortunately, they also fall prey to the same lateral forefoot pain issue that dogged my feet in the XC5s on longer rides. If anything, I could feel the hot spots sooner, although the Northwaves fight off its transition into pain longer via the more adjustable and roomier fit.

The Shimano XC5’s outsole is 5 cm at its narrowest.
The Northwave Core Plus’ even stiffer outsole is 5.5 cm wide at its narrowest.

It now seems we have a pattern here. Neither the XC5 nor the Core Plus measures greater than 5.5 cm at each shoe’s narrowest point of the outsole (by contrast, the RT33 and MT5 easily exceed 6 cm). This seems to support my theory that, while shoe makers are in an arms race to deliver ever stiffer soles, the cost of the materials needed for such doesn’t quite allow for an outsole wide enough to support the whole width of my feet. As others have noted, Lake and Bont are reportedly the notable exceptions, their shoe making philosophy offering what amounts to a bathtub for your feet.

This is not meant to disparage either the XC5 or the Core Plus. Both are great shoes with thoughtful construction, and many other cyclists and reviewers have gotten along well with either shoe. They just have problems with how they fit my feet.

What else could I do to fix these issues before giving up on stiff-soled cycling shoes altogether?

Bones of a typical right foot.
Image credit:HSS.

The origin of the foot pain was a big clue: it always seemed to emanate from what doctors would call the lateral forefoot. This is just how they describe and pinpoint where the pain is on my feet: namely, on the outside edge of my forefoot. Working off my theory that outsole width is lacking for support, what I could do to improve it?

On the Shimano PD-M530 SPD pedals I run, other than the SPD mechanism and its sides, there isn’t much of an area where the shoe is supported. Even though the pedals themselves have a cage surrounding them, very little of it contacts the shoe outsole.

That got me thinking…and one idea I had was with cleat positioning.

See that silver patch? That’s from the heel of my right shoe rubbing it.

I normally set my cleats to avoid shoe rub on the crank arms; this pushes my feet outboard and increases my pedal stance width or “Q-factor” as many cyclists would call it. This same strategy might have contributed to the outside forefoot pain, as my foot is effectively “spilling over” the outboard side of the pedal unsupported. It was time, then, to experiment with tuning my cleat position so that my shoes are set up with as narrow a pedal stance width as I could get.

To thoroughly test this out, I had to try the cleat adjustment on both the Core Plus and XC5 shoes, so that I could isolate the effect of side-to-side cleat positioning.

On the XC5 shoes, I combined the more inboard pedal stance width with a more midfoot cleat position, the latter of which I already know works well on my other Shimano shoes and helps fight off calf cramps. At the end of a 70-minute tempo effort on the turbo trainer, the hot spots that had very slowly developed on my feet had threatened to turn into outright forefoot pain surprisingly quickly. As the XC5s are lace-up shoes, I cannot adjust them while riding.

On the Core Plus shoes, I don’t have any fore-aft cleat adjustment available due to the limitation of the SH41 cleat adapters. However, their outsoles and the cleat adapters combined to make a more laterally centered cleat position, and the more inboard pedal stance width was quite a bit more comfortable. Even though I felt the hot spots as early as 15 minutes into my turbo trainer session, the Core Plus shoes seem to fight off the onset of pain better.

In conclusion, while the cleat position adjustment helped things, especially on the Northwaves, the fundamental problem of insufficient transverse foot support remains. Time for a plan B, then…


One thought on “Addressing forefoot pain, plan A: Cleat position adjustment

  1. My Northwave shoes don’t bend at all. So, i guess that is a good stiffness rating. Curious you should say about foot pain. Sometimes a specialist inner sole can help with the correct support. Perhaps your arches are over supported forcing more pressure to the outside edge of your foot, or for under-supported arches, being squashed and forcing a splaying of the forefoot. If you do find a good shoe that helps buy another pair. I tried 6 different styles/designs and price points of Northwave until I went back to the old pair. The trouble was I couldn’t find any in the UK. The only place I found some was in a small local store in Italy on their website. They would not ship to the UK. A guy in a local uk CC has Italian connections. So after, much negotiating and weeks of waiting I got my shoes via 3 hops in the postal system. Wooden footbeds on a carbon sole! Look forward to hearing how it goes!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.