Amy and Leslie love these shoes... just not on the bike.

As cycling instructors many of us have experienced the difference between wearing traditional sneakers versus wearing cycling shoes in an indoor cycling class. In fact, many instructors (and students for that matter!) claim that once they”™ve worn cycling shoes they”™ll never go back to sneakers. And what”™s the difference? The answer is in the sole of the shoes. Cycling shoes have stiffer soles. Stiffer soles provide a stable platform for the foot to apply pressure to the pedals. Cycling-specific shoes also provide the advantage of clipping-in to the pedals which enables force to be applied throughout the entire pedal stroke, instead of losing power and momentum at the bottom of the pedal stroke.  Cycling-specific shoes therefore facilitate power transfer and improve pedal stroke efficiency.

Many indoor cycling participants also run, are triathletes, or are otherwise fitness enthusiasts trying to stay on top of fitness trends such as Barefoot Running. Barefoot Running, promoted as reducing injury risk, and featured in Chris McDougall's book Born to Run has sparked a surge of fitness enthusiasts wearing shoes that simulate being barefoot. The barefoot-style shoes allow the foot to move more freely and naturally. We”™ve all seen the funkier style of Vibram Five Fingers but there are also more traditional sneakers designed in the barefoot-style such as Nike Frees.

Whether Barefoot Running is a hit or just hype is still up for debate. Personally I see some benefits of the barefoot movement. As a yoga instructor, I appreciate that our feet and the arches of our feet provide the foundation for our overall posture. I wear a pair of Nike Free sneakers and find them fantastic for walking, light running and improving arch strength in my feet.

As these barefoot-styles shoes become more mainstream, I”™m seeing students more frequently wearing barefoot-footwear to the gym and subsequently coming to cycle studios in barefoot-footwear. So what happens when we take these barefoot-style shoes to indoor cycling? Barefoot cycling!?

While the jury may still be debating on the benefits of barefoot-style shoes for functions such as running, it is pretty clear that a barefoot-style shoe is the opposite of the typically cycling-specific shoe. Why? The footwear should relate to the activity. Running, of course, is a different activity from cycling. The activities work the body in different ways. For example in running, the foot transfers power to the ground and the foot can hit the ground at different places such as the ball, the mid-foot and the heel. Flexibility of the foot is desirable and a free moving sole provides ability to use the feet and the natural bending of the feet in running. In cycling the foot transfers power to the pedals, a smaller surface area than the foot. Primarily the ball of the foot is being used as a contact point and having a stiff and stable platform is desirable to prevent foot strain and improve efficiency.

For short periods of time and light activity cycling, a barefoot-style or flexible-soled shoe will probably not cause much discomfort. However with any sustained or substantial cycling efforts using a barefoot-style or flexible soled-shoe may start to strain the feet and legs, may cause the foot to bend in ways can become unnatural, may be uncomfortable and may even cause injury.

Once I mistakenly forgot my cycling shoes and was caught teaching a cycling class with only my barefoot style Nike Frees to wear. Stepping into the cages with my barefoot-style shoes was a memorable experience...and one I hope to not have to repeat again! The flexibility of the barefoot-style shoe inhibited my typically smoother clipped-in pedal stroke and the flexibility of the barefoot-style shoe hindered my ability to pull-up at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Standing climbs and standing runs took on a whole new meaning of discomfort!!

Wearing a barefoot-style shoe seems to set a cycling newbie up for an even more challenging indoor cycling experience. That doesn”™t benefit them as students or us as instructors. While I don”™t necessarily want to advise a student to “get out” and come back with better footwear, it does seem important to politely suggest coming back the next time with footwear that will improve efficiency and prevent injury as they work harder on the indoor bikes.

What are your thoughts on the barefoot-style shoes and indoor cycling? Do you talk about cycling-specific shoes in your classes? I encourage you to be proactive in communicating the differences in footwear to your students and to advise using the correct footwear for the activity; for indoor cycling, regularly recommend stiffer-soled sneakers (think hiking or cross-trainer styles) and cycling-specific shoes.

For more information on the ins and outs of various types of cycling-specific shoes, REI has a nice overview here for you to reference and/or share with your students!

Colleen Matthews is an ICI/PRO member, certified indoor cycling instructor and 200-hour registered yoga teacher from Alexandria, Virginia.

Originally posted 2011-04-26 10:55:46.

Colleen Matthews
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