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Cycling Insoles... What's in your shoe?

originally published in SPIN ASIA issue 47

· bike fit,Cycling,podiatry

We talk about frames, wheels, components, groupsets, jerseys, shoes, helmets and even glasses… but when was the last time that cycling insoles came up in your after ride coffee with your riding buddies?

Cycling insoles and orthotics are one the least discussed aspects in our sport but one that can have huge benefits in terms of comfort and performance. Remember that comfort equates to performance since without comfort you will not get performance nor be efficient in your pedal stroke.

So why are insoles such a secret?

It’s probably because they are sight unseen and not typically something that is sponsored or heavily promoted. Sponsorship is about exposure and insoles are hidden and logos are not seen.

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Simply put, the concept of insoles is that they support the foot, increase stability and improve knee alignment by providing a stable platform through the pedal stroke.

So with a more stable platform, does this mean they provide more power?

Recent studies have indicated that they do not actually increase your power output so what are the benefits of having cycling insoles in your shoes?

With each pedal stroke the support of an insole alters the dynamics of the foot pronation which subsequently reduces the amount of “wobble” in the knees thereby improving alignment and efficiency.

Apart from efficiency gains, let's run through how insoles can help some of the frequently presented issues we experience as cyclists.

  1. Hot foot - either focal regions or the whole forefoot. 
  2. Numb foot - again, either focal regions or the whole foot.
  3. Painful boney 'lumps' - these can be over bunions or soft tissue swellings.
  4. Lower limb overuse injuries - knee pain, hip pain or ankle impingement. 
  5. Arch strain / pain - typically in the arch or on the outside of the foot. 

The use of cycling insoles for these conditions has become pretty mainstream but do you actually understand the science behind them?

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Everyone's foot is different but the method by which a cycling insole may effect these conditions is set out below.

  1. Increasing the contact area under the foot for an overall reduction in pressure. 

By providing an increase in the surface area, you can reduce the peak pressure (as long as the force remains constant).

A stable and well designed insole can alter the pressure on the foot.

  1. Reducing overuse injuries by altering the direction of force of the pedal stroke. 

By changing the angle of the insole the direction that the load passes through the foot and ankle can be adjusted.

Given the repetition involved in cycling, small changes can make a huge difference.

When dealing with cyclists, providing a generalised solution is impossible as there are far too many other variables to simplify the process down to a single formula.

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However, you can begin to see where the relationships emerge.

Someone who complains of focal forefoot burning may benefit from an increase in area of pressure distribution to shift the load away from boney, swollen or painful regions.

A cyclist with a sore knee due to repetitious knee movement may benefit from altering the direction of load.

A cyclist suffering from 'numb foot' may benefit from a reduction in insole thickness or by changing shoes and/or the alteration of the forefoot load by modifying the shape of the forefoot with an insole.

As a consequence, most studies end with similar conclusions supporting the notion of a case by case approach to the use of insoles whilst using as much evidence based practice as practically possible.

So when you are considering whether a cycling insole is what you need, remember that they aren't magic wands. They are but one treatment option among many others and may require fine tuning.

Make sure your condition is explained to you first, then the basis behind why an insole may help you needs to be clearly explained.

Be informed and stay safe on the road.