Aches and Pains V: Hot / Painful Feet

by Coach John Hughes

Today we’ll focus on hot / painful feet. And, as with the other cycling maladies, we’ll devote some time to discussing how you can avoid it.

Let’s Start With An Example

My buddy Roger got me started riding in California in the ’70s. One of our favorite double centuries was the Mt. Lassen DC – the slogan was “Where a Sag’s a Drag.” We rode 200 miles, including Lassen National Park, and subsisted on what we could buy at mini-marts.

After they stopped running the DC, Roger and I decided to ride it on our own. Lassen is an active volcano, and the pass on the shoulder of the mountain is half-way through the ride. We continued north and descended through the devastated area (which features lava fields resulting from multiple eruptions between 1914 and 1917).

We stopped at Old Station, about 135 miles into our adventure, to refuel. The next store was 42 miles away through remote country, so I ordered a large pizza and a pitcher of Coke. Roger had very hot feet, so he soaked his feet in the stream while we waited for the pizza. I didn’t know much about riding nutrition or physiology back then!

Although it was only around 70F that day, half an hour down the road Roger had hot feet again.


Causes of Hot FootNumb toes and pain under the ball of the foot generally results from squeezing of the nerves between the foot bones in the ball of the foot just behind the toes. This can result from:

Swollen feet: On longer rides, most riders develop peripheral edema, which is nothing to worry about as long as it goes away after the ride. How long a ride before it develops depends on the individual.

Poor technique: If a rider “pedals squares,” then the pressure on the sole of the foot is constant. If a rider pedals with a round stroke, then at the back of the stroke the rider is lifting the foot to unweight the pedal (thus relieving the pressure a bit on every stroke).

Foot shape: Forefoot varus is when the ball of the foot is elevated relative to the outside of the foot when not bearing weight. As many as 87% of us are built this way. If the foot is not supported properly, then pressure on the nerves may result. Narrow, bony feet lack padding, while wide feet may be crammed into too-narrow shoes. Any of these anatomical issues in the feet could result in hot foot.

Pedal size: Since road shoes are made with stiff soles, the size the pedal isn’t an issue.

Solutions: Some Options, Starting with the Easiest

1. Improve technique: Learn to pedal with a round stroke, which will also increase your power as you call on different muscle groups to move you down the road. If you develop hot feet while riding, try exaggerating a round stroke with less pressure on the downward part of the stroke.

2. Don’t stand: When standing, you are only applying downward force, which increases pressure on the balls of your feet, and all of your body weight is on the pedals.

3. Loosen shoes: If your feet swell when you ride, then loosen your shoes and/or wear looser socks to allow for the swelling. Prevention is best: I start with shoes that are slightly loose.

4. Take shoes off: If you stop at an aid station or mini-mart, park your shoes with your bike and walk around in your socks – they’re washable!

5. Move cleats back: If possible, slide your cleats back so that the ball of your foot is in front of the center of the cleat. I’ve custom-drilled holes in my shoes to move the cleats 1 cm back. This costs me a fraction of a percent of efficiency and power, but greatly increases how long I can ride. Remember when moving the cleats back to also lower your seat a bit to compensate for the effective change in leg length.

6. Orthotics: Orthotics, especially those with a metatarsal bump, often distribute the load more evenly. A metatarsal bump is a slightly raised spot just behind the ball of the foot. I have forefoot varus and for years used custom orthotics; however, now I use a Specialized footbed. These come in a wide range of sizes. Each model is customizable for different longitudinal arches and metatarsal support. Most riders don’t need custom orthotics.

7. Podiatrist: If the problem persists, see a podiatrist.

8. Larger shoes: Twenty years ago, I wore size 45 shoes; however, on long rides my feet would swell so I also got a pair of size 46 shoes. For RAAM, I also took sizes 47 and 48. As we age, our feet get larger – and I now wear size 49. When I bought the shoes, the sales person told me they were too loose. Not for my kind of riding, I explained.

Reprinted with permission of RBR Publishing Co., Inc., www.RoadBikeRider.com

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