How to set your cleats up perfectly

For many cyclists bolting their cleats to their shoes is a bit of an ordeal. If you get it wrong it might result in discomfort and inefficient pedalling. Here’s our in-house bike fitter Nas’s advice on how to get it right.

Pearson How to set your cleats up perfectly

Your feet are one of your three points of contact with your bike, and the one that’s least easy to adjust - you can always move your hands on the bars and shift around on your saddle as you ride, but there is little movement in foot position possible.

Nas Karimi, our expert bike fitter here at Pearson spells out how the majority of cyclists can get their cleats set up so they can ride comfortably and efficiently.

First, take a look at your feet

How to set your cleats up perfectly

Nas stresses the importance of understanding your feet as a starting point to fitting cleats. What shape are they and are there any differences between them? Get them measured to make sure they’re the same size. 

Do both your feet make a similar contact patch with the ground? We have a pressure pad to check, but you can assess this yourself by seeing what imprint your feet make on a soft carpet or by wetting your feet and standing on a concrete slab or another surface which will show the shape of the wet contact patch. Do both your feet point forward at the same angle? 

They’re all things that can affect how your cleats should be positioned and which might need to be taken into account later in the process.

You’re also going to need to find your prominences - the bumps in the bones at the joints on the sides of your feet where the largest toe and smallest toe articulate, so now’s a good time to feel where they are.

Second, does your footwear match your feet?

Pearson Shoes how to set your cleats up perfectly

It’s important to make sure that your shoes match your feet too, says Nas. If not, your foot may not be fully engaged with the pedal when you ride. That’s particularly an issue if your shoes are too large for you, which may compromise your foot position in your shoe and thus on the pedal. 

Your shoes need to fit closely, so that your feet can’t move around too much, without them feeling constrictive, so that you can pedal efficiently 

You shouldn’t assume all shoes of a particular size will fit correctly: there are differences in width between makes and the actual shoe length may vary too. Nas recommends trying a range of shoes to find one which works for you and when you come to replace your shoes sticking with the same brand.

We sell our own Pearson brand shoes. They’re made for us in a collaboration with well-known cycling shoe maker Lake and all feature twin Boa dials for good adjustability, as well as an extremely high quality carbon sole, for exceptional power transfer.

Third, set up your cleats

It’s only once you’ve addressed points one and two that you’re going to be in a position to work on fitting your cleats.

Work out the central position of your foot bones

How to set your cleats up perfectly

Put your shoes on, wearing the socks you’ll typically use with them and feel for the prominences on the outside and inside of your feet through the shoes. Stick a piece of tape around  the outside of the shoes over each prominence, extending it over the underside of the shoes. Then draw a line on the tape at the centre of each prominence, starting with the inside one (you don’t want to mark up your expensive new shoes).

You’ll end up with two marks which you can extend down the sides of the shoes parallel to the sole and which will end up parallel to each other across the bottom of the shoe. Find the central point between them - that’s the starting point for cleat positioning. 

Now loosely fit your cleats to your shoes.

Set your cleats’ fore and aft positioning

Pearson How to set your cleats up perfectly

You’re now able to adjust your cleats’ position forward and backward. There’s no general rule about this, Nas says, although it’s often suggested that the centre of the cleat should be under the mid-point you’ve found.

Both Shimano and Look cleats help you with positioning, as they both have a small mark on each side of the cleat that indicates the mid-line of the cleat, where once engaged it will be centred over the pedal spindle. 

Slightly further back is a good starting position for many cyclists, says Nas. He’d recommend setting your cleats between 5mm and 10mm behind the mid-point of the two prominences.

If you’ve got larger feet, you may be more comfortable with the cleat further back on the shoe - you might go as much as 20mm to 30mm rearwards. On the other hand, if your ride position is more aggressive, a more forward position might suit you better. But go too far forward and you’ll engage other joints in the forefoot, which can lead to compression of the front of the foot and discomfort.

Other factors come into play too: If you’re using Shimano SPD-SL shoes on smaller shoes, the large cleat area may mean that you have little adjustment range available to you. Toe overlap with the front wheel might become an issue on some bikes if your feet are larger and your cleats are set too far back.

Set side-to-side positioning

Pearson How to set your cleats up perfectly

Next up is the in-and-out position of your cleats and whether they need to be set away from the central position along the length of your shoes. 

It’s something that’s a bit difficult to assess yourself. But if your knees are moving inwards at the top of your pedal stroke, your feet may be set too wide. Conversely, if your knees are moving out at the top of the stroke, you may need to move your feet outboard a bit. It’s something Nas says he frequently spots during a bike fitting. 

Unlike bar width and crank length, which brands typically increase as their bike sizes get larger, the distance between the pedals is always a constant across all sizes, despite riders’ different anatomies.  

Called your Stance Position or Q-Factor, it’s likely that smaller riders will need a closer pedal position than larger ones. It’s something that your cleats will allow a little adjustment for via their fixing bolts. 

Beyond that you might need to fit pedals with longer spindles. It’s an option for Shimano’s Dura-Ace and Ultegra pedals, while Wahoo Speedplay’s pedals give you 6mm of lateral position adjustment - there’s no longer the choice of multiple axle lengths that there was with Speedplay’s older pedals.

Pearson How to set your cleats up perfectly

Don’t forget that if you do adjust the lateral positioning of your cleat, it’s the opposite way round to what you might expect intuitively - move your cleat towards the inside of the sole to increase your stance width.

You might also need to increase your stance width if your heels are rubbing against the crank arm. It’s something Nas says happens more for riders with larger feet.

Finally, look at cleat rotation

This is where your assessment of your foot rotation from your initial assessment of your feet comes in. If your feet tend to point outwards, you might need to angle your cleats to reflect this. But Nas says that it’s better to use the float in your cleats to allow for this rather than angling them out too much, as this can exacerbate the tendency to pedal toes-out.

Some cycling shoes are a bit banana-shaped, so make sure you’re positioning relative to the mid-line of your feet rather than that of your shoes. The grid lines on the base of many shoes help with this. Alternatively use a straight edge to work out where your feet are pointing.

Once you’ve set your cleat position, it’s a good idea to assess both feet together. You may not have your cleats set up quite the same for both, but they should be pretty close to avoid pedalling asymmetries, which you might compensate for by rotating your pelvis or which might cause discomfort elsewhere.

It’s also a good idea to see how you get on with your cleat position for three or four weeks before making any changes, as it may take you a while to accustom yourself to the feel.

Still not working for you?

How to set your cleats up perfectly

Beyond the basics, you can look at shims and wedges to alter the position of your feet in your shoes. It’s something that’s more likely to be successful if you go to a bike fitter for an assessment, rather than doing it yourself and that we can help you with either as part of a bike fit or as a stand-alone service. 

Changing your cleats to give more or less float may also help - it’s something that both Look and Shimano offer via their different cleats. 

If you need more adjustment, Wahoo Speedplay is the go-to pedal system, as there’s up to 15 degrees of in and out float which you can alter separately, as well as a high degree of adjustability of lateral position.

It’s also worth looking at your insoles. Many shoes come with fairly basic models, but a switch to higher quality ones may help with foot comfort and stability. Custom insoles are an option too which we can advise you on.

Swapping cleats

Finally, a note on changing your cleats. If you’ve got the perfect cleat set-up dialled, you’ll want to keep it when you need to change your worn cleats.

Nas recommends drawing around the outline of the old cleats, as well as marking the positions of the side markers and photographing your old cleats before removing them. That way you’ve got three checks that your new cleats are in exactly the same position.

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