Midsole cleat placement may be the answer to triathletes’ prayers.
Triathlon disciplines have different needs than the three sports taken separately: In open water you don’t swim in the same way you would in a pool, running off the bike is a different world than running with fresh legs, and on the bike you’re trying to do what professional cyclists do in time-trial events and in Grand Tours.
But of course, pro cyclists hit the stop button when they cross the line after their time trial—triathletes don’t have that luxury. That is why using the big muscles of the leg like quads, hamstrings, and glutes rather than the calves is crucial. Sparing the calves not only will result in a better run off the bike, but in a more efficient bike leg for triathlon racing.
In the same way that tri bikes are set up differently than time-trial bikes, it might be time to rethink other aspects of the traditional cycling setup with an unconventional modification—mounting your cycling shoes’ cleats right in the middle of your feet (or as far back as you can), not under the ball of the foot.
“Since the power goes straight down the tibia and through the pedal, more force can be generated,” says Lennard Zinn, president of Zinn Cycles and senior technical writer for VeloNews.com and VeloNews magazine, of midsole cleat positioning. “It takes the calves (always an inefficient means of propelling a bike) out of the equation, thus saving energy otherwise wasted on fueling the calves during riding and saving them for the run while producing more power.”
Not only will your power increase and your calves thank you, but this cleat position can result in an aerodynamic advantage too: “They also allow the rider to use a much lower saddle (like 3cm lower), which is a tremendous benefit aerodynamically, and also a benefit for cornering and stability by lowering the center of gravity; it also allows a smaller, lighter bike frame to be used,” Zinn adds.
With all of these power and aerodynamic advantages, why aren’t more cyclists using these shoes in the professional peloton as well? “Sprinters and riders who climb out of the saddle won’t want them, because you have limited ability to get the fore-aft balance you need when out of the saddle if you’re standing on the balls of your feet,” Zinn says. “Otherwise, they are beneficial to any rider who wants to go faster.”
Triathlon and endurance coach Joe Friel—author of the Triathlon Training Bible and cofounder of the training software Training Peaks—has been cycling with midsole cleats since 2007. He first used a pair of shoes with double cleat positions drilled into the soles, and he swapped the cleats between the rides to test the differences over the same courses and the same workouts.
“I found my Efficiency Factor (EF is the measurement of normalized power over heart rate) to be 8 percent higher over a few weeks for similar aerobic workouts on the same courses. That convinced me to stay with it. Which I have,” Friel says.
When he compared his two rides, the Efficiency Factor measured was higher with midsole cleats. Simply put, that meant that his normalized power was higher (he sustained a higher power output) and his heart rate was lower, or both. (Normalized power is not simply the average power output, but an indicator of the metabolic cost of riding that takes into account the different spikes you can have over the course of a ride and their effect on your metabolism).
On the power benefits derived from midsole cycling cleat placement and the importance of saving the calves for the run, Friel is on the same page as Zinn.
“I am sure that most would produce more power for the same effort (efficiency factor) and at the same time reduce the stress on their calf muscles, which improves their running,” Friel explains. “The calf is spared because the pedal—being in the middle of the foot instead of under the ball of the foot—removes the necessity of powering the ankle lever on the downstroke. That’s the job of the calf in the traditional position. So the calf does less work.”
When asked about manufacturers that produce these shoes, both Zinn and Friel mentioned the same name: Götze Heine, a German cobbler and ex-pro cyclist who has been beating the midsole drum for over two decades and who has worked with pros like Paula Newby-Fraser, Daniela Ryf, and Jan Frodeno.
“Like a diesel engine, or when you perform push-ups on the palm of your hands instead of on fingertips, [with mid-sole cleats] fatigue is reduced and calves are saved for the running,” Heine says. “Apart from that, reduced saddle height (~35mm) and stem create a lower point of gravity, which not only allows for better cornering but improved aerodynamics. What Greg Lemond’s aero bars were for time trialing, midsole is for pedaling.”
According to Heine, the reason why you haven’t heard of midsole cleat shoes is because the cycling industry as a whole hasn’t been receptive to his concepts. He says that despite contacting them early in his patent process, they’ve been unwilling to try something new. So while there are very few options right now, hopefully that will change evnetually.
“The shoe industry hinders those who want to give it [mid-sole cleat shoes] a try,” Heine posits. “For road riders, midsole is even more effective than for time-trial riders. But neither triathletes nor [long-distance cyclists] have a shoe contract, that’s why they are free to give it a try. And 99% of those who tried don’t ever switch back due to the striking advantages they experience.”