Do wearing cycling shoes make a difference?

Choosing the right shoe for cycling, whether you are out on the open road, or taking classes in a gym or studio, can be overwhelming.

You might not want to have to buy a specialty cycling shoe that can potentially only be used while you bike, due to the specific clips or cleats, if you can avoid it.

If you decide to invest in a pair of cycling shoes, they can make a difference in your cycling activities.

Wearing cycling shoes can improve performance by losing less energy loss while pushing the bike pedals. By wearing cycling shoes, you can reduce fatigue and avoid cramping over time but it will not make you faster or relieve pain.

Understanding Cycling Movements

When you cycle, your pelvis, hands, and feet are connected with your bike for stability, and movement is fairly concentrated in the muscles and joints of your lower half.

Your hips, knees, and ankle joints and the muscles associated with those areas, work to generate enough power to propel your bicycle forward. While the muscles of your upper half are also working, they are mainly helping to provide the stability that allows your lower half to work efficiently.

Additionally, your stability, and therefore your efficiency, is affected by your footwear. As one of the points of contact, your feet are stabilizing as well as propelling.

Types of Cycling Shoes

The main difference between shoes that are designed for cycling and those that are not is the type of cleat that they feature. There are two main types of cleats, which are compatible with different pedal types. Cross-trainers are designed to play various roles. While they provide cushioning, running shoes are designed to protect the feet from impact.

If you’re riding casual and are not planning on doing long distances, a flat rubber pedal is fine. It’s also compatible with any kind of shoe. You may also want a different shoe for a different reason. Just be sure that the one you pick is compatible with the major pedal systems.

If you have multiple bicycles, you might want to consider buying clipless pedals so that you can use them all without having to worry about which bike to ride. Instead of having to hold your shoe in place while you ride, clipless pedals are safer and are more durable. They are also less likely to get stuck to your bike.

How Should Cycling Shoes Fit?

When choosing a size for your cycling shoes, make sure that the size you normally wear is the correct one. If you’re usually between sizes, it’s suggested that you size up. Although it’s possible to walk in road cycling shoes, they are not designed to support and comfort people who are engaged in heavy physical activity. This means that they can be very uncomfortable and detrimental to the shoe’s sole.

Ideally, the shoes should be snug enough to avoid getting too tight. However, they should also be loose enough to not have any heel slippage. When trying on shoes, make sure they are snug. Also, make sure the front and back of the shoe are aligned.

Although stiff-soled shoes can improve performance, they can also cause issues with circulation and worsen foot pain. Cycling shoes are great for minimizing the impact of uneven surfaces and helping riders reach their goals. These shoes have a cup that’s designed to clip into the pedals for a smoother and more efficient ride.

Potential Injuries Associated with Cycling

Some injuries and issues associated with cycling that can potentially be remedied with the correct shoes include:

  • Knee swelling, pain, or clicking
  • Shin splints
  • Sesamoiditis
  • Numbness

Knee issues related to cycling can potentially be a result of the misalignment of pedals, feet, and knees. A fix is sometimes a shoe that limits the amount of lateral leg movement you can make while you’re on your bike.

Shin Splints can be related to a collapsed arch, which can happen when your shoe does not provide a stiff enough sole and therefore does not fully support your foot while you pedal. 

Sesamoiditis is when two small bones in your foot inflame or rupture, and can be prevented with shoes that correctly support your feet.

Numbness is also common and can be a result of improper shoe width or tightness.  

Factors that Determine your Cycling Shoe Needs

Biker cycling in beautiful mountains

Cycling, like many other sports, requires proper alignment. Although you might think that your bike will efficiently keep you in the correct position at all times, other factors, such as your shoes, play a role as well.

Before you decide on any specific shoes for your cycling needs, you should consider:

  • The type of pedal your bike, or the bikes at your gym, have
  • The type of cycling you might do

If you are doing most of your cycling at a gym or on a stationary bike at home,  or if you are looking into buying a bike for outdoor cycling, you should take a look at the pedals on the bike before you commit to a shoe.

Pedal TypeShoe Compatibility
Clipless AKA “clip in”Clipless shoes only
Flat or “platforms”Any shoe except some clipless
Flat pedal with foot strapMost shoes, including your daily shoe or cross trainer
Flat pedal with toe strapMost close-toed shoes

Clipless (or, confusingly, “clip in”) pedals allow you to “clip in” your clipless shoes for a more supportive and efficient biking experience. You will need to purchase special shoes with cleats in order to effectively ride a bike with clipless pedals.

Flat pedals are what you probably remember from your first bike as a child. They are wide and have no built in clipping system, so you can ride with pretty much any shoe, including your cross training shoes. They are, however, not compatible with the 3 hole clipless shoes.

If your flat pedal is equipped with a foot strap or a toe strap, you also have a lot of options. Foot straps allow you to ride with any shoes, even your daily shoes, while still providing support and enhanced performance. Toe straps offer the same benefits, but you must wear close-toed shoes.

If you own your bike, you can always switch out your current pedals for those that more suit your needs. A new set of bike pedals is generally less expensive than a pair of clipless shoes and can allow you to use the cross trainers you already own.

Related: Types of Athletic Shoes

As far as the type of cycling you might do, there are many different paths you can take as a cyclist. Of the three types of cycling I mention below, each is benefited by a different type of petal. This is important to be aware of because shoe choice is closely linked to the pedal you will be using.

Mountain cycling

  • You may prefer flat pedals or clipless pedals with two holes
  • Option of a mountain shoe with a 2 hole system and a recessed cleat, or a shoe with a stickier sole.

Racing

  • You may prefer the efficiency and support offered by a clipless pedal
  • You will need a clipless shoe to ride a bike with a clipless pedal, as it provides much less width.

Commuters

  • You may use any pedal type
  • You might prefer a pedal that allows you to wear one shoe for their whole day, such as a flat pedal or a 2 hole clipless pedal.

As far as your options go, you can see there are many things to consider. If you know the type of cycling you want to do, and the type of pedals you have or prefer, you can pretty easily narrow down the shoes that you can use.  

As mentioned above in the commuter’s column, we now even have the option of a clipless shoe that looks appropriate for all-day wear. 2 hole clipless shoes have recessed cleats, allowing them to double as an everyday shoe, and there are some pretty attractive options out there.

Can I Use Cross Training Shoes for Cycling?

Ideally, we would all be able to use our cross training shoes for every single activity, as that’s what they were made for anyway. But do even cross trainers have their limits? The biggest question being, is it safe and smart to use your cross trainers for cycling?

Cross trainers are a decent choice for cycling if you are cycling casually or just starting out. But if you are an avid cycler, hoping to maximize your pedaling power and efficiency, or have preexisting conditions, the best choice for cycling is cycling shoes.

Cross training shoes are specifically built to be used across a wide variety of sports and activities, and cycling is no exception. Still, there are both pros and cons to using your cross trainers as your cycling shoe.

Pros
  • Less flexible sole for added support
  • Arch and insole support
  • Durable Material
  • Heel lift similar to cycling shoes
Cons
  • Less tread can potentially slippery
  • Won’t provide as much arch support as a cycling shoe
  • Compared to a cycling shoe, won’t increase your performance

Cross trainers are a good choice for the casual cycler. According to the American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine, they provide enough support for arches and insteps and have the added benefit of a heel lift that is similar to that found in cycling shoes. 

Of course, cross training shoes also have the added benefit of being versatile enough to use as your only workout shoe.

Wanting one shoe that does it all is totally reasonable. So while there are downsides to using your cross trainers for cycling, those downsides could easily be outweighed by the benefits of providing adequate support and versatility.

That said, if you are a more avid cycler, or are en route to becoming one, there are benefits to investing in a shoe that is built for your sport.