Sole Searching: What's Causing Your Foot Numbness?

Too many cyclists suffer foot numbness during long or hard rides. If you are one of them, here is a handy guide to discerning what's causing the problem, and how to fix it.

It's difficult to discuss this topic without going into a full-blown lesson on anatomy, nerve distribution and biomechanics. There are dozens of combinations of issues that can cause it, so I will focus on the "D.I.Y Aspect of Foot Doctoring, 101."

Before writing this article, I perused the Internet to see what people were saying and recommending. I found many anecdotes that, while surprisingly informative, fell all over the proverbial map. And so began my quest to pack all of the relevant information into one little easy-to-swallow pill.

First and Foremost

  1. Start with a good bike fit and see a professional bike fitter if at all possible. This can solve about half of all problems.

  2. Proper footwear. To get a proper shoe fit, always bear full weight on your foot when being measured. Wear the socks you normally would wear when cycling. Have both feet measured and go with the larger size.

    Ill-fitting shoes and socks that are too thick can be the cause of numbness in the toes and at the top of the foot. Also, consider the width of the toe box of the shoe. If it is too narrow, this can be the cause of toe numbness.

  3. Stretch it out! Stretch before, during, and after a ride. Tight muscles can impinge nerves. Get out of the saddle more. Pull your feet back into the heel counter of the shoe and spread your toes periodically.

  4. "Hot spots" are different than foot numbness. Hot spots are caused by friction.
    Usually the foot is sliding around in the shoe. Be careful that your shoe is not too large or sloppy. If you're sure the shoe fits OK, go with a good insole that forms well to your foot or consider custom insoles. A good sock goes without saying.

OK, now that the obvious is out of the way and you're still no better, let's do some "sole" searching. The chart below will help you define where your numbness is located and then give you possible causes and solutions.

Numbness Location: Top of the Foot
Causes: Too tight or poorly-oriented shoe straps; High-arched foot
Solution: Different style shoe enclosure with softer straps

Numbness Location: All of the Toes
Cause: Shoes too flexible with too small cleat
Solution: Stiffer shoe and/or wider cleat

Cause: Cleat position too far forward, aft saddle position
Solution: Move cleat back

Cause: Heel-up toe pedaling (ballerina style)
Solution: Too far aft position tends to make you cram your foot forward in the shoe

Cause: Poor cycling mechanics
Solution: Just a slight heel-up position is best

Cause: Flat feet
Solution: Work on even, constant pressure on the pedal through the entire revolution

Cause: Gripping too hard with your toes
Solution: Arch support insole with metatarsal support insole with metatarsal support/Relax your toes

Numbness Location: Big Toe Only
Causes: Flat feet; Bunion (a large bump on the inside of the big toe)
Solution: Arch support insole with metatarsal support

Numbness Location: Just a Couple of Lesser Toes
Causes: Hammertoes (contracted toes); Neuroma (a swollen nerve between toes)
Solution: An arch support insole with a metatarsal pad may help

Numbness Location: Bottom of the Foot Only
Cause: Flat feet
Solution: Arch support insole with metatarsal support slight heel-up position is best

Causes: Heel-down pedaling (strains the nerve behind the ankle); Saddle height too low (can cause heel-down pedaling); Tarsal tunnel syndrome
Solution: Raise saddle height (roughly 25? of knee bend at the bottom of the pedal stroke)

Numbness Location: Back of the Leg and Into Bottom of the Foot or Heel
Cause: Saddle too high (causes hips to rock side to side and impinge sciatic nerve)
Solution: Lower saddle until hips stay relatively even through the pedal stroke

Causes: Poor saddle choice; Sciatica; Back problems
Solutions: Trial and error here, folks. Just make sure your seat bones are equally supported.

Numbness Location: Front of the Lower Leg and Into the Top of the Foot
Cause: *E.I.C.S. (Exercise-Induced Compartment Syndrome). This can cause not only numbness but weakness of the muscles that lift the foot.
Solution: See a doctor

* Medical cause that may require seeing a specialist/podiatrist. There is great information about these and other foot problems at FootPhysicians.com.


Jason Suppan, DPM, runs the Suppan Foot & Ankle Clinic in Orrvile, Ohio. The 40-year-old podiatrist is a competitive singlespeeder.

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