Technical FAQ: More on cleat positioning and toe overlap

Readers follow-up with more questions about how to correctly position their cleats and what can be done about toe overlap.

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Dear Lennard,
I was reading your recent Q&A regarding Speedplay cleats and cleat placement being moved farther back. In the article, you mention that moving the cleats farther back can potentially provide relief from “hot spots.” I saw a fitter last year who had adjusted the fore-aft of my road cleats to what they believed to be a neutral position and inserted a few shims to my left cleat to compensate for a leg length discrepancy. The shims solved one issue in my lower back and made another more noticeable. My left foot never experiences any numbness or tingling, but I frequently feel it in my big toe on the right foot.

You mentioned that some riders may experience this sensation by having too much weight placed on the front of their foot. In this case, would you recommend moving only the right cleat back further and leaving the left where it is with the shims in place, or is it best to move both cleats back slightly and also lower my saddle accordingly?
— Justin

Dear Justin,
That stack of cleat shims alone could be a good solution to the leg-length discrepancy that your fitter has diagnosed for you, but it is cause for concern that new pains have appeared since then. I’m glad you’re investigating alternatives.

Moving the cleat further back will likely improve the foot numbness you are feeling, as long as you have a stiff (carbon) shoe sole. However, if you were to only move one cleat back and not the other, you would be throwing off that leg-length correction. I would recommend against doing that.

That said, there is a reason where one might wish to move one cleat back and not the other, and I have no way of knowing if it applies to you. Raising the cleat off of the shoe with a cleat shim (while keeping the fore-aft position of both cleats the same) is a good way to correct for a minor leg-length discrepancy that is isolated in the lower leg. However, if the leg-length discrepancy is in the upper leg, correcting with a cleat shim alone is ill-advised. Rather, the correction should consist of a combination of a thinner cleat shim combined with putting the long leg deeper into the pedal (i.e., moving the cleat back on just that one shoe). This is discussed eloquently by Andy Pruitt in his excellent book.

As with all adjustments meant to alleviate problems caused by leg-length discrepancies, the total amount of correction, whether with a cleat shim alone or with a cleat shim combined with fore-aft repositioning of a single cleat, should be less than the measured amount of leg-length discrepancy.

In your case, I have no way of knowing the amount of any leg-length discrepancy you might have and where that length discrepancy is located. My ability to make a recommendation is thus limited. If you have confidence in your fitter, going back to him or her for further adjustments might be the best course of action.

If you are going to move the cleats without further guidance from your fitter, I recommend that you initially move both cleats the same amount (and correct the seat height accordingly) unless you have a medical reason not to. And it would seem to make sense to move the shim stack along with its cleat and try that first. If you still have back pain resolved in one area but newly appearing in another, you might then remove a shim or two.
― Lennard

Dear Lennard,
Appreciate your column and common sense insight and advice on all things cycling. Regarding cleat position, I’m a size 46.5-47 shoe (6’2″ 190lbs) so I fit the profile you described, regarding someone who would benefit from a further rearward cleat position. While in triathlon I somehow got advice and ended up with my road cleats almost as far forward as possible, but as I’ve migrated toward dirt (MTB and gravel) the last few years, I’ve slowly moved those back on my MTB shoes and now my road shoes as well.

That said, I already have some toe overlap on my current road/gravel bike (3T Exploro in size large) and worry that experimenting with pushing cleats further back will cause the overlap to worsen. Is toe overlap a sign that the frame is too small? Or just something to ignore and not worry about, given that the only time you’re turning the bars (and front wheel) that far left or right is at a stoplight or when you’re barely moving?
— Henry with Big Feet

Dear Henry with Big Feet,
While toe overlap can be indicative of a frame that is too small, this is not the case with small riders; the bike geometry must allow them to not only have the reach to the bars they desire (and the wheel size they desire), while also keeping the front tire away from their feet. With you at 6’2,” I suspect that your top tube length might indeed be short for you.

Toe overlap is caused by a combination of crank length, shoe size, cleat position, top tube length, tire diameter, head and seat angles, and fork offset (rake). If the other above variables are kept constant, toe overlap is reduced either by:

  1. Decreasing crank length
  2. Decreasing shoe size
  3. More forward cleat positioning
  4. Increasing the top-tube length
  5. Decreasing the tire volume (or wheel size)
  6. Decreasing the head-tube angle (i.e., making the angle of the head tube more shallow)
  7. Increasing the seat-tube angle (i.e., making the seat tube steeper), or
  8. Increasing the fork rake.

Without replacing your frame or fork, the only things you can realistically do are to decrease your tire and/or wheel size, decrease your crank length, or move your cleats further forward, none of which you probably want to do. You could get a fork with more rake, which would make the ride more compliant while making the steering quicker (decreased stability) and the wheelbase longer. Realistically, most carbon gravel road forks have 47mm of rake, so you’re not likely to make much of a change there.

As you have correctly identified, toe overlap is only a crash-causing issue at low speeds. Thus, it is an absolute no-no for a mountain bike on technical climbs, but it may be acceptable on a gravel road bike. If you find it to be a safety issue for you, you might want to look around for a different bike.
― Lennard