Why wearing shoe wedges or foot orthoses won’t increase your sprint power

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This time last year Honours researcher and former National Road Series (NRS) rider Boon Kiak Yeo wrote an article for CyclingTips about a literary review he’d done on the effectiveness of foot orthoses, shoe wedges and shims. His conclusion at that time was that there wasn’t nearly enough evidence to suggest, as some cyclists do, that using foot orthoses can help a rider to improve their power output.

A year later Boon and his colleagues have completed their own study on the effectiveness of foot orthoses. Here’s what they found.

Power. It’s something that cyclists of all abilities – from club riders right through to Tour de France stage winners – are searching for more of. Whether you simply want the thrill of going fast with the wind in your face, or if you want to win a Grand Tour, chances are you’re interested in ways to go faster to achieve these goals.

As such, we cyclists employ a variety of interventions, ranging from the use of lighter and more aerodynamic components to nutritional strategies in an attempt to improve cycling performance.

The use of foot orthoses has been suggested to improve a road cyclist’s power output during cycling. By providing support to the midfoot, foot orthoses can supposedly limit in-shoe foot motion and maintain the alignment of foot and the lower limb during the pedaling motion.

Not only that, but this biomechanical improvement is said to increase the power output and the level of comfort perceived by cyclists.

In a review of the current evidence behind the use of foot orthoses during cycling, I argued there wasn’t just a sparsity of research on this topic, but that existing studies were generally low in quality and that no definitive conclusions could be drawn from them.

Only one study investigated the effect of foot orthoses on maximal power output during cycling and found no difference between the use of foot orthoses and control insoles. However, this study had confounding factors, which may have affected the results of the study.

To address this lack of conclusive evidence, my colleague Daniel Bonanno and I teamed up with sports scientist Dr David Rouffet to develop a high quality study protocol to evaluate the use of foot orthoses on sprint power output. We wanted to determine whether foot orthoses increase maximum power output during sprints for cyclists with greater foot motion.

As part of the study, we recruited 24 competitive road cyclists – 22 males and 2 females – with ‘mobile’ feet. A ‘mobile’ foot is one that displays large changes in arch height between non-weight bearing (i.e foot off the ground) and weight bearing (i.e standing). This can be seen in the large flattening of the arch and broadening of the foot once weight is placed on the foot.

The cyclists in our study were given a custom-made foot orthosis and a sham foot orthosis, which acted as a control. After a familiarisation period, participants were put through a valid and reliable sprint test, the Torque-Velocity test. The test consists of a series of brief sprints which participants completed in each of the orthoses. They were then asked to rate the comfort level of the orthoses. Throughout the study, participants were ‘blinded’ to the orthoses and were unaware that there was a sham orthosis involved.

In the results, we found that there was no gain in maximum power output or increase in perceived comfort with the use of custom-foot orthoses when compared to the sham foot orthoses. There are several possible explanations for these results.

Cycling shoes are extremely rigid and may provide adequate mechanical effects on the foot, contributing to foot stability. Also, cyclists typically secure the cycling shoes tightly to their foot, with the intention of limiting foot movement in the shoe. These factors may minimise the scope for foot orthoses to provide mechanical effects and possible performance gains. Therefore, foot orthoses do not provide any gains in maximum sprint power for road cyclists with mobile feet.

Coupled with the current evidence on the effects of foot orthoses on cycling, it can be concluded that foot orthoses do not increase maximum power output, but they do increase contact area under the midfoot and pressures under the big toe.

We hope our work in this area provides valuable information on the popular use of foot orthoses during cycling and spurs further discussion and future research in this area.

To read more about this study, head to the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport.

About the author

Boon Kiak Yeo completed this study as an Honours research student in Podiatry at La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria. He is an avid cyclist and competed with the African Wildlife Safaris cycling team for two seasons in the NRS. He is now a podiatrist at Khoo Teck Phuat Hospital in Singapore.

This study was co-authored with Daniel Bonanno, a lecturer and researcher from the Discipline of Podiatry at La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria. He is a consultant podiatrist for the Carlton Football Club (AFL) and Melbourne City Football Club (A-league).

Dr David Rouffet is a research Associate at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) and a Lecturer at the College of Sport and Exercise Science at Victoria University in Melbourne. He completed his PhD at the University of Lyon (France) before joining Victoria University as a research fellow and developing a research program focused on the neuromechanical factors of performance during cycling. His research activities led him to collaborate with the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), the Victorian Institute of Sport (VIS), Cycling Australia, the French Cycling Federation, the Malaysian Sport Council and some professional road cyclists.

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