Cleat placement is one of the most important parts of bike fitting. If the cleat is not properly aligned then the rest of the bike fit will be incorrect. Every watt of power you produce is transferred to the bike through your feet and on to the pedals. If the position of the cleat is not directly underneath the ball of the foot you can end up developing some serious foot problems. Although in cycling there is a big debate on which of the three different cleat positions to use:
Traditional – Cleat under head of first metatarsal
Rear – cleat is positioned halfway between the head of the first metatarsal and the posterior end of the calcaneous
Mid – half way between the forward and rear positions
With a forward positioned cleat, the push down part of his/her stroke will shift their body weight in the shoe. The end result is the forefoot will flatten due to the forward cleat placement and cause nerve compression and numbness in the foot. On the other hand a cleat placement too far back can cause anterior pain at the plantar fascia due to increased compression.
Research always 10 years behind the latest curve or invention. What is taught today will be somewhat obsolete 10 years from now. Understanding the dynamics of research will help one develop a good understanding on the how, what, why beliefs in cycling. I am not here to show who is right or wrong, but how we can improve the sport. Gotz Heine, believes that for greatest efficiency, the tarsometatarsal joint (the midfoot/arch cleat) should be over the pedal axle. Heinze stated that Midfoot or arch cleat positioning utilizes the largest muscles; glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. However, my only question to Gotz is why not recruit all the muscles instead of just a select few muscle groups? Another research by Van Sickle and Hull 2007, discovered that the arch cleat reduced the force demand on the ankle plantar flexors to equilibrate the ankle joint moment developed by the foot-pedal reaction forces, but also reduced the ability of the ankle plantar flexors to generate power. The results showed an increase in energy expenditure with rear cleat. While the mid (arch) cleat had a 0.4% decrease in energy expenditure compare to forward (traditional) cleat position. The only problem I noted from the research is the optimal crank arm length was not used. Understanding this showed some limitations to the research.
As a biomechanist and movement specialists, I continually try to achieve a position that both helps an athlete achieve the optimal position, and allows them to recruit all their muscles instead of just a select few. Having help from a variety of muscles instead of only a select group decreases the onset of fatigue. As you can see from the picture below transferring the load between muscles during the pedal will help reduce fatigue.
The bottom line is the cleat placement depends on the athletes and cleat limitations. However, the goal to achieve optimal power would be to increase mobility and stability through the kinetic chain in the body. Cleat placement is the Achilles heel of most cyclist.