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Monday, March 12, 2012

walking vs. pedaling and other misunderstood ideas

So the world has gone a little "functional" crazy.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a firm believer in function: functional exercises transfer strength to actual tasks better, functional movement is a very useful standard by which to grade an athlete's efficiency, I even like the idea of form following it.

No, the problem lies in "experts" trying to take a task we could call functional, and trying to relate it to all movement, or trying to relate all movement to it.  For instance:


Yep, walking.  It is tremendously functional, in that we do it all the time and is our main mode of locomotion (and if it's not for you then you have other problems, but that is a whole 'nother blog post).

Just because it is this very core activity, does not mean that it applies equally to all human movement.  Every so often, someone tries to equate walking with pedaling a bike.  They may have certain beliefs about why the human body moves the way it does, or maybe more accurately how it's supposed to move.  Most recently, I've discovered they may believe in a certain pedaling principle or style and they try to reference walking (or sometimes running) as a reinforcement of this style.

The clipless pedal deniers often fall victim to this logic.  And let me go on record, AGAIN, as saying I take no issue when someone just would prefer to ride flat pedals.  I say, whatever floats your boat, and there are certainly times when platform pedals (flats) are warranted either due to the terrain, riding purpose, or rider characteristics.  What I do take issue with is hearing or reading (online of course) that flat pedals are more efficient than clipless and conversely that clipless pedals create some aberrant mechanics that cause knee problems (with no actual or even hinted at evidence to support this).

I won't re-hash what I've already written about walking and pedaling's differences -- you can read up on it here.

A new wrinkle I've heard lately refers to pedal float.  Specifically that it is not an actual mechanical movement of the human body and therefore it's aberrant, and you don't want it...don't need it.

Pedal float is the term that refers to the freedom of movement that clipless pedal manufacturers integrated into their pedals shortly after they came into existence, and is characterized by the heel moving in and out (medially and laterally) while the forefoot is attached to the pedal.

The argument goes that the term "float" is one that the clipless pedal industry made up.  And this indictment is true.  As I go back through my Kinesiology and Human Mechanics textbooks from PT school, I cannot find the term "float" as it relates to foot movement.  The reasoning continues, I guess, that since it was made up by the evil juggernaut that are the clipless pedal manufacturers, then it is inherently false, it doesn't exist, you don't do it and you don't WANT to do it.  Most recently, the reasoning continued (hurray there's more!) that because clipless pedals have float, it's all the more reason to use platform pedals since they don't have float.

Let me address that last part first, and I've got bad news for platform pedal users:  Pssst!  You've got float too!  Yep, even with pins in your pedals and shoes with 5.10 rubber on them.

You may not want to hear that your heel moves in and out (medially and laterally) when you pedal as it does with your clipless brethren, but I'm afraid it does.  Five+ years of data from infrared motion capture doesn't lie.

Moving on....the fact that the term "float" doesn't appear in textbooks does not mean that the movement is a made up one.  For instance, if I say that the movement of the radius around the ulna (bones in the forearm) when we do a push-up is called.........let's say.......the "jablonski motion" (named after a kid I knew in high school -- and one of the nicest people you'll ever meet too) you would be correct in saying that I did in fact just make that term up -- cuz I did.  But it doesn't actually negate the fact that there is this motion happening.  That's the great thing about facts (and therefore science) -- it doesn't matter if you don't believe IT's happening....IT doesn't care, and IT will continue to happen whether you like IT or not.

So FLOAT, right?  It doesn't exist?

Actually it's just a name they have given to a motion that can comprise hip adduction/abduction, tibial rotation, midfoot pronation/supination, ankle inversion/eversion, and a few others that are even more complex (like the movement about the transverse arch in the forefoot -- there 's more than one arch in the foot believe it or not).  So despite the fact that the word "float" is merely a simplification to refer to the action your foot and lower leg move through when you pedal doesn't mean the motion doesn't exist.

Lastly. let me address this false idea that clipless pedals are, by their nature "non-functional" and a "crutch" and that they therefore create mechanical strain about the knee and injury.  Actually if you believe that you shouldn't have the float of clipless pedals you are negating the very real world reasons clipless pedal manufacturers incorporated float into their pedals:  Back when all racers used toe straps ( a precursor to toe-clips) the most competitive were looking for more aggressive ways to secure their feet to their pedals.  Some drilled their shoes into the pedals, strapped them, taped them, anything to get a more secure fit so they could push/pull or fore/aft their pedal stroke to eek out more watts.  The problem was the fewer degrees of movement they allowed themselves (i.e. the more restrictive their fixation technique) the more likely they were to experience knee pain or other biomechanical stresses.

 Hence, clipless pedal manufacturers built in a little float to relieve the strain on the joints above the feet, but specifically the knee.  Speedplay went the farthest by allowing the most free ranging float -- it almost feels like your heels are on ice, they can slide all over the place, which is fine for some, but, I think, goes too far and can create problems for other riders.

So, again, be very careful about what you read, there are a lot of "just enough knowledge" people out there (as in "just enough knowledge to be dangerous").  Figure out what works for you.  If that means you're more comfortable with flat pedals, then go for it.

Happy riding.


  1. Nicely written, whats float?

  2. What a great rant! I enjoyed this a lot.

    By the way, I was always under the (apparently mistaken) impression that float was ankle eversion/inversion. In other words, rotation of the shoe sole around an axis pointing forward and back, basically drawn between the middle toe and heel.

    Is there a name for that movement in modern pedal lingo? Have you noticed differences that, uhh, make a difference for people?

    -Alex Ragus (can't figure out your commenting login system)