A numb foot soon turns an enjoyable ride into an uncomfortable one.
Everything is fine until you start to feel a slight tingling sensation, which gradually intensifies until your foot goes numb. It is not even cold out, the conditions you associate with numb feet and fingers.
However, you most likely push on through to the end of the ride, looking forward to getting some feeling back into your foot once off the bike. Most regular cyclists will have experienced this at some point, but what causes it and why is one foot sometimes number than the other?
Ill-fitting shoes, poorly positioned cleats, unsupported arches, and bad bike position are all possible factors why your foot goes numb when cycling. They can lead to a compression of a nerve or reduce blood circulation to the foot.
A foot that is larger in size than the other can be more susceptible to going numb when out on the bike.
Numb feet take all the pleasure out of cycling. If you experience it regularly then you get to the point where you are waiting for it to happen, also taking away the pleasure of the anticipation of a bike ride.
In this article, I shall take a look at what causes foot numbness when cycling and some of the measures you can take to help prevent it from happening.
Note – Although this article mentions a ‘left’ foot in the headline, all the information that follows could just as easily be referring to a ‘right’ foot.
What Causes Foot Numbness?
A prime cause of foot numbness is nerve compression.
For cyclists, it is typically a result of a compression of the nerves between the bones under the ball of the foot. You are more likely to experience this when on longer rides or when on a particularly intense ride.
For some, the numbness will be across the whole foot, while others may have numbness in a certain area of the foot, such as along the outside or under the ball of the foot.
Either way, wherever the numbness and whatever the extent of the numbness it puts a major downer on your cycling day.
A numb foot can also be a result of the compression of the blood supply to the nerve.
Wherever the root of the compression issue lies, if it is purely cycling-related there are means to help alleviate the issue during the ride, and better still, prevent the problem from occurring in the first place.
Alleviating A Numb Foot Mid-ride
Once you start feeling those tingling sensations in your foot, or even if your foot has already gone numb, you can try a few measures to relieve the problem and continue enjoying your ride.
As we will discuss, nerve compression issues for cyclists can be a result of equipment and technique.
Therefore, solutions you can try when your foot goes numb mid-ride include:
- Loosening your shoes, particularly when it is hot
- Flex your toes when at a stop such as a red light
- Regularly switch between a sitting and standing position during the bike ride
- Park up and walk about to get the blood flowing back in to the foot
Admittedly these are solutions primed for a more leisurely bike ride and not necessarily ideal when on a big group ride or racing. Therefore, we come back to the old adage that prevention is better than cure.
Ways to Prevent a Numb Foot When Cycling
1. Shoe Fit
Shoe size can be one of the major causes of numbness when cycling (source).
A shoe that is too tight will cause compression issues.
Bear in mind that your shoes may feel nice and snug when you set out, but your feet swell during exercise due to increased blood flow.
Your shoes need to feel comfortable from the very first time you wear them, with no pressure areas.
Cycling shoes do not have much ‘give’ in them and so if they slightly pinch, to begin with, this is unlikely to ease by trying to wear the shoes in. Indeed, as the feet swell during a ride, the problem will only get worse.
Tight shoes which constrict blood flow can also result in inflammation and constrict the ball of the foot.
You may want to consider having your shoes professionally fitted if numbness is something of an issue. Make sure you do not strap the shoes on too tightly either.
Your feet often differ in size and particularly in width. If your left foot becomes number than your right then it may be a different size.
This needs taking into consideration when buying shoes, and having your feet measured can pay dividends.
As your feet swell, the larger or wider foot will again take the brunt of any constriction issues and is likely to be more numb.
The innocent-looking sock can often be overlooked when we are trying to solve the puzzle of why one foot, in particular, is going numb when out on longer rides.
You may like the look of some new socks in the store, but if they are thicker than the ones you usually wear you could be introducing a problem.
This is the same if you wear an extra pair of socks during the colder months.
Thicker socks certainly do the job of keeping your feet warmer. Yet the additional heat can see them swell more.
Badly fitting socks can also bunch up and lead to pressure points.
These problems will be magnified on a foot that is wider than the other. If cold feet in winter are an issue, try doubling up on shoe covers instead.
If you use clip-less pedals then another area you may need to consider is the cleats. These can be just as important for a comfortable ride as the shoes you wear.
A smooth cleat interface offers comfort when you pedal and reduces the pressure placed on the ball of the foot.
However, if you are finding one foot is starting to get more numb than the other it could be an issue with the cleat.
Positioning a cleat incorrectly can place additional pressure on the ball of the foot, particularly if it is set too far forward. If you can feel the cleat plate beneath your shoe you should look to make an immediate adjustment.
4. Arch Support
Adding arch support to cycling shoes can address a number of foot issues, including numbness. Maximum pressure is concentrated on a small area of the ball of the foot when cycling.
With the correct arch support, you can help spread the pressure. Cycling shoes typically come with arch supports for you to try.
However, you may find an over-the-counter insole that works best for you or even custom-made orthodontics.
Consulting a podiatrist may help you toward fitting the right arch support in your cycling shoes, one which not only helps reduce numbness in the foot but improves your overall body alignment and pedaling efficiency.
5. Cycling Technique
Your body position as you cycle can be another factor, and if you favor the left side more when pedaling it could also see your left foot becoming more numb than your right.
The bent-over nature of the racing bike places additional stresses on the body, and in particular the lower back. A nerve in the spine impacted by a poor body shape when cycling could result in a numb foot.
While you can sit up more to try and ease the pressure through the back, this is not always a realistic option.
Visiting a specialist bike fitter can help ensure the positioning of the pedals and seat are optimized for your body size and shape. Fixing your body position reduces the pressure which may impact a nerve or on blood circulation.
Although it may set you back $200 to $300, having a professional bike fit could be good value in the long run.
They will analyze your posture on the bike as well as your shoes and cleats, before setting up your bike.
The smallest change to a previously unknown issue can have significant benefits bio-mechanically.
Something as simple as the wrong seat position places additional stresses through the body which could impinge on a nerve and result in a numb foot.
Similarly, a previously unknown discrepancy in leg length which may be causing one foot to be more numb than the other can be addressed at a professional bike fitting.
This video gives you an idea of what a professional bike fit involves:
6. Maintain Cadence
A further area you want to concentrate on is your pedaling technique.
You are looking for consistency in cadence, especially on a climb.
While the natural reaction on inclines can be to step off the gas and pedal more and more slowly, this actually places extra pressure through the ball of the foot and has the potential to lead to numbness.
Although cadence will be lower, you want to try and maintain a consistent cadence throughout the climb.
7. Foot Exercises
There are a few stretches and exercises you can perform to help get the blood circulating in and around the foot (source).
These are best done prior to cycling, but doing them after a ride can also help get the blood flowing back into tired limbs. Exercises you could try include:
- Toe curls
- Calf stretches
- Rolling a tennis ball beneath the ball of the foot
- Foot and ankle rotations
- Plantar fascia stretches
- Heel toe raises
Left Foot Still Going Numb?
If the numbness in the foot persists when cycling then you should consult with a physio.
A professional can evaluate the areas of the body where cycling places extra stresses such as the lower back, the hips, and the surrounding muscles. If they find any problems they can help you correct them or refer you to the appropriate specialist.
If you have not given any attention to the arch support within your shoes to this point, then a physio may also recognize an issue with the biomechanics of your feet, such as high or low arches.
They will then be able to point you in the direction of sporting orthodontics and will most likely be able to put you in contact with a sports podiatrist.
Do Not Ignore Your Numb Foot
A numb foot when cycling is frustrating at best, and can usually turn a decent day’s ride into a slog, one you just want to end as soon as possible. Relief only comes once you are off the bike.
However, it should not be ignored as nerve compression can lead to lasting damage if left unattended.
Numbness can be a result of inflammation as your body responds to an injury or even an infection.
Health conditions like diabetes may result in numbness in the feet, which can start of by affecting just one foot in the earlier stages.
A lack of certain nutrients or a vitamin deficiency is another cause of numbness, although this usually affects both feet.
Although the numbness may only strike when cycling, the root cause needs to be pinpointed to avoid the possibility of further health implications.
If you are still getting a numb foot after implementing all previous suggestions, or the numbness is getting worse then you should consult with your doctor.
Many cyclists will have experienced a numb foot when out on a ride. For some, it can be an all too frequent occurrence.
However, it is not something you just have to put up with and not something that can always be put down to the cold weather. There are steps you can take to prevent the risk of having your bike ride ruined by a loss of feeling in your left foot.
The shoes we wear, the equipment we use, and the techniques we employ can all play a role in why your foot is going numb on longer or more intense rides.
Seeking advice from professionals such as bike fitters, physios or podiatrists helps isolate and correct the reasons behind why a foot loses all feeling and allows you to return to enjoyable numb-free cycling.