Why do we place the cleat under the ball of the foot on our cycling shoes? I can find no evidence to support this location. It appears to be simply a result of tradition--cyclists have always done it that way. Last July former pro cyclist and shoe designer Goetz Heine (www.biomac.biz) suggested I try putting my cleats in the arch of my shoes. With some skepticism I tried it. To my amazement my performance improved. In fact, my power-heart rate ratio which I tracked for years improved by 9%. That's a huge change.
Here you can see a picture of my Shimano road shoe with an SPD mountain bike cleat in the arch. I used a mountain bike pedal since the cleat has only two holes and I didn't want to punch too many in the shoe. Crank Brothers pedals also work well for this position.
Since changing over last summer I've done some searching of the scientific literature and found only two studies which looked at the traditional vs. the aft cleat position. Both found there was no difference whether the cleat was under the ball of the foot, at the arch area, or somewhere in between. And those studies were done with experienced cyclists who had not adapted to the arch position.
So is there an advantage in placing the cleats farther back? I believe so. Economy - how much effort it takes to ride at a given power output - improves. There may be lots of reasons for this which I won't go into here. Another advantage is that the biggest muscles of your body - the quads and glutes - are used more since the calf - a relatively small muscle - is now less active and no longer serves as a "transmission" for the biggest muscles. This latter point is especially beneficial for triathletes who rely on those calf muscles as their primary mover when they start the run. Fresh calf muscles mean a better run.
Should you try it? I've suggested to all of the athletes I coach that they move their cleats back toward the heels as far as they can. All that have tried it reported feeling more powerful. The next step for those who use Speedplay pedals will be to try Speedplay's new adaptor (cost $25) which allows them to put the cleat even farther back. If that still feels OK then we will talk about either modifying their existing shoes (not all can be re-drilled) or having custom shoes built (Rocket 7, DS Shoes, BioMac).