Starting Triathlon - Shoes

Earlier this year, I wrote about triathlon pedal choice and so it’s only natural that we now explore shoe choice. In this post, we look at different types of shoes and consider some of the benefits of each. 

First things first -  what type of pedals are you using?

  • Flat pedal - with or without toe-clips.

  • Clipless systems:

    • MTB pedal, such as Shimano SPD - small metal cleat attached by two bolts.

    • Road pedal, such as Shimano SPD-SL - large triangular plastic cleat attached by three bolts.

Flat Pedals

If you don’t run a clipless system, you don’t need specific cycling shoes. Although you can simply wear trainers for the bike leg, you can do two things to boost your performance and make transitions simpler:

  1. Use a shoe with a rigid sole, such as a trail running shoe. A stiffer sole helps you push more power through the pedal, which equates to more speed. And, because your weight is distributed across the sole of your shoe, you’ll find it more comfortable than a flimsy trainer.

  2. Buy and use elastic laces. These laces are popular with runners and they allow you to have your shoelaces permanently tied whilst still allowing you to slip your shoe on without the hassle of tying your laces. This, of course, means that you’ll be a lot faster in transition, and you don’t need to worry about a lace coming underdone whilst cycling.

Elastic laces = more speed and less hassle

MTB Style Pedals

The most popular choice of pedals for people new to road riding is the mountain bike style Shimano SPD or similar. A shoe that supports this style of pedal has two holes in its sole, which allows you to bolt a small metal cleat to the sole of your shoe. It is this cleat that connects your foot to the pedal. 

Two Bolt = Easy to clip in and out, and easy to walk in

You can choose any shoe that supports the two-bolt pattern, but ensure that the shoe has a rigid sole. Some mountain bike shoes have fairly flexible soles, which will not help your speed and performance as a triathlete. To test the rigidity, take the shoe in your hands and really try to flex it by twisting from toe to heel. If there’s any visible movement, you’ll find that the shoe is too flexible for optimum performance. You will find that some manufacturers produce road shoes that support the two-bolt pattern, and these will have more rigid soles than many mountain bike specific shoes. Also, there are a very small number of triathlon-specific shoes that support the two bolt-patterns, for example, Wiggle’s dhb Trinity Tri Shoe.

Most Road and Tri shoes start at £75

Road Style Pedals

Road shoes have a three-bolt pattern on their soles, which allows you to use road cleats that maximise performance and efficiency. Almost all road shoes are rigid and usable for triathlon, but there are a few things to consider, which will boost your triathlon performance.

  1. Stiffer soles are best. They push more power through the bike and help alleviate numb spots caused by the pedal exerting pressure on your feet. Carbon soles are better than plastic, but they do tend to start at around £150 going up to £400.

  2. Simple closure systems. Road shoes can sport any one or more of a number of closure systems including ratchets, straps with Velcro, and dials with a wire lace. The fewer items to close and adjust the better for triathlon. That’s why triathlon-specific shoes generally have one very small strap (permanently closed) and one big strap, which is easy to close whilst on the bike.

If you buy tri-specific shoes, you can still use these for your normal road riding. Yes, they lack some of the finer adjustability of good road shoes but, in reality, the difference in performance is negligible for most riders. You’ll also find that tri-specific shoes are lightweight and have plenty of venting to allow your feet to dry fast.

Buying Shoes

Now that you know what you want to buy, it’s time to go shopping. We’d always recommend going to a good bike shop to try shoes - how else do you know if they fit? When you try shoes, wear cycling socks rather than thicker civilian socks. Try a few pairs of shoes to get an idea of how they feel. Remember that cycling shoes are for cycling, not for walking. So, there’s no need to walk around the shop in your shoes or start practising lunges or any other strange moves. A good fit is one that:

  • Does not pinch your feet - pinch points will become agony as your feet swell during a ride.

  • Where your toes have a little room to move but are not left searching for the end of the shoes - shoes that are too big make you scrunch your toes whilst riding and this causes your calf muscles to work flat out trying to stabilise your feet.

If nothing feels right, go try another bike shop until you do find a good fit because a bad fit will always be exactly that. Remember, just like regular shoes, sizes between manufactures vary, so there’s certainly going to be a brand that fits your wide, narrow, or perfectly formed feet.


So, to tie everything together:

  • Flat pedals - stiff soles with elastic laces.

  • MTB pedals - two bolt pattern shoe preferably road or tri-specific with a rigid sole.

  • Road pedal - three bolt pattern shoe with carbon soles being best. Buy tri-specific, if triathlons are your focus, to speed up transitions.

  • Buying - no pinch points, no flapping toes, and support local bike shops.

I hope you enjoyed this week’s post. If you’re new to triathlon, make sure you check out the other posts in our Starting Triathlon series. And, whilst you’re here, why not take a look at some of our musings, posts on cycling in Spain, and women’s specific posts.

Until next time, happy cycling.

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Photo Credit: Beau Runsten