Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Bike Talk: How Can I Prevent Finger/Toe Numbness on Long Distance Rides?

Jim (@DCin24 on Twitter) asks:

How can I prevent finger/toe numbness on long rides?

Before I answer Jim's question, a disclaimer. I'm not a doctor and I haven't seen Jim on a bike. There is only so much that some random guy on the internet can do to help you out with bike comfort and fit issues. That said, I do have some experience in doing rides that people tell me count as "long rides" and I'm fit-certified by Trek. I hope Jim and any of you others reading this at least find what I write here worth the time you're going to spend reading it. As always, feel free to add any insight you might have as a comment to this blog.

Having a bike that's the right size matters and any good bike shop should be able to get you on a bike that is the right size. Fit, however, deals with all the aspects of how you as a person interface with the bicycle and getting a good fit requires a lot of attention to human factors such a skeletal dimensions, musculature, flexibility, injury history and so forth. A full, professional fit with a good bike fitter may seem expensive, but many people find it to be time and money well spent. So my first advice is find a good, local fit person. Ask around, a person good at fitting will have a good reputation and happy clients.

But not everybody has a good local fit person and there are some good resources on the internet.  Peter White wrote a pretty good, no BS article on bike fit here:


The reason I'm talking so much about fit instead of diving right into Jim's specific question is that the problems he's asking about concern two of the three contact points on a bike, the hands and the feet. You contact the bike in three spots, your butt, your feet and your hands. You can think of those spots as vertices of a triangle. Often the pain or numbness that manifests on one vertex of the triangle is best addressed by adjusting the dimensions or orientation of the triangle. For example, a change in saddle fore/aft position can have quite an effect on how much pressure is on your hands. Raising or lowering your handlebars or changing your stem length can also have profound effects. When I did the final dial in of my Redline Flight for the Tour Divide, I changed both the stem length and the saddle position.

Now experience has taught me to be cautious of absolutes so I am wary of formulas or mechanisms that say this is the "best" spot for your feet to be on the pedals, and this is the "ideal" saddle height and here is the "exact" reach you should have to your handle bars. Do you want to make sure you're uncomfortable? Lock yourself into one position. Want to be more comfortable? Be willing and able to change things if you need to.

A couple of stories to illustrate my point. Michael Sylvester, one of the fellows who trained me in fitting, tells of a honeymoon tandem tour he took with his wife. She wound up having foot pain (or maybe it was knee pain) with her clipless pedals. Michael's fix? Flat pedals. Was his wife's foot in the "optimal" position for pedaling? Probably not. Was her pain problem solved? Yes it was.

Or take the famous stories of Eddy Merckx fiddling with his saddle height mid-race. A lot of folks take this as a "he's so in tune with his machine, he can tell when the mechanic got a dimension wrong" but I think that's the wrong take away. On any given day, Merckx was willing to tweak his position. Merckx was in tune with his body and what it needed.

I'm a big fan of Ergon grips, flat pedals and saddles and clothing with smooth seams. All these items allow me as a rider to avoid continual pressure on a single point of contact. I can slide around on my saddle, my grips have broad, flat surfaces with a several good places to grip. My feet are not locked into a single spot on the pedal and my knees and feet like it that way. Your mileage may vary. Many, many people ride many, many happy miles with their feet clipped into pedals. I'm just not one of those people these days.

I hope some of this helps.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


JAT said...

My toes used to get numb on long rides - switching to clipless pedals cured me - yes I was a Sean Kelly wannabe toe clip hold out...

Merckx's back problems and continuous saddle height adjustment were the result of a crash on the track. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddy_Merckx#Track_crash

In tune with his body exactly.

Bryan Willman said...

Even within the topic of "clipless pedals" there is a wide variation of allowed motion. So between "locked stiff" clipped pedals and "anything goes" flat tops, there are clipless pedals that allow quite a lot of leg rotation. This has changed over time, so it's worth investigating the current state of the market.
(I happen to use time atac pedals partly for this exact reason - but that's a choice I made years ago which has worked for me. A person who is having problems should survey the market now.)

Joseph said...

When I first started biking, I'd get numb toes quite a bit myself. I eventually realized that I was making the zelcro straps too tight on my shoes.

Since I was a runner before I was a biker, I figured that the bike shoes should fit the same way as the running shoes. So I would tighten them way too much to minimize movement in the toebox. Now, I barely secure the lowest zelcro strap before heading out. No numbness since.

Jason T. Nunemaker said...

Sage advice as always, Kent. I'll tag in on that "numb toes" question, though. Does Jim have wide feet? As someone who's shoe size looks like a closed-captioned scream (lotsa Es), I know that my toe numbness and hotfoot was all but cured when I finally found a pair of wide cycling shoes. I still have to take the previous commenter's advice and back off the straps on longer rides as my feet begin to swell.

Again, not a doctor, don't play one on TV, didn't stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night, and medical advice from the Internet is worth exactly what you pay for it, but maybe this will help.

Jason "Paddle Foot" Nunemaker
Des Moines, IA

Anonymous said...

You don't have to be a world-renowned and Nobel Prize-winning reflexologist (though I am all of that, pretty much) to know that toes reflect the condition of the brain, that is to say reveal maladies of the mind, that is to say offer windows into the soul. You just need to look at a reflexology foot chart.

Something is wounded in this rider's psyche. I am particularly worried about Jim's lack of specificity as to which toes are causing the problem, and his "finger/toe" confusion. That may mean Jim needs a consult with both a reflexologist and a palm reader who specializes in finger play (never easy to find, and never cheap). Jim may want to invest in finger puppets for his longer rides, which will allow his fingers to "voice" their pain. Or, he might teach them ASL. What are they trying to tell us?

As for his toes, my suggestion for Jim would be to start a course of medicinal numbing agents. Alcohol may work, taken in sufficient quantity, but there are many options. This therapy may help internalize JIm's numbness and spare his toes (and fingers) by easing the anxieties triggered by his bicycle-riding.

I'd also recommend clipless sandals. Very comfy.

bikelovejones said...

Good stuff! Sweetie recently enjoyed the benefits of a good bike fit session. She still has a little hand numbness that needs tweaking, but her leg and back problems are gone, gone, gone. What helped?
--flat pedals (which she already uses)
--straight atb-type bar
--raised stem
--ergon grips
--swapping in a Brooks saddle to replace the too-cushy affair she'd been riding.
The result? We enjoy lots more farmers' market rides together nowadays. And really that is what it's all about, enjoying rides together.
Cheers --Beth

Anonymous said...

Numb/inflexible toes can be an early symptom of diabetes or gout. Not necessarily for you, of course.

As for fingers, I simply installed bar extensions flipped inward on my straight bar bike.

Prince Oddette said...

Numb or pained toes may also be an indicator that Jim is bicycling en pointe, in ballet slippers.

If so, a more flat-footed, Martha Graham-inflected pedaling stance may help.

And for those numb fingers: Jazz hands everyone!