Written by Stefanie Peterson
Triathlon is notorious for the breadth of equipment needed to compete in the many distances and environments across the globe. If the physical feat alone doesn’t provoke one’s judgment into question, the amount of gear required may cause the most eager athlete to second guess their chosen hobby. With each piece of equipment comes a plethora of brands and models to choose from, each brand claiming to be even lighter and more aerodynamic than their competitors. It’s enough to make one’s head spin attempting to research and compare which products are not to be overlooked, and what features are most desirable for today’s triathlete.
The Birth of the Triathlon Shoe:
While it’s unclear which company debuted the first triathlon-specific bike shoe, SiDi was the first shoe to introduce Velcro to their cycling shoes in 1983. Modern cycling shoes found their beginning in 1984, when the French company LOOK transformed the cycling world with their clipless pedals instead of the usual toe clips. Carnac Cycling Shoes was a French company whose claim to fame was patenting the UCS Interchangeable Insert system in 1989, as well as variable sole stiffness using swappable bridges. Although very little can be found about the company now, some say that the Carnac TRS series were the first cycling shoes built and marketed specifically for triathletes.
Many of these advancements in footwear technology were not invented specifically for triathlon; however, in conjunction with the rapid growth of triathlon in the late 80’s and the International Triathlon Union’s start in 1989, these features were adopted by triathletes as necessities in cycling shoes, later giving birth to a new category.
What Makes a Good Triathlon Shoe?
Triathlon specific cycling shoes were adapted from the road shoe, with key features that make them better suited for triathletes getting in and out of transitions as fast as possible. The features that differentiate a triathlon shoe from road shoe are:
- · Ventilation and Drainage: Triathlon shoes are designed to allow athletes to ride without socks and have improved ventilation and drainage through vents in the toe of the shoe and holes found in the sole. These features deliver quick-drying breathability and aids in water dispersal from the swim to easily exit through these vents. Additionally, tri shoes tend to have more padding inside the shoe and fewer seams as many triathletes skip socks when competing to further save time in transition. Lightweight mesh and perforated material used in the shoe upper also helps to improve ventilation.
- Pull Tab: Typically, cycling shoes do not use pull tabs. In triathlon shoes, the pull tab is oversized to help triathletes hook their finger to pull the shoe on more easily while sitting on the bike.
- Rubber Band Loop: It is becoming more common to see rubber band loops on a tri shoes to help keep the shoes upright when clipped into the pedals in T1 to make the flying mount execution a successful one. The rubber band loop may be a second loop on the pull tab for some models, or an additional loop on the side of the shoe.·
- Wide Foot Opening: A wide foot opening is a must for triathletes to promote ease for barefoot mounting at transition, reducing transition time.
- Straps and Retention System: Most triathlon shoes have one or two straps, compared to the typical three-strap system seen in many road shoes. The straps are most often Velcro, providing fast fastening and, more commonly, offer straps that can be trimmed without fraying, as to not have excess material rubbing on the crank arm and interfering with the pedal stroke. A few shoes have wire retention in conjunction with the Velcro, as seen in many cycling shoes to provide a more secure fit, resulting in more efficient power transfer. These shoes are designed with the long course triathlete in mind.
Choosing the Right Triathlon Shoe:
A good tri shoe must effectively blend features to enhance fast entry and exit, power transfer, and foot security, while providing elements to improve comfort. With all the brands and models to choose from, each additional feature will determine what price bracket the shoe falls into, so let’s examine what these features are and the benefits they deliver to the athlete. Things to consider when picking the perfect tri shoe:
A stiff sole is more efficient in transferring power, but may cause foot discomfort. A more flexible sole may compromise some efficiency for comfort, as energy from the pedal stroke is absorbed in the softer sole. The sole material used contributes to overall shoe weight and rigidity of its sole. Soles may be crafted from the following materials:
- Nylon soles being the cheapest and heaviest, but durable; typically a good entry-level tri shoe.
- Composite soles are mid-level shoes, offering more stiffness and durability with less weight than its nylon counterparts as it is typically blended with carbon among other materials.
- Carbon soles provide the lightest and stiffest of all tri shoes, but also come with the heftiest price tag.
Shoe manufacturers are doing their best to provide the most custom fit possible to triathletes. A proper bike fit will take shoes into consideration, as different shoes may affect saddle height, among other factors.
Adjustability: From arch supports to strap lengths, different shoes offer the ability to get the shoe customized to fit your unique foot. Some brands come with a variety of arch support heights, so whether you have flat or high arches, your shoes will fit like a glove. Heat molding for the insole can be found in high-end shoes, often using a microwave to heat the insole for a custom fit. Straps, as mentioned before, are seeing more and more models that offer trimmable straps to dial in the exact length without having the ends fray.
Proper Fit: Don’t look for triathlon shoes to fit like your running kicks. Tri shoes are meant to be snug with just enough room in the toe box to move your toes. Feet should not slip forward and backwards in the shoe; instead your foot should be cradled with enough room to wiggle your toes, keeping blood circulation moving. The heel cup should cradle the heel of your foot snuggly; the heel should not lift up and down while pedaling, causing blisters or hot spots- not good before starting the run leg of your triathlon.
Upper: Since many triathletes don their tri shoes sockless, the inside of the shoe is typically more padded and seamless to increase comfort and reduce the likelihood of blisters. The better the shoe, the more breathable, lighter, and suppler the upper material will be, adding to a more comfortable shoe fit.
Strap Closure Direction: Most triathletes leave their shoes mounted to the pedals with straps undone for quick entry in T1. Triathletes have learned the hard way, straps that open inwards, towards the drivetrain, may be likely casualties of getting caught in the cassette. However, more triathlon shoes are mixing it up in which direction the strap closes. There is no right way a tri shoe strap should close; it comes down to preference and what is easiest to don.
Replaceable Heel Pads: Overtime, the foot you favor when unclipping at stops will see rapid wear and tear on the sole, as compared to your less dominant leg. Having replaceable heel pads is nice to extend the shelf life of your tri shoes.
Cleat Compatibility: Some shoes are only compatible with particular cleats. For some, this is fine in the road and tri cycling world, but for others that like to commute or use their shoes between a mountain bike and road bike, they will want compatibility with mountain bike cleats, often referred to as SPD, which really stands for Shimano Pedaling Dynamics. SPD, better referred to as mountain bike pedals, has become the “Kleenex of tissues,” and requires the narrower two-bolt system to fasten the cleat to the shoe. The three-bolt cleat system is used in road and tri shoes, such as SPD-SL, LOOK, and Time and are much more difficult for walking, but these are meant for cycling after all. Speedplay cleat systems employ the four-bolt system. With all road cleats, they protrude from the sole and are a larger cleat that offers greater force to spread over a wider area of the pedal, reducing stress on contact points throughout high pedal volume.
With the immense range of features a triathlon shoe may boast, such as rubber band loops, replaceable heel pads, the list goes on, the best shoes for your feet are the ones your feet like the best. Each foot is unique, and regardless of all the bells and whistles a tri shoe may contain, personal preference and comfort will trump any and all features…every single time.
About the Author: Stefanie Peterson is a former NCAA volleyball and 400meter athlete, who has transitioned to the world of endurance sports. She’s raced a variety of venues and distances, from Seward, Alaska’s infamous Mt. Marathon and the TransRockies Run, to the National 24 Hour Challenge and Ironman Wisconsin. Stefanie’s favorite place is on the trails, trail running and mountain biking. She served as a journalist for a magazine abroad and writes for a variety of publications.