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One of my favorite touring routs is on a rural route. It is 15 km* long, I take about an hour to complete it since a part of the first half is sandy and I need to dismount to traverse it.

At the 10 km mark there is a steady descent which is mostly between gravel and crushed stone. I don't pedal and slightly press the brakes so that I keep a safe speed between 20~30 km/h. It takes 3 min until the terrain is level again.

The thing is: After the 1st minute I start to feel some discomfort in my left foot, which is the one corresponding to the lowest pedal — for some reason I have better balance if my left foot is in the down position when coasting, and even though I want to exchange the position, I don't want to relinquish balance. After the 2nd minute the discomfort gradually becomes a light pain, and when the descent is over I am glad I can pedal again, which causes the light pain to quickly go away.

Is that discomfort and pain I experience on the down foot something expected or known between cyclists?

As far as I know I am healthy and otherwise experience no trouble when cycling, though I am no "serious" rider either, rather lazy on maintenance (e.g. no clipping pedals or special clothes, never wash my bicycle, no odometer or any GPS whatsoever, ...). I wonder if it is because of the constantly shaking on the gravel descent and the left feet having to absorb it or something else.

Further info: My saddle height is appropriately set, namely knee is only slightly flexed when my feet is in the down position. The air temperature is totally comfortable (25 °C). Shoes are definitely not tight. If I can give any more useful information, I'll be glad to edit the question.

*Time, distance and speed are all to my best estimate, they are not totally accurate.

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    After seeing some pictures I am not sure I can call that descent "gravel" anymore, the stones are larger and quite fixed to the ground, so there is some bumping. I think it is something between cobblestone and gravel. Well, this point of detail may be completely irrelevant but still. – LoremIpsum Apr 19 at 21:52
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    Are you simply putting most of your bodyweight on one foot for an extended time? Standing on one foot for three minutes would hurt a lot... Training yourself to rest with horizontal cranks instead of vertical is an important rough terrain skill regardless, even if it means slowing down a few times to get comfortable with your balance. – Affe Apr 19 at 22:37
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    Try horizontal cranks. Alternate which foot is forward. Try to stay relaxed and absorb bumps with your muscles. Squeeze the saddle nose with your thighs to stay in control. – Michael Apr 20 at 8:50
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    @Criggie I have poorer balance with right foot down, but I will try that next time, even if I have to go a bit slower. Thanks for answering too, by the way, it's very instructive to hear from experienced cyclists. – LoremIpsum Apr 20 at 11:40
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    If your foot is properly positioned on the pedal, you're not just standing on one foot, but on the ball of that foot. Standing on the edge of a step for a few minutes would also get pretty uncomfortable. The good thing is that if this is the cause, even a few short breaks on the other foot would relieve it. – Chris H Apr 20 at 12:58
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It's generally a good idea to change position regularly (at least slightly) during any ride. If you get used to just one position, your body learns to keep that position no matter what, and it'll do that by stiffening up if the bumpy descent tries to shake you out of it. But stiffening is the worst thing you can do in such a situation: it'll cause the stresses to concentrate right into the most exposed joints and muscle sections, instead of being able to harmlessly distribute it over the whole legs. What's more, having the left foot always down is a recipe for pedal strikes in left turns. A pedal strike at high speed can lead to a very nasty crash. So definitely get rid of the left foot down habit.

One easy way to train flexibility is to slowly back-pedal (on the straights; in corners, always keep both pedals level or outer foot down). But I wouldn't focus only on the pedals – the whole body position influences the forces on hands and feet.

It helps a lot for body flexibility to have the saddle in a really low position on descents. A dropper post is super useful for this reason (now standard on most mountain bikes). With a low saddle, you can stand up without needing to stretch too high, move your body weight far over the rear wheel when it gets steep, balance the bike side to side underneath you etc.. And when sitting down, neither leg will be stretched at all, so the knees have plenty of freedom to move.

Of course, MTB suspension also does a lot to make rough descents more comfortable, but it really isn't needed for gravel. It does make sense to use relatively wide tyres and low pressure though, and some bikes a more compliant than others. Steel or carbon fibre tend to be better than aluminium in this regard.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, in my experience it also helps to clip in, because then the legs can relax even more without risking to slip off the pedals. So clipless pedals & shoes (I recommend Shimano SPD) are perhaps a good investment, if not a dropper post and/or suspension fork.

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  • Keep turning the pedals even on a descent to avoid stiffness, I would not recommend back-pedalling though, because it is out of the natural flow and hindering the switch to regular pedalling if needed. No need to push hard, of course. – Carel Apr 20 at 10:45
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    "to have the saddle in a really position on descents" you probably have a typo there and mean low position – LoremIpsum Apr 20 at 11:45
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Leftaroundabout nails it - in addition this sounds like a time when technicque needs to be updated.

You might try ghost pedalling, where you turn the cranks over but not fast enough to push the bike.

Another idea might be to descend like a racer, where your weight is spread between two feet and some weight on the hands, and almost no weight is on your sit bones. Instead you have the insides of your thighs pressing on the sides of the saddle nose, so you can push the bike around under you. Your knees and elbows should be slightly bent and actuate to absorb minor variations in the ground without your torso's path changing. IE your limbs are your suspension.

Counterintuitively, your descent might be easier if you vary the speed a bit. Go a bit faster and you may smooth the cobbles, at the risk of loosing traction. If nothing else, the descent will take less time.

Also try looking at your braking technique. Brake harder for shorter duration, and then release. You can limit your speed by sitting up and letting your torso front catch more air, and square your shoulders to be wider.

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Inserting standard disclaimer about accepting medical advice from the Internet; this is based largely on what I learned from my physiotherapist when rehabbing after an accident.

Replying strictly to your question about pain in the foot that is held in the down position, it seems reasonable to hypothesize that you're not making a conscious effort to rest your weight on your toes. If you were doing that you'd almost definitely feel fatigue in your calf muscles before pain in the bottom of your feet.

You can check this with a simple experiment: try standing in bare feet and lifting your heels a centimetre off the floor and holding it. After a minute or two if you don't start to feel the same discomfort then it's very likely caused by your foot position. (Of course there's a good chance you'll start to feel fatigue in your calves. :) You can double-check by standing with your toes on the edge of a stair, and lowering your heels to level with, or slightly below, your toes. If you do start to feel that discomfort in this position, it's definitely your foot position.

As to solving the problem, Criggie's answer is best; ghost pedalling will keep all your muscles engaged and rotating through the full motion will keep you from hanging your weight from your toes. But I understand that to help with control you may want to be in a stable position, feet braced, in uncertain terrain. In that case standing on horizontal pedals and concentrating on keeping your weight on your toes is better than standing on one pedal. (Switch which pedal is forward every time you turn or brake, in order to keep from getting fatigued.)

The other problem with keeping one foot down is that you're putting much more than 50% of your weight on that side, which will exacerbate the stress on that foot.

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Sometimes I inadvertently try to "grab" the pedal with my foot. This usually happens when riding with flat pedals and when I am insecure. For example, spinning high cadence, slippy pedals, wearing flip flops, and scary descents. This grabbing leads to fatigue, muscle pain and cramps.

Maybe something similar is the source of your pain. Since you already have a reliable pedal-foot interface what you can improve is being secure in your bike. That you have one pedal low very much hints at this.

Follow Criggies advise and learn to balance on both your pedals at level cranks. That is the most stable position to take bumps and approach difficult terrain. You can easily practice the stance on safe level ground going slow.

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Ligaments hold all your organs in place, you may find that the nerve ending is on the receiving end of those ligaments. A basic way to look at it, the boys in ww2 on the landing craft would get terrible stitches and vomit not from sea sickness but from there organs being held in place while there bodies and knees would be bounced around in the rough sea. You may be having mechanical stress and feeling pain from that. Just a no medical persons look at transfer of force.

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  • Even if your biomechanics are correct, and I'm pretty sure they're not, this doesn't appear to answer the question. This appears to suggest that if OP is bouncing down a trail their internal organs would hurt them, not their feet. – DavidW Apr 20 at 16:39
  • Ever had a stich? That's not your organs hurting is it. – Hammerdrop99 Apr 22 at 10:22

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