When was the last time you checked the state of your cleats or even fitted new cleats? What is your criteria for deciding to change your cleats or the pedals? With the forces being driven through the pedals and the constant movement from the lateral float, cleats and pedals are an area which are susceptible to significant wear depending on distances ridden, intensity and trail conditions. Keeping an eye on the wear and tear of cleats and any play between the pedal to shoe interface is important for efficient pedaling and avoiding potential knee and achilles issues.
Wear on the walking surfaces of road cleats is something to keep an eye on. Once they are worn down, it's time for replacement. Café covers are a great product to carry that can be slipped over the cleats once off the bike. Notice here too how the rider puts more weight through the right shoe when walking and also when riding, from the wear on the walking surface and the middle of the pedal.
MTB cleats are pretty hardy items, some brands more so than others, designed for a tougher life of course from hike a bike sections and riding in muddy conditions. They aren’t completely indestructible though, wearing at the contact points with the pedals, although not easily visible. Similarly with plastic road cleats, wear isn’t always visually obvious at these points, only from where the cleat has been walked on.
MTB cleats aren't impervious to wear, even the more hardy Shimano ones. They often wear around the nose of the cleat and this is where it is most obvious.
That shoe to pedal interface should be a steadfast connection, the only movement being the lateral float (and sideways slide with Time MTB pedals). Once a cleat wears, that tight connection is lost, creating slop and an uneven platform within that system. With MTB shoes, it’s not just at the cleat that wear can cause an issue. Much of the stability within the MTB system comes from contact of the shoe lugs with the pedal body, hence a wider pedal body creates a more stable platform, but adds the much revered weight. Although shoe lugs are manufactured of tough materials, they wear at the contact points and from being walked on. Worn lugs will cause a loss of contact with the pedal and cause a sideways rocking motion within the interface.
With worn shoe lugs, there is slop within the interface. Also notice the play within the pedal axle too! An easy fix with Shimano pedals. Remove the axle and tighten the bearing cones.
Another aspect to look out for with MTB set ups is wear on the pedal body at the contact points with the shoe lugs. I used to wear a groove on the inside platform of each pedal, more so on the right than the left. Once this happens, it’s time to replace the pedal as the tight connection is lost. The reason for this with my pedals was a biomechanical issue which was resolved through specific strength training exercises and not through the use of external wedges. Wedges actually made the issue worse.
Groove worn into the pedals means replacing them as this develops slop within the interface.
The above foot instability has been alleviated through a programme of strength training and adjusting how the rider sits on the bike, from a slumped position to a more stable posture through the pelvis.
Road pedals differ in that the interface stability comes directly from the cleat and with a much larger platform of course. Cleats can be damaged from being walked on, hence café covers are a great product to carry, but they’ll wear at the front and rear contact points too. Keep an eye on the pedal as grooves can wear into the body from where the cleat floats across it. Every few months, do the same check as with mtb systems, clip the shoe in (without foot in the shoe) and check for any abnormal rocking movement. If there is, replace the cleat, then check again, If the connection is once again solid, you’re good to go. If there is still play, the pedal is too worn and needs replacing.
Perfect examples of (very) worn road cleats!
Can even see here (above) where the inside edge which is in contact with the pedal is heavily worn too. and wear is asymmetrical. In this case, the pedals needed replacing too.
Asymmetrical wear is common too as non of us are symmetrical! It's 'normal' to have one foot which moves laterally across the pedal's float more than than the other or there might be uneven wear from right to left. Chasing symmetry is a whole other article, but it's an aspect to also watch out for.
Pedal axles can also develop play in them. With some, like Shimano models, the axles can be removed and the bearing cones tightened, but for others the bearing races may need to be replaced.
Why does it matter anyway? Once any slop begins to emerge with the interface, the lower limb from the pelvis down then has to work harder to find stability on every downward pedal stroke. Not only is this inefficient, using more energy, it will also place uneven load through the achilles and knee which may eventually cause discomfort or pain in the long term. Not ideal for long distance riding. We work on having a strong and stable core and this principle needs to carry over to the mechanical one, having a stable connection at the pedal to shoe interface too.
Just like keeping an eye on chain wear, regularly inspect wear at the pedal to shoe interface. Even if there is no obvious signs of wear on the pedal after a few months of regular use, it may be prudent to replace the cleats anyway, maybe every 6 months.