What are SPD shoes?

Put simply, SPD shoes are cycling shoes made specifically to be compatible with the SPD ‘clipless’ system originally developed by Shimano but now widely used by all manufacturers. We’re going to try to clear up some of the confusion you may well have about the different types of clipless pedal and shoe and the compatibility between them. But first, the basics.

What is SPD for and why would you use it?

You can find more information about the SPD system and its benefits elsewhere on this site, but in short, this system allows your SPD shoes and therefore your feet to be anchored firmly to the pedals of your bike while you are riding. This is achieved using a plate (‘cleat’) fixed to the bottom of your cycling shoe which clicks into a spring-loaded catch on the pedal and can only be unclipped with a particular motion of the foot.

Why do you need SPD shoes specifically, then? Well, the cleat is typically bought together with the pedal or separately, not with the shoe, and cannot just be attached to any shoe. The shoe has to have a particular configuration of holes/slots in the sole into which the cleat is screwed – there is also a little plate on the other side of the sole, usually covered by the insole, into which the cleat actually screws, giving a metal-on-metal connection.

If you find all this obvious then move along to some of the other articles on this site, this is not for you. But this can be confusing for anyone wanting to ‘go clipless’ and who is buying SPD shoes for the first time. I certainly found all this hard to get my head round when I first went clipless. So if this is you, read on!

There are actually TWO SPD systems, not directly compatible with one another. Wait! I know, you are sighing in exasperation, but it’s not really a big deal. Here’s the simple explanation:

  • One is the ‘regular’ SPD system and is used primarily by mountain-bikers.
  • The other is the SPD-SL system and is pretty much only used on road-bikes

Having said this, there is no actual reason why you shouldn’t put regular SPD pedals on a road bike. You will see this most commonly with mountain-bikers who want to wear the same SPD shoes when they go out on road rides and just unclip from their mountain bike and clip into their road bike. The reverse situation is much less common – SPD-SL cleats are rather large and impractical, especially for walking (pushing uphill!) in and you will rarely see mountain-bikers using the SPD-SL system.

Here’s the catch – SPD and SPD-SL require a different configuration of holes in the sole of the shoe, the former two slots, the latter three holes. Here is a look at these two types of SPD shoe:

SPD shoes – look for two slots

Image of Shimano MT41 SPD shoes

This picture shows a pair of Shimano MT41 SPD shoes (random example) and you can very clearly see the two slots inset in the sole, into which the standard SPD cleats bolt. Look for this on your shoes, or a combination of slots that include this configuration (some shoes have holes/slots compatible with several different systems – see below). If you find these two characteristic slots then you can be sure you are looking at regular SPD-compatible shoes, and you can also be sure they are no good for the SPD-SL system. Also, if they have JUST the two slots then you are probably looking at shoes primarily intended for mountain biking. However, some shoes (usually road shoes) may have BOTH the two slots for SPD AND the three holes for SPD-SL – more about that in a minute.

So in summary, and at the risk of oversimplifying: mountain-biking = two slots = SPD!

SPD-SL shoes – look for 3 holes

If you have decided on the SPD-SL system, which will almost certainly mean you are primarily a road biker, then you will need to look out for shoes with three holes in a triangular arrangement – here is a picture of that, these are Shimano SH R098a road shoes, and you will see them specifically advertised as SPD-SL shoes.

Shimano SH-R098A SPD-SL cycling shoes


See the three-hole arrangement? It is actually compatible with several other clipless systems too, not just SPD-SL, such as the Look system, but we won’t go into that here. So, again, to put it very simply: road-biking = 3 holes = SPD-SL.

Now, here’s a point to note. A great many SPD shoes primarily intended for road cycling will in fact have BOTH sets of holes and can take both SPD-SL AND SPD cleats. This is what that looks like:

Pearl Izumi Men's Select Road Cycling shoes

Hope you can see that – both the 3 holes and the two slots are incorporated into the sole of this and many other SPD shoes, so you can buy this type of SPD shoe whether you want to ride SPD or SPD-SL – or even both! In practice, though, most riders won’t swap cleats that often. It’s actually easier to swap pedals, or just swap bikes if you have that luxury!



So, if you are planning to start cycling with clipless pedals then you will normally FIRST decide which clipping mechanism you want to go for, and that will determine the type of pedals you will buy. Effectively, then, the shoes are the last thing you will choose, probably, based on whether you went with SPD or SPD-SL (or of course some other clipless system – we won’t cover those for the time being).

Assuming you have decided on the SPD or SPD-SL system, and you are now looking for the right shoes, you need to look out for models that are described as SPD or SPD-SL compatible. Unfortunately, for some reason, many SPD shoes are not clearly labelled as such. Maybe it is because the shoes are also compatible with other systems but still, I wish they would state this more clearly in many cases. So when hunting around the listings you have to look a little more closely to check for the compatibility, and in particular check the number of holes/slots and you cannot go far wrong.

My aim with this article has been to clear up the confusion often experienced by cyclists going clipless and choosing shoes for the first time – I hope I have succeeded! Let me know in the comments below if there is anything I should add or clarify!

Learn more about different models of SPD shoes:

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20 thoughts on “What are SPD shoes?”

    1. Great Phil, glad it was useful -- I tried to write the explanation that I wish I’d had when I was deciding on “going SPD”! Just keep ’em loose to begin with 🙂

  1. Hi good info. Silly Q but need to be asked: do all SPD shoes fit all mountain bike pedals on bikes bought in Australia? Specifically Giant and Cannondale?

    1. Rob, not really a silly question. The simple answer is yes, if the bike is fitted with SPD pedals, which is fairly likely. The only other real possibility is that it won’t have any special pedals at all, depends on the makers specs. But yes, no reason for an Aussie bike to be any different. Just don’t get shoes with only the three holes and not the two slots, that WOULD be a mistake.

  2. So I have started spinning and want to get a pair of shoes that will work for this and my road bike. Which will work the SPD and / or SPD-SL

    1. Hey, too bad, I didn’t spot your question for some reason, so you’ll probably never see the reply, but maybe someone else will.

      I have never actually done spinning, but to the best of my knowledge, spinning bikes almost always have SPD pedals, not SPD-SL on them. So SPD-only, definitely. However, you should check with the specific gym you are going to what kind of pedals the spinning bikes have on them. Or just have a look yourself if possible -- if you’re not familiar with the difference check out the new article on SPD pedals. Hope that helps you or someone else!

  3. Im thinking of buying some SPD-SL shoes for my mountain bike because i have found a great deal on some which are much cheaper than just SPD. Would I be able to use these shoes for walking/running/sport as well? (They look similar to the first photo of SPD-SL on this site so how good would they be in your opinion?)
    Great guide btw 🙂

    1. Sorry, another question I missed, probably too late now, but, hm, I find SPD-SL a bit odd for mountain biking because you can’t walk in them really at all, never mind push, etc. and they are just generally a bit cumbersome. As for using them for running etc, no, that’s not likely a good idea -- they are not designed to protect your feet for running or anything, plus you would have to take the cleats off as they are impossible to walk in for everyday purposes. Did I understand your question right?

  4. Hi,
    thank you so much for this information.
    I am a new road cyclist and have found getting the cleats, shoes and pedals very hard to get my head around!
    I have been looking for some pedals and cleats for my new cycling shoes which I bought today and I have confused as to why it had so many holes on the bottom! This article helped me very easily to understand that it was because it was both SPD-SL AND SPD. Thanks so much! 🙂

      1. Hi, went searching for the exact article you wrote 🙂 thanks. I do however have one question I can’t find an answer to.
        I have the SH R098a shoes and the SH pedals that match…I love them and have bee riding on them for about 3 years now, I wonder if I can adjust the intensity in which they clip in? I can get my right foot out fine however the left one is so tight I struggle to get my foot out and have taken some spills. Thanks for any advice 🙂

        1. Hi Sheila, glad the article helped.

          Yes, that tension adjustment you are talking about it easy to do -- it’s done on the pedal itself, there is a screw (that takes an allen/hex key) with which you tighten or loosen the spring until it suits you. Rather than try to explain, there is a video someone did here:

          I think that pretty much explains it -- look for the demonstration on the road pedals, they show you for MTB pedals too.

          If it is so tight you can’t really comfortably extract yourself then it’s definitely too tight -- everyone has their own preference, I used to have them FAIRLY tight until I had my bad fall, but when I get back in them I think I am going to have a very loose setting.

          Hope you manage to get it adjusted, happy riding!

  5. Thank you for that clear and helpful explanation! I have just got a bike with SPD pedals and want to buy the correct shoes etc and your explanation gives me confidence before I go out to buy what I need.

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