According to the Institute of Preventative Foot Health, there are over 18 million Americans with flat feet and another 8 million with fallen arches. So first, know you are not alone in this! It’s very common to have flat feet and they should not prohibit you from running. That said, there are some preventative measures that I suggest you follow to make sure you stay healthy.
I spent three years in my 20s working at a running shoe store in Bend, Oregon called Fleet Feet. Almost every single person I sold shoes to would first go through our extensive fit process. This involved sizing and measurements, walking barefoot, and running on a treadmill for a gait analysis. I saw it all!
Flat feet and fallen arches were immediately apparent, although I’d typically have to rely on the customer to tell me which they had. They were always very easy to spot; the customer would take off their shoes and socks, stand up, and the entire length of the inside of their feet would lay perfectly flat with no separation between the wood floors and their arch.
Typically, a person with flat feet overpronates, which essentially means their foot and ankle rolls inward upon foot strike. This can be detrimental to the whole physiological chain. If the ankle rolls in, the knee comes with it, the femur twists and the alignment of the hip is also affected. So our goal for each and every one of our customers was to eliminate the overpronation as best we could.
We’d utilize supportive inserts (Superfeet) and pair those with a shoe that was built up with support under the arch to eliminate or at least lessen the inward roll of the foot and ankle.
While a stable shoe and a stiffly arched insert is typically a winning combination, it’s still very important for us to be knowledgeable and understand the WHY behind the remedy so that we can adjust and tweak our strategies as we go. Let’s get into it!
What’s the Difference Between Flat Feet and Fallen Arches?
First off, everyone starts out with flat feet as babies and toddlers. As children grow, most develop arches of varying heights based on how taut the posterior tibial tendon is that runs along the ankle and attaches under the foot, mid-arch. Some children never develop any tautness in the tendon so their foot is allowed to elongate and lie flat.
These children go on to be flat footed adults. They didn’t do anything wrong; it’s similar to how some people are just naturally flexible and some aren’t. Flat feet are purely genetic.
Fallen arches, on the other hand, typically occur due to overuse and damage to the tendons in your feet over a lifetime of walking, running, and other activities. Fallen arches are common in people who struggle with their weight because every extra pound places a little bit more strain on the tendons in your feet, which can add up over a long period of time!
Overloading the tendon can cause inflammation, stretching, and even tearing. And because of the nature of tendons generally, once the arches fall, they’re hard pressed to go back to normal.
Both of these conditions are treated similarly although we want to be a little more careful with people who have fallen arches because their feet will naturally be a bit more sensitive given their history of wear and tear, strained tendons, and potential existing inflammation.
Running Shoes with Built-In Support
Your running shoes are your first line of defense against overpronation from flat feet and the potential injuries that could result. When you think about it, running is an extremely repetitive movement, especially if you run a lot on flat surfaces and roads. Your running shoe can support the alignment of your entire body so it’s important to get the appropriate amount of support under your arch.
Most running shoe brands such as Brooks, Nike, Asics, Saucony, and Hoka, have shoes with varying levels of support: light, moderate, and heavy options. The difference between these support levels is essentially a matter of how dense the foams are under your arch.
The heavily supported shoe (motion control) has a very firm wedge of foam under the arch so that when you run, you can’t compress it with your weight and roll inwards.
When I worked at the running shoe store, the Brooks Beast was always our go-to shoe for those that needed the most support. I warned the customers that it might feel a little like having a brick strapped to their foot, that they wouldn’t feel that nice roll of the shoe on their foot as they connected with the ground, but usually their responses were the same… they’d do anything to be able to run again.
A supportive running shoe alone might be enough to allow you to run healthily with flat feet or fallen arches. However, make sure to have your gait analyzed at your running shoe store while wearing the shoes to verify that they are preventing too much overpronation. If the shoes alone aren’t enough, I’ll now cover running shoe inserts (insoles), the next level of defense.
Shoe Inserts to Support Flat Feet or Fallen Arches
Supportive inserts that you place inside your running shoes can be an extremely useful tool for flat feet runners. What they essentially do is artificially create an arch for you.
By lifting and supporting your arches, your feet will not roll inward into an unhealthy over-pronated position. Instead, as you land on your heel and roll through your foot, the support under your arch will keep you in a neutral position, which economically speaking, is the most efficient and healthy position for a runner’s foot.
An insert also can provide much needed relief in the comfort department; the technology for these inserts are largely the same so the goal will be to find the one that fits your particular foot; choose the one that feels the best. Only you can make that determination.
I mentioned Superfeet but there are lots of brands out there to explore. I recommend going into your local running shop and trying on all their offerings. If nothing feels right, don’t be afraid to order some other brands online to test (check their return policy before ordering).
Remember to take the existing cushion insert out of your shoe and replace it with the supportive insole. There are some inserts you can even mould to your feet, using heat, similar to how you mould a football player’s mouth guard to get a nice secure fit.
Lastly, you might even consider a consultation with a professional podiatrist who could make custom orthotics for your feet using all the latest science and techniques. I’d recommend finding one, however, that is either a runner themselves or one that makes a lot of orthotics for runners. Check with your insurance provider to see if they’ll cover them.
Are Runners with Flat Feet Slower?
While the research is limited, there are some indications that runners with flat feet are in fact slower than runners with normal arches. From a layman’s perspective, it does make sense when you view the foot as a sort of propulsive spring. With an intact arch, your foot builds tension as the foot elongates upon foot strike and springs you forward with each push-off.
With a flat foot, there is no tension to work with, so instead, you are relying solely on your musculature.
Associate professor, Jayant Sharma, completed a study (innovativepublication.com) looking at the effects of flat feet on running ability and found that the performance of a a flat footed runner is hampered in short explosive exercises such as sprinting, but also long distance running.
That said, don’t let this crush your dreams if your goal is to someday run fast; some of the world’s fastest runners in history had flat feet. Alan Webb, the American record holder in the mile, and Haile Gebrselassie, a world-record holder and four-time Berlin Marathon champion both had feet as flat as pancakes and were severe overpronators.
Interestingly, they both used barefoot running as a way to strengthen their feet and avoid injuries. While barefoot running has become a bit out of vogue as the post Born to Run mania has started to subside, there are still some dedicated believers that a bit of barefoot jogging on soft surfaces can do wonders for the longevity and health of a runner.
Is it Bad to Run with Flat Feet?
Absolutely not. Running is not something to avoid just because you have flat feet. What you need to be careful with, however, is running when your feet are in pain. This may sound obvious but pain means something’s wrong; a strain, pull, or tear in the tendons or muscles in your feel. Running through that pain will only make things worse. Shocker, right?
It’s of utmost importance that you listen to your body. Sometimes this is very hard to do. Say, for example, you are running with a friend and you feel a pain in your foot, stop and walk immediately! If walking on it continues to hurt, try to stop altogether if you can. Don’t be afraid to warn your running partners that this might happen.
You don’t want to be feeling social pressure to continue running. If they’re any kind of friend, they’ll understand. The same goes with races. If pain arises during a race and it means dropping out of the race to save your arches, that’s okay too! We are most interested in preserving your long-term health so that you can live to fight another day.
There will always be another run with friends or race; you only have one set of arches.
Strengthening and Rebuilding your Arches
It is possible, especially for those of you out there with fallen arches, to rebuild your arches. I recommend you spend just a few minutes per day doing the following exercises to start this process. Note that these exercises are useful for any and all runners, with or without flat feet, as foot strength will help prevent other major running injuries such as plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.
These can be done at any time but I recommend doing them right after your run or other exercise so that you’re already warmed up.
1. Arch Raises
Stand squarely with your feet shoulder-width and directly under your hips. Keep your toes and heel touching the floor while rolling your arch outward, higher. This is called supination, the opposite of pronation. Hold your foot at the most arched position for one breath and then drop back down to level. Do 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
2. Calf Raises/Drops
Stand on the ledge of a sidewalk or other elevated surface with your arch and heel hanging off the edge. Drop your heel as low as possible then slowly rise up on to your tippy toes. Each rep should take 3-5 seconds. Make sure to breathe through it.
Then, alternatively, stand up on your tippy toes and slowly drop your heel until you reach your lowest point. Again, 3-5 seconds per rep. Do 4 sets of 10-15 reps, alternating raises and drops with each set.
3. Towel Curls
If you’re only going to do one of the exercises, do this one. Sit in a chair with a thin towel under your feet. Keep your heels stationary. Use your toes to reach, grab, and pull the towel towards you so that it begins to bunch under your foot. Try to initiate use of the arch in addition to your toes. Once you can’t grab any more fabric under your foot, reset the towel and repeat. Do this continuously for 2-3 minutes.
Key Take-Aways for Runners with Flat Feet or Fallen Arches
In the world of running, it’s probably true that flat feet are not ideal because they often cause severe over-pronation, which can lead to a variety of challenges. But as I’ve outlined, there are tools we can use and exercises we can do that will help set us up for success and a long career of running strong.
Similar to how cars need regular maintenance, so do our bodies. There are some people out there that seem to be able to run as much as they want, whenever they want, and they never get injured.
Excuse me while I shake my fist at them! For the rest of us, we need to do these little things like seek out special shoes and inserts, do the exercises to match our specific weaknesses and stay on top of our health so we don’t lose it.
Be patient with yourself as you figure out your winning combination of shoes, inserts, and exercises. I truly believe running is worth fighting for! There’s nothing like building fitness, staying in shape, and watching those hard-earned miles pass beneath your feet.
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Chase Parnell is a USATF Level 1 certified running coach and spent many years as an online and high school cross country and track coach. You can find his writing in Trail Runner and Ultrarunning Magazine. He lives in Bend, Oregon with his wife Nikki and three young kids. As a lifelong runner with over 50 marathons and ultramarathons under his belt, he has learned the art and science of running by experience, sometimes the hard way. He is most proud of completing Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a 100 mile trail race in the Alps, or his 2:35 marathon personal best that he is intent on lowering to sub-2:30 before Father Time crushes his dreams.
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