The term “arch support” is bandied back and forth quite a bit in running circles. Understanding the idea is critical to finding the right pair of shoes for your feet. Different types of feet – neutral, high-arch, or low-arch/flat feet all have different support needs. And how your shoes meet the needs of your feet can make all the difference in your running comfort and injury avoidance.
We’ll discuss what arch support means for runners, covering different types of arches, discussing what types of people need arch support, and when you might consider getting arch support.
Where is the Arch Located in the Foot?
The arch of your foot is located along the bottom of your foot between the ball and the heel. In other words, it’s the middle part, along the inside edge. That’s actually an over-simplification, because the foot anatomically really has three arches. But the one in the midfoot is what most people talk about, and what shoes are designed around. And for this arch, there are three types: flat feet/low arches, medium arches, and high arches.
Low Arch/Flat Feet
If you have low arches or flat feet, your arches will practically touch the ground. It will be very hard to notice an arch looking at your foot from the side. About 20% of the population has low arches or flat feet, so you’re not alone if you think that you fit in this category.
If you have a medium arch, your foot will be moderately flexible and you’ll be able to see your arch, but it will not be super tall either. The majority of the population (60%) have medium arches, so you’re likely in this category.
If you have a high arch, you will have a very pronounced space under the inside edge of your foot. Your arch will be clearly off the ground. Because less of the bottom of your foot touches the ground, you might experience more pressure on your forefoot and rearfoot. Like people with low arches, people with high arches make up 20% of the population.
Can My Arches Change?
Yes! And for a variety of reasons. This can happen from pregnancy, not wearing the right shoes, obesity, and/or diabetes.
Perhaps the most common way arches change over time is as you get older. The arch can start to sag, meaning that even if you had a medium arch in your 20s, you might have a low arch in your 60s.
Why Do We Have Arches in Our Feet?
Arches vary from person to person, and humans start out with flat feet as babies. It isn’t until adolescence that you’ll get your adult arch shape. Arches work to support our body weight when we are standing, and may have helped us in gripping and climbing trees back when that was a thing we all did.
Arches also work like springs in our feet when we’re walking or running. When they are compressed, they are storing energy. When they recoil, they release the stored energy. Without arches, running would be a lot more tiring because we wouldn’t be saving on mechanical effort.
How Can I Tell What Type of Arch I Have?
If you’re not exactly sure what kind of arch you have, it’s very easy to find out through a couple different ways.
The easiest way to figure out what kind of arch you have is to do the wet paper towel test. Simply get the bottom of your feet wet, step onto a paper towel, and see what imprint is left from your foot.
If you see your entire foot within any narrowing in the middle around the arch, you likely have a flat foot. If you see some of the middle part, you likely have a medium arch. And if you can barely see the middle of your foot, you probably have a high arch.
At a Store
If you want someone else’s opinion, you can get your arches checked out at a running store. They can recommend shoes that match your feet, and may give you some suggestions about running with your type of arch.
At a Doctor
If you want to see a doctor, or are currently seeing a podiatrist, you can ask at your appointment about doing an arch test to figure out what kind of arches you have.
What is Arch Support?
Now that we understand what different types of arches people can have, let’s discuss what is meant by arch support and whether it’s something that you need. Arch support refers to providing support for people with flat feet or low arches.
Support is provided in two ways. First, it can be built into running shoes. There is quite a bit of variance in shoe design, so you can almost always find a pair of shoes designed for your arch type. Typically, this means motion control for flat/low arches, stability shoes for medium arches, and cushioned shoes for high arches.
Or, arch support can be added with inserts, either over-the-counter that you can get at a drugstore or custom-made that you get through your podiatrist. Insoles have actually been around since the 1800s, popularized in the modern era by William Mathias Scholl, who founded Dr. Scholl’s. They can sometimes be tricky to fit in shoes, so we’ve got a list of the top shoes for orthotics.
Should Runners Be Worried About Arch Support?
There are no definitive answers, as experts have different opinions. Some people say yes while other people say no. It is good to remember that shoes can cost significantly more if they have arch support, so make sure that it’s something that you want/need.
No, You Shouldn’t Be
For example, running coach Jason Fitzgerald says, “I don’t think anybody needs a lot of arch support. Instead, most runners need to strengthen the arch and surrounding musculature to withstand the stress of running.”
People like Fitzgerald believe that feet and arches don’t need extra support because injury/pain is not correlated to how much the arch is supported when running.
Fitzgerald even thinks that using arch support can weaken the arch over time, since he believes it works like a crutch.
Yes, You Should Be
Some people think the exact opposite, arguing that unsupported arches can lead to injury and pain. However, research does not suggest that you’re more prone to injury just because you have flat feet.
While you might not want to rely on someone trying to sell you a product, it’s good to be smart and talk to a medical professional about what might be best for you if you think you might need arch support.
How to Know If You Need Arch Support
Generally, runners with flat to low arches will be more comfortable wearing a shoe with arch support or using an insert. If you’re not sure whether arch support will help you, try using an over-the-counter orthotic in a neutral shoe.
This is an inexpensive way to see if arch support is something that helps you enjoy running more, and if you’d like specifically designed running shoes or a custom orthotic (or if you just want to stick with the over-the-counter insole).
Get in some runs with your inserts, and also without them, to see what feels better to you. Ideally, compare runs that were around the same length and in similar weather to control for other factors.
If you feel fine without the orthotic (and this was the case for one running friend I have), then don’t worry about arch support even if everyone says that people with flat/low arches need it.
If you feel way better, then it makes sense for you to use arch support. It all comes down to your comfort.
Are There Other Options?
If you’re still not sure about arch support, there might be other ways you can make your runs more comfortable. For example, there might be extra stress on your arches because you are overweight. Shedding a few extra pounds might do the trick.
Similarly, you can always use heat therapy to help relieve any pain or sensitivity from your arches. Just make sure that your feet are not cut or bruised before you soak them in Epson salts.
In the end, how much arch support runners need depends on the anatomy of your foot and who you talk to. Some people will vigorously say yes, while other people will say no. It all comes down to what’s best for you.
If you’ve never had problems but you technically have flat feet, then clearly your arches are getting all the support they need. But if running has been uncomfortable and you know it’s your arches, you can always try an over-the-counter orthotic.
They aren’t too expensive, and it’s a good way to compare running with support and without support to see the difference. That can give you a good baseline for seeing if arch support is something you need.
If all else fails, you can always talk to a podiatrist to see what is best for you. Given years of experience, they will know how to best assist you in getting the arch support that you need.