As runners, we often take our feet for granted. There are so many other things to think about: training schedule, pacing, intensity, weekly mileage, nutrition. It’s easy to forget that every step we take is dependent on our feet. Feet are nothing less than marvels of anatomy. All of the muscles, bones, and connective tissue that make running possible might elude our every day attention, but they actually have a big impact on how we run. Feet can vary greatly from person to person. Knowing about your own feet will help you choose the right footwear and better understand your stride and running mechanics.
In this article, we’ll talk about one type in particular—flat feet—and give you all the information you need to know if you have flat feet.
What does it mean to have flat feet?
“Flat feet” occur when the medial longitudinal arch of an individual’s foot (wait for it) flattens. An average foot, when viewed from the side, leaves a small space between the sole and the ground about halfway down the length of the foot – this is your medial longitudinal arch. If you have flat feet, there is very little, or even zero, arch.
Medically known as “pes planus” and also referred to as “fallen” or “low” arches, flat feet tend to affect about 20-25% of the general population. Asians, for reasons that are unclear, are especially likely to have low arches. So you’re definitely not alone if you have flat feet!
Because the arch is flattened, flat feet are more susceptible to problems like bunions, heel pain, ankle pain, knee pain, and lower back pain. Your foot’s arch is a natural shock absorber, and without it, problems throughout your drive train and core can set you back in your running.
Although flat feet can be genetic and occur at birth, many people get flat feet over time as they get older. Wearing improper shoes, just getting older, suffering injuries, being obese, having diabetes, having a baby, and using improper training form are some of the reasons people can experience flat feet.
What types of flat feet do runners have?
Runners (and the general population) can have one of two different types of flat feet: flexible flat feet or rigid flat feet. Typically, most people have flexible flat feet.
For those with flexible flat feet, you can see an arch, but that arch flattens when weight is placed on it. Flexible flat feet tend to be heredity and tend to be caused by lax ligaments in your foot.
By contrast, you cannot see a visible arch on those with rigid flat feet. And rigid flat feet can be due to lifestyle choices in addition to inheriting it. As we mentioned before, some of the things that can cause rigid flat feet include being sedentary and selecting poor footwear.
For rigid flat feet, the foot is flat because of bone structure, not because of the arch tendons.
How do I know if I have flat feet?
You have a couple options to figure out whether you have flat feet. The first is pretty simple. Have someone look at your foot from the side or look at your foot from the side in the mirror.
Individuals who have an arch in their feet can typically easily see them from the side. If you have flat feet, however, you will have a very slight or even nonexistent arch.
Another option—and typically the most common method for determining if you have flat feet—is the wet foot test.
Place a heavy piece of paper, grocery bag, or paper towel on the floor. Get the bottom of your foot wet, but not dripping, and then step on the paper. You need to make sure that you place the necessary weight on that foot in order to leave an imprint. Finally, step off and assess what type of foot you have.
If you see about half of your arch, then you probably have a normal arch. If you see just the heel and ball of your foot, you probably have a high arch. But if you can see almost your entire footprint, then you likely have flat feet.
Of course, podiatrists can confirm your findings from home and let you know your arch height.
Why does it hurt when I go running?
It can hurt more to go running with flat feet because you don’t have as much support from your arches. Let’s go over some basic questions about foot pain related to flat feet.
Why does being flat-footed lead to foot pain?
Most of the time it’s not the fact that you’re flat-footed that leads to foot pain. It is the resulting over-pronation that causes the pain. Because over-pronation occurs when the feet roll inwards excessively, you’ll experience more stress in the lower leg muscles, knees, hips, and ankles.
Is there a way to treat pain from flat feet?
In addition to choosing supportive shoes and inserts, which we’ll discuss below, you can do exercises that will help strengthen your feet and the surrounding areas like your ankles.
Exercises such as toe curls can help you rebuild your arches. To do these, sit in a chair and place a towel on the floor in front of you. Make sure that your knees are at a 90-degree angle, and put your feet flat on the towel. Then curl your toes, using all of them to scrunch the towel toward you. Do this 10 times and then reverse the motion by pushing the ridges of the towel away from you for 10 times.
Similarly, if you strengthen your ankles, you’ll be less prone to the pain of over-pronation. Some exercises include arch muscle strength exercise, scissor hops, and standing squat jumps.
Also, don’t forget that choosing a good running surface can help with pain. If you run on flat, level ground, you’ll minimize over-pronation and experience less pain. So the track is probably a good option for you if you suffer from pain from your flat feet.
You might even want to try barefoot running because it encourages a mid-foot or forefoot strike. Research suggests that this can help strengthen your foot’s muscles and tendons. This is exactly what you need as a flat-footed runner. Just make sure to do it on a softer surface like sand or grass. And read up on transitioning to barefoot running. Doing it too quickly can lead to serious injury.
Finally, massaging your feet with a tennis ball and using hot water foot baths might also be good ways of alleviating arch pain and soreness.
Can running with flat feet lead to injury?
The bad news is that running with any kind of feet can lead to injury. A study by Lees and Klenerman found no conclusive evidence that correlated foot type and running injuries, particularly for those with flat feet.
Thus, runners who have flat feet can get injured, but the very fact of having flat feet isn’t going to lead to more injuries or getting injured more quickly.
Do I over-pronate if I have flat feet?
Most likely. Roughly 90 percent of people with flat feet over-pronate. While there’s a chance that you’re in that 10 percent, it’s unlikely. Runners who over-pronate tend to experience more pain and injuries such as back problems, shin splints, and tendonitis in the knee.
However, if you’re in that 10 percent of people who have flat feet and don’t over-pronate, there’s a good chance that you won’t experience the pain from running with flat feet that many runners do.
Other estimates suggest that as many as 20 percent of people without a proper arch can run and workout with no pain. It is believed that these people may still have a small arch that hasn’t collapsed.
Are there shoes designed for flat feet?
Not exactly. There are shoes designed for those who over-pronate, and as 90 percent of individuals with flat feet over-pronate, most flat footed runners may find that support or stability shoes are helpful in making their runs more comfortable. So yes and no!
Running Shoe Construction for Support/Stability Shoes
No matter what brand you select, the basic design principle of many motion control and stability shoes is the same. There is a firm midsole that prevents over-pronation. You’ll see different technology in different brands, but it’s the same principle.
For example, most running shoes use a medial post, while Brooks shoes have a guide rail. Some individuals with flat feet really prefer Brooks shoes, perhaps due to the different construction.
While stability shoes and motion control shoes are similar in trying to control over-pronation, they do so in different degrees. Stability shoes are for those with mild to moderate over-pronation while motion control shoes are designed with severe over-pronators in mind.
Overview on Shoe Categories for Flat Feet
As a flat footed runner, there are several types of shoes that will be a good fit for you. However, you likely want to avoid running shoes that have little to no support or that have lots of extra cushioning.
What you do want to look for, though, is a shoe with a stiff midsole that isn’t going to twist when you run. The shoes should bend near the toes but not in the middle. The middle is where you need the greatest support.
Go into a running store and look at the options. Guidance, stability, or motion control shoes might have the features your feet need.
Will inserts help my flat feet?
Those with flat feet need support outside the shoe and within the shoe. For this reason, yes, inserts can help your flat feet. Typically, the insole that comes with a running shoe has little to no support and tends to be a thin piece made of a foam material.
If you replace those flimsy insoles with a good pair of inserts, you’ll be providing more support for your heel and arch. This will help your gait to be more aligned, and thus avoid causing unnecessary stress on the lower body.
Depending on how severe your flat feet are, you have several different options for orthotic inserts. Work with a podiatrist to make sure that you’re getting an insole that will give you the proper arch support. Insoles can range from soft to very rigid.
Most people purchase generic insoles designed for anyone with fallen arches and flat feet. But if your condition is severe enough, get a pair from a podiatrist that are custom made for your feet.
As a runner with flat feet, you have some unique things to keep in mind. Make sure that you have the support you need, and take the time to help rebuild your arches. Use exercises like toe curls, run on flat and softer surfaces, and massage your feet with a tennis ball or a hot water bath when you experience arch pain. You’ll start to notice that you really aren’t that different from other runners.