Bad at balancing? Always picking up running injuries? Often got a niggle in your ankles? Flat feet can put us at risk of certain injuries, so it‘s worth trying to strengthen fallen arches and building a better base.
If you think that having flat feet is a rarity, think again: around 30% of us are walking around with collapsed arches. Some flat feet are inherited while others are the result of incessant pressure (think: high heels, marathon running, weight), and how severely they impact our lives can vary from person to person. At best, you might never know that you’ve got flat feet. At worst, you might find that you’re more prone to certain injuries like painful Achilles tendons, shin splints and swollen ankles.
I’ve spent the past decade getting faster, running longer and lifting heavier, but one thing that never changes is the shape of my foot. In fact, I’d argue that I’m more flat-footed now than when I left school. The more marathons I train for, the flatter my foot seems to get, with my Saucony running trainers creeping from a UK size 8.5 in 2016 to a now frankly ridiculous 9.5. A physio once told me that my collapsed arches were probably a key player in the kinds of running injuries I kept picking up (I’ve been plagued with chronic Achilles tendonitis for ages and am prone to rolled ankles).
As active people, it’s really important that we have a strong and stable base. Our feet work hard, whether we’re strength training, yoga-ing or running. So, does it matter if we have collapsed arches and if it does, what can we do to rebuild them?
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FLAT Vs ARCHED FEET
Stand on a flat surface, barefoot. If your feet are flat on the ground all the way from your toes to your heel, you have flat feet. If your foot arches away from the floor in the middle, you don’t – it’s that simple (although some of us have very low arches, rather than completely collapsed ones). It’s worth noting that just because you have a flat foot while standing, your foot doesn’t necessarily function as a flat foot when running or lifting. I, for example, run on the balls of my feet so that most of my foot is off the ground when running as a way of avoiding shin splints. When you squat, you’ll have your weight in the balls of your feet so that your toes are barely touching the ground – whether you have arched feet or not.
There are various reasons why some of us have fallen arches, and that can include damaged or inflamed tendons, age, longer feet and according to some experts, long-term runners. But it’s wrong to say that a “flat foot is a bad foot,” according to sports podiatrist and owner of NK Active, Nick Knight. “When we look at the injury data, there is no solid evidence that a flat foot is a bad foot that will impede our performance. It is more important to look at what that foot can tolerate and this is normally related to strength. Look at one of the great marathon runners of the ‘90s, World Record Holder Haile Gebrselassie, who has extremely flat feet yet could run a marathon in 2:03:59.”
FLAT FEET AND TRAINING
Vivobarefoot’s movement expert, Ben Le Vesconte, says that collapsed arches are actually just weak ankles that lose their mobility from “excessively out-turned feet” – but that it is possible to strengthen our ankles and realign our feet. “Wearing barefoot footwear uses the intrinsic muscles more and this will strengthen a weak, dysfunctional arch.”
“A lower yet strong elastic functional arch is not a problem, in fact, it’s the goal. High rigid arches are more problematic to rehabilitate but the same applies; more natural use and exercises will increase mobility and elasticity. As for running, almost all the best runners have flat feet. In any case, technique comes first. If you focus on correcting your technique, overpronation will disappear, but a normal amount of pronation is a natural element of our foot’s shock absorption system.”
FLAT FEET DON’T CAUSE MORE INJURIES
The likelihood of getting an injury from flat feet isn’t higher, you just get different injuries. “If you have a foot with a collapsed arch, this can put an increased load through the structures in the inside of the ankle and the shin, so we do see people with tendinopathy around the tibialis posterior tendon, people with plantar fascia pain and problems around the big toe joint area.” Nick says, pointing out that plenty of people with “normal” feet get injured all the time. If your arch collapses suddenly, however, that’s a different kettle of fish. Nick explains that sudden collapses normally mean there is a tibialis posterior tendon issue or a problem around the spring ligament in the foot. “Normally when this happens, you feel something go ‘ping’ and the foot swells up considerably.”
The point is that usually, “flat feet don’t cause any problems and shouldn’t prevent you from exercising,” according to Michelle Njagi, senior MSK physiotherapist at Bupa Health Clinics. If you are experiencing pain or numbness in your feet (or in your calf, knee or lower legs), have issues with walking or balance or you’ve noticed that you only have issues with one foot, “you should contact your GP, podiatrist or physiotherapist.” While foot pain can worsen with exercise, Michelle points out that “training won’t increase your risk of flat feet” and that it’s safe to exercise whatever the shape of your foot.
If you notice the following, get in contact with a physio or your GP:
- Pain in the ankles and/or feet
- Swollen ankles
- Knee issues
- Pain in the calf, thigh, hip or spine
- Achilles tendinopathy (pain, swelling and stiffness of the Achilles tendon)
- Shin splints
CAN YOU REBUILD ARCHES?
Nick says that we shouldn’t think about rebuilding arches – instead, we should be concentrating on “how to make the foot strong enough to cope with the activities that you want to do, focussing on strengthening the small muscles in the feet and around the ankles”. And it’s not just the feet that need our attention: focussing on strengthening the hip and knee areas can make a massive difference too.
And what about insoles? “People often say that you can put insoles/arch supports/orthoses in your shoes to gradually help the arch return back to a ‘normal shape.’ Unfortunately, this is a myth!” While Nick believes that insoles can be extremely helpful in managing certain problems, “the aim is to really use them to help offload a structure.” If you wear insoles, ask whoever prescribed them how long you’re expected to wear them and what plan they have for you to be strong enough to go without them.
HOW TO CARE FOR FLAT FEET
According to Barry Ash, PT, sports therapist and founder of Rock Solid Health, we can make significant improvements by looking after our feet better. “We exercise our bodies, we stretch out after our runs but we very seldom think about strengthening the one part of our body that takes the biggest impact – our feet. It is so important to take the time to strengthen the one part that carries us about from place to place. Whether you’re running or walking, playing sport or playing with kids in the park, our feet are always being put under stress.”
As with everything, how long it takes to make a difference totally depends on the individual. Barry says that although it’ll depend on the severity of the arch and how much time you’re willing to put into rehab, if you start doing a few arch-specific exercises, “on average you would notice a difference within six weeks”.
5 exercises for creating stronger arches
1. The towel scrunch (15 reps x 2)
Sit or stand with one foot on the towel. Keep your heel planted on the floor. Curl your toes to scrunch up the towel. Repeat on the other foot.
2. Toe raises (10 reps x 2)
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Press your big toe into the floor and raise your four other toes. Hold this for 10 seconds before pressing the four toes into the floor and raising your big toe. Repeat on the other foot.
3. Heel raises (15 reps x 2)
Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Keep your core tight and raise your heels off the floor. The aim is to stop your feet from rolling outwards. Start with both feet and work towards being able to do it on one foot.
4. Single leg hops and squats (5 reps x 2)
Practise hopping on one leg, trying to land in the same spot every time. Once that becomes easy, try a jump-to-single-leg-squat. Stand with both feet together then jump to land on one foot with your front leg bent and your other leg coming out behind you. Try to keep your knee and ankle aligned on the leg that lands.
5. Ball rolls (2 minutes per foot)
Sit on a chair with a hard ball under one foot. Place the ball in the arch of your foot and roll it back and forth, slowly increasing the pressure. Repeat on both sides (it’s totally normal for it to feel uncomfortable).
Runners rarely move laterally but it’s really important to hone those side muscles if you want to avoid injury. Have a go at a goblet curtsy lunge to work your underused gluteus minimus and medius, as well as your quads, abductors and adductors.
Check out more SWTC How-To videos for plenty of pre-run warm-up ideas.
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.