Runners tend to like to control things about their training and fitness. Fortunately, a great deal of our progress and performance as runners is indeed in our control.
How far we run, what speed workouts we do, whether or not we strength train regularly, how attuned we are to our body’s need for a rest day, the list of controllable aspects of our performance and success as a runner is fairly extensive.
However, one variable we have virtually no control over is the shape and architecture of our feet. If you have flat feet, there’s very little you can do to change it, which means you have to find a way to make running with flat feet be as healthy and comfortable as possible.
Running with flat feet is certainly not impossible; many runners have flat feet and have a lifetime of healthy running with minimal impact. On the other hand, running with flat feet can also pose various challenges and increase your risk of injuries.
In this guide, we will discuss the challenges of running with flat feet and offer advice and tips for how to run with flat feet in a way that minimizes the risk of pain and injury.
In this guide, we will cover:
- What Are Flat Feet?
- Types of Flat Feet
- What Causes Flat Feet?
- Challenges of Running With Flat Feet
- 8 Tips for Running With Flat Feet
Let’s get started!
What Are Flat Feet?
Flat feet, also known as pes plants, are feet that are characterized by a very low or virtually absent mediolateral arch in the foot. This means most or all of the sole of the foot touches the ground when the person stands up or bears weight on the foot.
Studies demonstrate that approximately 27% of the population has flat feet, and runners are certainly not immune from this common condition. Therefore, if you’re dealing with the challenges of running with flat feet, you’re not alone.
But what are the challenges of running with flat feet? Although we will go into further detail in a bit, running with flat feet tends to lead to overpronation, which is when the foot and arch roll inward from the ankle upon landing.
Types of Flat Feet
There are actually two different types of flat feet, or two different ways in which flat feet can be categorized: rigid flat feet and flexible flat feet.
Rigid Flat Feet
With rigid flat feet, your foot is flat in all positions—weight bearing or not—with little to no arch visible at all from a side view.
Flexible Flat Feet
Flexible flat feet have a low or moderate arch when the foot is not in a weight bearing position (for example, when lying down or sitting), but the arch immediately flattens and disappears when weight is put on the foot.
What Causes Flat Feet?
There can be a couple of different causes of flat feet, and the ultimate cause is often a combination of one or more of the following factors:
- Muscular disorders
Challenges of Running With Flat Feet
Having a low arch or flat feet isn’t just a structural deviation from the norm; this anatomical foot structure can affect your foot strike and biomechanics during running.
This, in turn, can put excessive stress on certain structures in the foot, ankle, and lower limb, and can increase your risk of injuries.
The arch of the foot normally acts like a built-in physiological spring mechanism. The arch of the foot flattens at ground contact, or when you land on your foot when you run, effectively helping to dampen the forces of impact and cushion your landing.
In this way, a normal arch flattens with weight bearing, and allows the foot to be a mobile adaptor, in that it’s more flexible and conforms to the surface in contact with your foot and dampens the shock traveling up your ankle, shin, knee, thigh, and hip.
As you transition in your running stride from your heel to your toe for push-off, the arch recoils back up and helps stiffen the foot into a rigid lever for a more efficient push-off.
By stiffening the foot, more energy is transferred into forward propulsion of your body than it would if your foot remained flimsy and flexible, a posture that would absorb energy rather than transfer it.
To visualize this difference, imagine trying to press your body up from a chair. If you flatten your hand it makes it nice and stiff, you can push firmly through your hand to help lift your body. On the other hand, if your hands are loose and soft in a natural relaxed state, you can’t effectively push through them.
For this reason, running with flat feet can potentially increase your risk of injury and compromise your running economy.
Studies show that running with flat feet alters the positioning of your foot and leads to overpronation, which is ultimately why runners with flat feet can be at an increased risk of running injuries.
Rearfoot eversion tends to increase in flat-footed runners. This means that the heel of the foot rotates such that runners with flat feet often land on the inside of the heel with the outside turning upwards and outwards.
Forefoot dorsiflexion (arch flattening) also tends to be greater in runners with flat feet compared with runners with normal or high arches.
Another study that analyzed the difference in kinematics, or biomechanical motions, during running between runners with flat feet and those with normal arches found that runners with flat feet again had significantly greater rearfoot and midfoot eversion than those with normal arches (about four times the degree of eversion), as well as significantly increased inversion.
The researchers concluded that these particular findings are likely at least partially responsible for the increase in running injuries, such as medial tibial stress syndrome, in runners with flat feet.
8 Tips for Running With Flat Feet
Even if you have a collapsed arch or very flat feet, you should be able to keep running, provided you pay attention to your body and make modifications to your training and footwear as needed.
Here are some tips for running with flat feet:
#1: Work With a Podiatrist
A proper evaluation and diagnosis from a podiatrist or foot and ankle specialist is an important first step for runners with flat feet.
Runners with rigid flat feet or who overpronate, those that have acquired flat feet due to an acute injury or medical condition, or runners who have dealt with running-related injuries are especially encouraged to seek professional support before continuing running.
It’s particularly important to work with a doctor who works with athletes or other runners, so that they have a thorough understanding of your needs.
A podiatrist can create custom orthotics or discuss more invasive treatment options, if necessary.
#2: Have Your Gait Analyzed
Most, but not all, runners with flat feet overpronate. It can be helpful to have your running gait analyzed at a running shoe store, physical therapy clinic, or other center that specializes in gait analysis.
The expert can note the severity of overpronation or any other foot strike or gait abnormalities caused by your flat feet. You can then buy the correct type of running shoes for your needs and learn about other strengthening you can do to correct your form.
#3: Get Custom Orthotics or Insoles for Running
Running with flat feet is often largely remedied by wearing custom orthotics or insoles designed to support your mediolateral arch of the foot and reduce pronation at ground contact.
Essentially, orthotics or insoles for running can provide support to the foot and hold the foot in a better position than it would naturally fall into if you have flat feet.
#4: Choose Stability Running Shoes or Motion Control Running Shoes
The type of running shoes you wear can reduce overpronation, which is common when running with flat feet.
Stability running shoes are able to control mild-to-moderate overpronation while motion control shoes are intended for more severe overpronation.
Motion control and stability running shoes help to control overpronation by providing support to the medial lateral arch of the foot. This is achieved through guide rails along the heel portion of the running shoe and posting along the medial surface and sole to prevent the foot from collapsing inward.
Most motion control and stability shoes also have a heel counter in addition to the guide rails. A heel counter is a firm, somewhat stiff yet padded structural component that cups the heel and ankle to guide the foot from initial contact or landing through the heel-to-toe transition to prevent overpronation.
#5: Work With a Physical Therapist
Physical therapy can’t necessarily turn a flat foot into a foot with a normal arch, but physical therapists can show you exercises to strengthen the hips, ankles, and feet to minimize the muscular imbalances or weaknesses contributing to overpronation.
#6: Run On Sand or Soft Surfaces
Unless you live in close proximity to a beach, regularly running on sand is probably not feasible for most runners with flat feet.
However, if you are lucky enough to have a nearby beach to turn into your training ground, there’s evidence to suggest that running on sand can be an effective way to reduce overpronation, which is common among runners with flat feet.
Long-term running on sand was found to reduce pronation, increase activation of the calves, and improve side to side pelvic stability to increase activity in the gluteus medius.
Even if you’re nowhere near a sandy area, running on softer surfaces like trails and grass over asphalt and pavement may reduce any pain associated with running with flat feet and can help attenuate some for the additional shock your legs are subjected to.
#7: Strengthen Your Feet
Foot exercises like arch doming, picking up marbles with the toes, toe yoga, and scrunching a towel with your toes can help strengthen the arch and intrinsic muscles of the foot in cases of flat-footedness.
#8: Replace Your Running Shoes
Most experts say running shoes should be replaced every 300-500 miles, and this is especially important when running with flat feet because you need all the support you can get from your shoes.
You might also consider having a running shoe rotation, which has been shown to decrease the risk of injury.
If you have flat feet, don’t be discouraged. Try to make the necessary adjustments and listen to your body.
To strengthen up those feet, here are some exercises you can add in to your routine.