Can Flat Feet Be Corrected?

According to the definition found in most medical journals, Flat feet refers to a change in foot shape in which the foot does not have a normal arch when standing. The condition is normal in infants and toddlers and occurs because the tissues holding the joints (called tendons) in the foot together are loose.

The tissues typically tighten and form an arch as children grow older. This will take place by the time the child is 2 or 3 years old. Most people have normal arches by the time they are adults. However, the arch may never form in some people.

This can be hereditary or can come from aging, injuries, or an illness that harms the tendons and causes flat feet to develop in a person who has already formed arches.

So what? Does it matter? Do you NEED arches? The truth is that most people with flat feet live with no pain or other problems.

Some adults with flat feet may experience tired or achy feet after long periods of standing or playing sports. Some may also have pain on the outside of the ankle.

I’m one of those cases where my arches never formed. I’ve had flat feet as long as I can remember. My parents may recall otherwise, but I don’t recall even having any pain associated with my foot deformity.

I wore normal shoes as a kid – I had some Larry Bird Converse, Nikes, Kangaroos…you know, all the classics. But once I started running, I was told that because I had no arches, I would have to have running shoes with arch supports to prevent foot pain and injury. Not only that, but I would need inserts (orthotics) in my shoes to provide additional stability and balance, align my body and further prevent the pain that I wasn’t even experiencing.

For a while, I had over the counter (they make prescription ones) orthotics in my running shoes - like the ones pictured below. They were uncomfortable and actually caused me pain in my arches – the opposite of what they were supposed to do. I was told that I would get used to them and the pain would subside.

Being in my early 20’s, I was not the greatest advocate for myself and instead of doing some more research on my own, the foot pain forced me to just stop running. I thought maybe my feet were just not made for me to be a runner.

After several years of lifting weights on doing other things to stay in shape, I signed up for a triathlon and therefore needed to start running again. This time, I decided to forego the insoles, but still took the advice given to me at the shoe store and wore running shoes with a lot of support to offset my flat feet and overpronation.

As I started to train for longer distance races in the subsequent years, I developed plantar fasciitis, patellar tendonitis, and IT Band Syndrome. I have no idea if all or none of these were related to my flat feet, but I was frustrated and started on a quest to learn more about how to prevent running injures.

Around 2011, I read Christopher McDougall's book Born to Run. He believes that modern cushioned running shoes are a major cause of running injury, pointing to the thin sandals worn by Tarahumara runners in the Mexican Copper Canyons, and the explosion of running-related injuries since the introduction of modern running shoes in 1972. This book sent me down many rabbit holes into other barefoot running books and podcasts.

I then learned that it was possible to build, develop and then strengthen arches in flat feet. This was not something that anyone had ever told me I could do. The thought of being able to run injury free AND reduce muscle fatigue in my feet and legs was exciting to me, so I developed a plan!

It started with getting some running shoes with minimal cushion and minimal drop (The 'drop' of a running shoe is essentially the difference between the height/thickness of the midsole under the heel compared to the same measure under the ball of the foot). I would rotate these shoes in for shorter runs, still wearing my more “supportive” shoes on longer runs.

After 6-9 months of running in these more minimalist shoes, I started to incorporate barefoot running into my warmups. Yes, I would actually take off my shoes and socks and run barefoot on the grass. I would jog a mile barefoot on the grass inside the track before my speed workouts. This was once or twice a week.

Next step was to assess all of my footwear. I tossed out my dress shoes for those with no heel. The flat shoes forced my feet to adapt. The constant support of shoes with built-in arches and heels prevented those muscles and tendons from getting stronger. I bought some minimalist shoes to just wear out and about in the evenings and weekends.

I also made it a point to go barefoot around the house and even outside when possible. The more time I could spend without shoes, the better.

I even started doing my weightlifting sessions without shoes. I would just wear socks when lifting to not only improve foot and ankle strength, but my balance and stability.

While still doing all of these things, somewhere around 2017, I transitioned to a standing desk at work. I remove my shoes while standing at my desk and do lower leg strengthening exercises such as arch lifts, calf raises, towel curls, golf ball rolls and toe raises.

The final touch was to start wearing toe spreaders for an hour or so each night before bed. After a lifetime of wearing shoes that smashed my toes together, I needed to return the big toe to its normal anatomical position; that is, separated from the second toe and in line with its metatarsal bone instead of being turned in. Getting my toes splayed would provide the foundation to maintain a strong arch.

It is important to note that I didn’t incorporate all of these techniques and routines at once. In fact, I've been adding something new once a year or so for a long time. Jumping into all of these at once would have undoubtedly led to more injuries. Like anything else, the best way to make change is gradually.

While my ultimate goal was to be injury free – and I have been for a long time now despite doing some pretty intense races and events for the last 14 years – I also set out to grow my arches. While I hadn’t thought about that aspect of it in a long time, it has actually worked.

Just two weeks ago, I was spraying some dog vomit off of our deck (don’t act like you haven’t had to do that before) and was barefoot. After getting it all cleaned off, I was gathering up the hose and my feet got wet. As I walked back across the dry portion of the deck, I was making footprints with my wet feet. My wife Jessica looked down and said “hey…look at your footprint…there’s an arch!”. She was right; sure enough, my feet had been developing arches all this time and the proof was right there in my wet footprint.

What my footprint used to look like.

What my footprint looks like now (arches!)

Over time, I have been able to build a beautiful foot arch that functions the way nature intended. I’m looking forward to the benefits of having arches, such as improved balance, fewer back problems as I get older, improved posture and fewer leg and foot injuries as I continue to run into my late 40’s!

Be sure and visit all of my sponsor’s websites. I sought out these companies because they provide great products and services.

Wishing you optimal health and peak performance,

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