One of the best things about running is that it’s a relatively simple sport. It’s free, you don’t really need instructions and the only equipment required is a good pair of shoes. Unfortunately this is where things can go off-the-rails quickly. Who hasn’t looked at the dizzying array of running shoes online and clicked over to cat pictures instead because at least cute kitties don’t require a physics degree to understand? Not that physical stores are much better. Many a runner has wandered into a shoe store only to emerge $200 lighter with a vague notion that something is so wrong with their feet they need special shoes or gear to correct it.
Ask a runner about their feet and one of the first things they’ll tell you about is their arches and whether they’re high, flat, pronated inward, or collapsed, and the shoe or orthotic they use to combat it.
We know that if you keep your feet protected and cozy, you can expect many happy, injury-free runs through fields of daisies. (Because it’s always fields of daisies, right?) Tick off your tootsies and you’re in for a rough ride — literally. But what if what we think we’re doing to help them is actually hurting them? This might be the case with arch supports, according to a new study published in Nature.
The researchers took runners with normal feet and then put half of them in arch-supporting insoles. After telling them all to run, they measured the biomechanics of each participant’s feet. They found that the people with arch supports became less-efficient runners, meaning it took more energy for them to run than it would without the supports.
This is because the arch of your foot is a natural spring, says Ken Jung, MD, a foot and ankle surgeon at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles. “Your arch is built to compress and when it can’t it loses its spring-like effect, meaning that not as much of your energy is returned to you,” he explains.
If it’s anything a runner wants more of, it’s energy! But before you toss your inserts, Jung says the problem is that the study only looked at people with “normal” feet.
“If you don’t have any pain or foot problems there is no reason to use arch supports or any type of orthotic, so of course those runners had issues,” he says. “Orthotics are used to treat a specific problem like overuse injuries, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, tendonitis or other foot pain. And they’re definitely not one size fits all.” He adds that they are generally temporary and used in conjunction with special exercises targeted to fix the source of the pain. In other words, if you don’t have any of the above pains, you likely don’t need inserts. If you do, then you only need the inserts for as long as it takes to treat the problem.
According to Jung, it turns out that a lot of people who think they have “bad” arches are actually just fine. Some of the misinformation comes from people having their gait diagnosed by friends, the Internet or the clerk at the running store (who may be trying to steer you towards pricey corrective shoes). He says a big problem he sees is people with high arches being told they need extra arch support.
Wait, you don’t?
“That’s exactly the opposite of what high arches need,” he explains. And, he adds, compensating for a problem you don’t have may give you a real problem because too much arch support will shift your weight to the outside of your foot, possibly causing an injury.
“Don’t believe a non-medical assessment,” he says. “For instance, everyone is worried about pronation but pronating is a normal part of the human anatomy and allows the the foot to absorb shock. And anyway ‘normal’ is subjective. What’s normal for you is when you can walk and run comfortably.”
This is why he recommends that everyone start with a neutral shoe that doesn’t boast any extra features like arch or ankle supports. Most people will naturally find their best, most efficient running stride, he says. Then, if you do develop pain while running, he says to check with a podiatrist or orthopedic surgeon, and they can steer you towards the right fix for your particular issue.