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If you have ever been told that you have weak arches, need arch support, need to wear orthotics, have flat feet, have collapsed arches, tend to pronate your feet, or anything similar, this blog is for you.
Special thanks to RES Carol Robbins for editing and fact-checking this article!
There is more than one arch in the foot, but most people concerned about arch support or fallen arches are thinking about the medial arch, which runs along the inside from the bottom of the big toe to the heel. Our favourite biomechanist Katy Bowman has talked about the fact that bones aren’t responsible for the integrity of this arch, but that it is muscle dependent, which means that you can strengthen the muscles and get your arch back! The shape of the arch can change depending on what the foot and the body is doing. During gait, it naturally lowers as the weight of the body crosses over it and lifts again to create a stiffer lever to push off from in the gait cycle.
What makes an arch weak or strong? A lot of people assume that a high arch is strong, and a low arch is weak, but this is not necessarily true. You can have a high arch that is weak and a low arch that is strong. This is a case of don't judge a book by its cover. Instead, I like asking, "strong enough for what purpose?" which brings the focus onto function. It also brings up more questions, such as, "what is the arch supposed to do, anyways?" and "yeah, but do I need arch support?" and by this, people are referring to external arch support provided to the body so that it gets passively corrected by shoes or orthotics.
What kind of corrections are those shoes and orthotics providing? Sometimes very necessary help for recovering from an injury or ensuring that you're not worsening an existing issue while you work on regaining your skills and strength, which is great! Even barefoot friendly podiatrists will sometimes prescribe orthotics and arch support, but there's a major difference in approach compared to the standard: barefoot- and minimal shoe-friendly podiatrists also help you by describing why you're wearing support, instructions about how long you need to wear support for, and what the exit plan is.
What we see more often, however, is orthotics and/or arch support that are prescribed (or recommended in a retail environment) for the long haul. The reason given for this permanent kind of prescription goes something like: “There is something wrong with your feet, and there's nothing you can do to change that.”
It's akin to an orthopedic doctor (bone doctor) saying, "your leg is broken, so you will wear this cast for the rest of your life." And I don't know about you, but that just doesn't make any sense to me! When you break your leg and get a cast, eventually the cast comes off, and you do targeted exercises and use specific tools to get back to usual (or as close to usual as possible). I think of orthotics like that. Many shoes have orthotic-like support built in, which is like saying, "your leg is not broken but it's weak, so we're going to give you a cast anyway instead of telling you how to get stronger."
So if we want to get stronger, and start relying on what our bodies can do instead of getting support from an external source, how do we do that? The first step is to realize that your arches are not just about your feet. Some of the arch muscles are in the foot but some run from the foot to the leg, and some aren’t even in the foot, but higher up in the hips! Other things that affect the arches are daily habits such as sitting, bone alignment, and muscle length. There are parts of our bodies that influence the arch shape and ability that might surprise you.
As a minimal shoe expert I’m invested in giving you the best experience in our shoes possible, so I’m going to explain some of those things and give you some exercises that I myself do, but I highly recommend contacting a certified Restorative Exercise Specialist (RES) for further assistance (see below).
You can find detailed instructions on how to do these stretches and exercises in the Katy Bowman books that we carry, including Whole Body Barefoot.
This is my favourite! I use a foam half dome to do the calf stretch. I like the RE version of this stretch with the half dome because your heel is not floating (like with a calf stretch on a stair) and it's helping me practice for walking (unlike a leaning towards a wall version). It is also set up to target specific muscles, so that I'm not offloading the stretch onto super mobile joints or connected ligaments. The RE calf stretch is about indicating to your body that you need to regain the muscle length in your calves on a cellular level, rather than about getting an intense sensation.
Combining the RE Calf stretch with the RE neutral alignment, you'll see how much you've been compensating with turn out. It also starts giving you physiological feedback about what it feels like to use your foot and ankle in ways you may not be used to, which can help you gain more awareness of your gait while you are working towards a more sustainable way of performing various movements.
This one uses a yoga strap to explore pronation and supination of the foot. The Strap Stretch allowed me to get even more familiar with what my feet and ankles were doing, and what they had trouble doing too. I love the way the strap stretch allows me to explore small foot and ankle movements and figure out my habits while off of my bodyweight, as it is done lying down. It also lengthens the calf musculature across the back of the knee which is often insufficient due to positive heels and sitting.
See a photo on Katy's article about hamstrings here.
This is the exercise that allowed me to get in touch with my balancing muscles on the side of the hip and thigh. Those muscles will support a more aligned gait and foot position. The List involves locating and using those big hip muscles to balance on one leg at a time. The key is creating stability in the standing leg by imagining pushing your foot into the ground. You can have a hand on the outer thigh to feel those balancing muscles engage. This helps you balance without leaning over or moving your bodyweight over the standing leg, allowing for a more sustainable gait over time.
Transitioning to Minimal Shoes
Minimal shoes offer your feet the opportunity to actively support themselves, rather than passively receiving external support. My feet are definitely stronger after about two and a half years of minimal shoes. They also have flexible soles, which allow my feet to move in a greater variety of ways, learning to react to stepping on twigs and changes to the texture and tilt of the ground. It took time, and my feet would get tired from working so much harder, so after learning from my own mistakes I urge all of our customers to research transitioning and take it slowly.
If you give your feet more work to do, let them rest in between “workouts” on your supportive shoes. Take it even more gradually if coming from orthotics, even wearing them in your new minimal shoes to start. Contact a barefoot friendly podiatrist or a RES for personalized, professional advice, and pay attention to the feedback you get from your own body. Minimal shoes should not hurt, we don't want anyone to push through pain and end up injured. Done right, transition into minimal shoes can be a smooth process and is so empowering!
I also wore Correct Toes almost every day for at least a year, and now on an as-needed basis. They helped me with the alignment of my big toes and pinky toes, as well as teaching my feet how to move from and through a neutral alignment. They helped me splay my toes out too, so that I can use them for balance and agility. You get the most benefit out of Correct Toes wearing them while up and about, rather than resting (they are designed especially for this).
Research, Doing The Work, Observing and Patience
I won't lie and tell you that this is a quick fix. Patterns develop from habits, and that comes down to daily life. With a little patience and dedication, however, you can work towards confident everyday movement. There's an assumption in our society that as we age, our bodies just "get worse" and there's nothing we can do about it.
While we cannot stop aging, we can age dynamically, and I've seen through our customers and from my movement mentors that it is never too late to start. I really like Katy's book Dynamic Aging for folks who think it may be "too late to start," but also for those who are concerned about how complicating factors like injury or chronic health issues may be in their way of starting. I am looking forward to moving with confidence for many decades to come, and I want that for you, too.
Of course, wearing minimal shoes and doing my stretches and exercises isn't the end of the story. I try to look for opportunities to increase my daily walking time, such as walking to the next subway stop before getting on, walking to the store when I don't need the car, and spending more time in nature. Walks with friends and family can be a great alternative to meeting for coffee, and there are many attractions like museums and gardens that offer interest along the way. I like to phone a friend to chat with on shorter walks, and I've heard this is a popular way to do meetings now. The more I walk and move, the stronger I get, and that includes the arches.
Walking on Non-Flat Surfaces More
This is the way to take walking as a foot workout to the next level. Walking on flat surfaces is what most of us are used to, but that's like doing the same exercise over and over: you only get better at what you practice. Walking on non-flat surfaces could look like walking on grass, sand, snow, gravel, on a slope, or taking a hike. I made sure to tailor my walks to my experience level, but added in texture and tilt whenever possible. There are 33 joints in each foot and many of them aren’t used in a flat/level scenario. The number of ways feet can potentially move is an enormous number, and this is one of the ways we can practice moving the foot in more ways so that it gets stronger and more mobile.
Walking Uphill More
I think of this like calf stretch part two: the real world version. Since we have spent so much time going downhill (that is, wearing shoes that elevate the heel) this is helping provide a kind of movement that our bodies have been missing out on. Again, I tailored this to my comfort and experience level. Keep in mind that walking uphill is different to walking up stairs.
I like to use Yoga Tune Up Therapy Balls to rollout the bottom of my feet, the front of my shins, the back of my calves, the side of my thigh, all over really. It feels good, brings blood flow to the area, and is said to help relax tissues that are stiff and don't want to move. I certainly feel loosey-goosey after a roll out! It's also a great way to get the brain-body connection going, for example to find those side of the thigh muscles.
Make a Plan Together
I was able to get personal feedback about movement, gait, and transitioning to minimal shoes from a RES, and it was so helpful! I learned exercises and stretches and started to understand the whys and hows. I came out of it with a plan for what to do as my skills developed with more "advanced versions," for lack of a better term, of some of the work listed above. It was a great relief to get a better understanding of what I was good at already and where I struggled, how to improve, and to make a plan that I knew was appropriate for my experience level.
I hope if you leave this blog with anything, it is the idea that there are options available to you that might be able to help, including free and inexpensive tools and investing in professional advice. From looking through your local library to see if you can find relevant books, to integrating exercises and stretches into your daily routine, to enjoying time in nature with friends, and maybe shopping for your first pair of minimal shoes, there are plenty of small first steps you can take. If you have any hesitation, I urge you to contact a barefoot-friendly movement teacher or health professional, as they can help you make a plan that will work for you. Of course, we're happy to hear from you as well!
The following is a list of movement and health professionals and other experts I have learned from, directly and indirectly. We do not get any kickbacks from linking to these resources. We share them because we value education and want to give back to those who we have learned from.
Where there was a relevant article, post, or course focused on foot mobilization and strengthening, we've listed that as the link.