Arch Support for Runners: What, How and Why [In-Depth Guide]

Posted on 02 March, 2021 by Jovana Subic

Running and arch support

 

Arch support is not a quick fix. But, can running shoes with arch support improve your running experience? This is an in-depth guide that gives a necessary overview of arch height and running shoes with arch support. 

Shoe fanatics should keep in mind that it’s the feet’s job to dissipate shock and actively stabilize during push-off. Not the shoes'. 

If you’re experiencing pain, see a specialist. The purpose of this guide is to educate, not to make any medical diagnosis or recommendation. 

Arches and why they matter 

The human foot has three arches: medial longitudinal, lateral longitudinal and anterior transverse arch. In running, we usually focus on the medial longitudinal arch. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to stand, walk, run, jump. 

 

Medial longitudinal arch

 

Arches matter because they help with:

  1. weight distribution, 
  2. shock absorption (they help absorb impact while running), and 
  3. propulsion (they provide energy to push us to the next step). 

During the shock absorption and propulsion, the arch acts as a springboard. This springboard allows the middle of the foot to spread and close. That’s why it needs to be mobile (flexible). 

Arch types based on their height 

Based on the height of the arches, we differentiate 3 arch types: 

  1. Low arches or flat feet 
  2. “Normal” or medium arches 
  3. High arches. 

Whatever your arch type, your feet can be functional and healthy. 

 

Flat feet, high arches and normal arches

 

In flat feet, the entire bottom surface of the foot lays on the ground (in the weight-bearing position). It’s characterized by the failure of all 3 arches. However, low arches are different and the foot doesn’t have full-surface ground contact. It usually means that the arches are weak and too flexible, which leads to a lack of control over foot mobility. 

High arches are usually characterized by rigid arches. This means they are not so good at shock absorption, dampening the gait forces and adapting to changes in terrain. 

We’ve covered both arch types later on in separate sections (Flat feet and High arches). This study has covered more about the relation between arch height and arch flexibility. 

How to determine my arch height? 

We measure arch height in order to characterize the foot arch type. This is usually done in a sitting and standing position and the two heights are compared. There are numerous methods for arch height determination: medial longitudinal arch angle, navicular drop test, arch height index,... all of which require you to visit a specialist. 

Here, we will explain the visual test you can do yourself: the footprint analysis. 

DIY: The wet test (footprint analysis) 

Runners love this analysis, which makes it the most popular one. 

  • Pros: quick, easy, DIY, no fancy equipment needed. 
  • Cons: it doesn’t tell you the exact height of your arch, no standardized data to compare to, rather subjective. 

Here’s how to do it: 

 

How to do a wet test

 

Got your footprint? Compare it to the results: 

 

Footprint analysis using a wet test

 

It’s obvious that the line between the flat arch and the normal arch, as well as the line between the normal and the high arch, is rather blurry unless your foot belongs to the extreme (or perfect middle). Other than that, this test is a good indicator of your arch type. 

 

Arch support and running shoes

“The more the merrier” can’t be applied to arch support. Sometimes it can get things worse by sending unreasonable stress to different joints and ligaments (as covered in this study and this book). 

Based on the arch type, you can look for the shoes that might suit you.

 

Arch height Shoes to look for
Low or flat feet Flat feet running shoes
Normal or medium Medium arch running shoes
High High arch running shoes

 

Arch height is usually tightly connected to pronation. In this overview, you can see how it relates not only to pronation but also the shoe wear and the type of shoes you should look for.

 

Arch type, foot mechanic and recommended running shoes

 

This stepping away from the “normal” or medium condition means our ankles compensate and that’s why overpronation tends to happen in feet with low arches and supination tends to happen in feet with high arches. 

If you’re curious how all these shoes “feel” in your hands, this overview will help. It’s obvious that going from neutral running shoes over stability running shoes to motion control running shoes, the degree of arch support grows. It’s not only arch support, though, but also other features that help reduce the excessive pronation and stabilize your foot. 

 

How to recognize running shoes with stability features

 

Pronation should not be defined by arch height only, as described in our in-depth guide on pronation. However, this is the most frequently used template and it tends to work for the majority of runners who have no serious issues. That’s why you should always consult a podiatrist if you’re experiencing any discomfort. 

Arch support for flat feet and low arches 

If you have low arches or flat feet, you’ll probably need arch support in running shoes. 

3-step guide: How to choose running shoes for low arches or flat feet

1. Determine your arch type: do you have rigid flat feet, flexible flat feet, or low arches? If you already know it, skip to step 2.

“Flat feet'' as a term has many meanings but doesn’t have a universal clinical definition. We’ve decided to follow Staheli because he divided flatfoot into only 2 groups: physiological and pathological flatfoot. 

  • Physiological flat feet: also called collapsed arches or flexible flat feet, they happen due to muscle weakness. 
  • Pathological flat feet: also called rigid flat feet, they have anatomically flat arches. 

 

Flexible and rigid flat feet

 

Still not sure which one you have? You can do two tests. 

  • Tiptoe test: rise up and stand on your tiptoes. If your arches form again, you have flexible flat feet. 
  • Jack’s test: have someone passively dorsiflex your great toe. If you have flexible flat feet, your arch will become noticeable. 

 

Tip toe and Jack test

 

This is how these two types of flat feet differentiate: 

 

Flexible flat feet Rigid flat feet
The arch is visible when there is no weight (ex. while sitting, on toes, or lying down); it disappears when weight is put on the legs. Arch is not visible; remains flat in all positions.
Usually painless Cause pain during everyday activities
Usually affect both feet Usually affect one or both feet

 

This means that, based on your arch type, you should look for

Both offer the support needed for overpronation; it’s the level of support that differentiates them. The line between these two types of shoes is often blurry. That’s why comfort should always be your #1 guidance. 

Now that you know your arch type, you should look for features of the shoes that will make your run more comfortable and safe. 

 

2. Features to look for in running shoes for flat feet and low arches

 

Running shoes for flat feet

 

Your feet will appreciate the support they can get and it comes in various shapes. Look for arch support only if you’re experiencing some sort of discomfort while running.

  • Wide toe box: helps during push-off while overpronating. 
  • Heel support: look for a stiff heel counter and more support in the overall rearfoot area. Some shoes even have plastic surrounding the heel on the outside to keep it as stable as possible. 
  • Midfoot support: on the outside, usually done with overlays, which help stabilize the midfoot area even more. On the inside, some runners prefer the noticeable cushioned pillow just below the arches. People with anatomically flat feet (rigid arches) should be really careful about this arch support as, according to some, it may cause knee issues. This study found no crucial influence of different arch support heights on rearfoot alignment during gait. 
  • Midsole support: comes in form of bars, rails and medial posts. Guide rails are really popular. They help prevent the foot from rolling inward. Some shoes have dual-density foam which has the same purpose - thicker foam is positioned on the inner side, so your feet are more supported and your shoes last longer. Depending on the brand and their trademarked technology, you’ll see plenty of variations, but most of them contain those keywords (rails or bars). 

 

Guide rails in stability running shoes

 

  • Shoe last shape: You should look for shoe lasts that are more straight if you have rigid flat feet. These shoes offer more support and are usually bulkier and thicker. For flexible flat feet and low arches, semi-curved shoe lasts are a good option. 

 

Shape of the running shoe last based on stability features

 

3. Try the shoe on and make sure it’s comfortable

Just because a specific shoe sounds great “on paper”, doesn’t mean it will work for you. Try it on and keep it only if it doesn’t take away from your running experience and overall comfort.

After a while, your feet muscles will get stronger. When buying another pair of shoes with arch support, it’s recommended to try shoes with less support and see if they work as well. 

BONUS tip: not all stability and motion control running shoes work in the same way (feature list above, remember?). That’s why it’s imperative to give more than one shoe model a chance. 

Arch support for high arches 

People with high arches usually supinate (underpronate) and shoe brands don’t make specific shoes for them - they’re in the same bucket with people with normal (medium) arches. That’s why it’s important to know what to look for in a neutral running shoe

Features of running shoes for high arches

When shopping for neutral running shoes for high arches it’s recommended that you look for these features: 

  1. Neutral running shoes must be comfortable, no exceptions.
  2. Cushioned throughout, especially at the forefoot. Usually, high-arched runners land on their forefoot, so additional cushioning is welcomed. It will help with shock absorption. 
  3. Under arch support, if it feels good. 

 

High-arch running shoes features

 

Mythbusting: arch support nonsense ends here

We’re going to list facts that might be contradictory to what you’ve read/known before, but are worth knowing. 

  1. How your feet work (function) matters more than their arch height. For example, this study has shown that impact forces during running don’t differ for different arch heights. 
  2. Strength and mobility of your arches matter more than their height. Arch height wasn’t found to be a significant etiologic factor for overuse injuries in running (you can read more about this here).
  3. Low arches don’t equal flat feet
  4. Not all flat feet are the same.
  5. Running shoes will not “fix” your arches nor pronation permanently. But, if your feet need special attention, a podiatrist will know that and might recommend insoles, orthotics, even surgery. 
  6. Not all runners with high arches underpronate, just like not all runners with flat feet overpronate. Pronation is more than arch height. 
  7. Arch support is not reserved for flat feet only. Runners with all types of arches might appreciate (and benefit from) arch support. 
  8. Running shoes should be recommended based on the individual running mechanic. When that’s not possible, look at arch types (as explained here). This study has shown that selecting running shoes based on arch height had little influence on injury risk (in military training). 
  9. When it comes to treatment, contrary to the popular belief, doing strength exercises for feet will not always help - whether you have flat feet or high arches. These two studies [1, 2]  have explained this in-depth. For this, an individual approach is imperative. 

 

Running shoes with arch support cost more 

Using RunRepeat data, we can see that the more support you look for in a shoe, the more money you should set aside. 

 

Price comparison of running shoes grouped by stability features

 

We can also see that only 15% of running shoes on the market were made for people with low arches or flat feet. 

 

Prices of shoes with arch support

Author
Jovana Subic
Jovana Subic

Whether it's a vertical kilometre or an ultra, climbing in the Alps or exploring local mountains, Jovana uses every opportunity to trade walls and concrete for forests and trails. She logs at least 10h/week on trails, with no off-season, and 4x more on research on running and running shoes. With a background in physics and engineering management, she prefers her running spiced with data.

jovana@runrepeat.com