Updated: Mar 11, 2020
What are flat feet and, more importantly, what does having them mean?
Feet are called ‘flat’ when they have fallen arches and, as a result, overly pronate inwards – it is a fairly common condition. They can be hereditary, be the result of an injury, or a combination of genes, footwear, and other lifestyle factors. Labeling yourself with "flat feet" is going to put you in the wrong mindset to help improve your situation. "Flat feet" is always seen as a negative thing so the moment you say you have "flat feet", it is automatically a negative mindset. Having the belief that your pain, restrictions, injuries can be fixed is the very best way to start because your mind will help you get there a lot quicker.
Feet and humans go back a long way. In fact, they go back all the way, right to the beginning. They grew up together and evolved together, for hundreds of thousands of years before any shoes showed up on the scene. In the modern world, shoes have served to protect our living tissue from the unnatural surfaces that generate excessive forces, both at the surface (skin), and below it (bone). The increase of human-made debris has also created safety issues while walking barefoot through natural environments. Stemming from pre-antibiotic days when foot puncture could be catastrophic even for a healthy person. Footwear gradually evolved from light surface protection to completely engineered full-body stabilisers like the hiking boot.
Footwear has evolved to a level of almost complete protection of the tissue from the environment. What began as the protection of the foot has steadily become the encasing of the foot, usually in materials more rigid than the feet themselves. In other words, what da Vinci called "a masterpiece of engineering," a machine whose refined design evolved over millennia is now stuck in one of your shoes.
When an engineer begins making repairs or modifications to any machine - whether made of metal or organic tissue - the engineer has to ask the question: What else might this change affect?
A biomechanist looking at the mechanics of the human body will ask a similar question: For all the benefits that protective footwear may bring, what else might it affect?
Consider all of the bones and muscles that make up and control your hands and fingers, and how many wonderfully unique ways you can move them. The ability to type, play the guitar, conduct surgeries on microscopic tissue, and even button up your shirt is all a result of learning how to use the muscles in your hands and keeping them limber through regular use.
Now imagine that when you were two years old, someone placed stiff, tight, leather mittens over your hands, lumping all of the bones together, every day, from morning to night. Your body would adapt to the situation, learning how to use the muscles of the forearms and the joints of the wrist to a greater extent. You would learn to use the outside edge of your hand as one "finger" and train the digits to all work as a single entity. This way of using hands would be completely normal to you, as that is the way it would always have been.
Now ponder this: the anatomy of your feet indicates the potential for them to be about as dexterous as your hands. However, the act of wearing modern footwear every day has created a mitten-hand situation in your feet - and you didn't even know it. We have weak, underdeveloped muscles within the foot and have placed large loads on the muscle of the lower leg, on the joints in the foot, and on the passive tissues (those that cannot adapt strength) like the fascial systems and ligaments of the foot.
The good news is, by learning a bit more about your foot machines, you can restore a lot of lost function and start the repair process right away. As long as your feet contain living tissue, they can change, grow, and improve, no matter what they've been doing (or not doing) up to this point.
Because so much conventional (and expensive) podiatry pushes insoles to ‘support’ flat arches, many people with flat – or flat-ish – feet think barefoot isn’t for them.
We say: THINK AGAIN!
1. What matters isn’t how HIGH your arches are but how STRONG they are.
Everyone is built differently, but having "flat feet" doesn’t mean they can’t also be STRONG feet.
Strong feet are less likely to be painful feet that have restricted movement. Orthotic insoles restrict movement, potentially weakening the muscles of the arch, as the feet now have no need to do any work as the orthotic is doing it all for them. What a lot of people don't realise is that the arches in our feet our actually created from our hips! Having strong and active glute muscles help stabilise the hip and create the arch - try it for yourself - stand shoulder-width apart, push your big toe into the ground and slightly externally rotate your knees and hips - this will activate the glutes and pull the arch up into a strong position. After all, how does immobilizing a muscle make it stronger?
2. What matters more than how flat your feet are is how you walk (and run).
Barefoot inevitably means using all the muscles and tendons in your feet more, including the arches. Going barefoot and wearing minimalist shoes means you are more likely to have better gait when you run and walk, as your feet cannot land out in front of you in a crushing heel-strike. Mid-to-forefront landing, with feet under your hips and shorter steps, can strengthen your foot muscles. So barefoot shoes might help you walk and run better, which in turn might help build up foot strength. Every time you are barefoot, you are strengthening the feet.
3. There are some studies which support barefoot being beneficial for flat feet
While there is still a lot of research to be done, there are a few interesting studies to note. One Indian study compares schoolkids who are regularly shod (wearing shoes) to others who are regularly unshod (barefoot). They found the regularly unshod kids had overall wider feet (a sign of foot strength) and presented with fewer flat feet, which may indicate flat feet cannot always be blamed on genes. Another study found positive changes in the arches of people who increased their barefoot activity. And finally, a third study found barefoot running did reduce the pronation of runners – something people with flat feet tend to do.
Now, it is not an easy journey, and in some cases you made need to push through some discomfort to get where you need to go, but remember you are trying to change adaptations in your feet that have probably taken 10, 15, 20+ years to develop. Wellness is out there for those who are willing to work for it!