If you have flat feet, any old shoe just won't do—especially for your workouts.
Photo: Anetlanda / Getty Images
If you're a fitness addict, you can probably relate: You order a new pair of shoes that look soooo cute online, but just a few minutes into HIIT class, they're squeezing and cramping your toes or causing your heels to ache.
While this online shopping fail is super relatable, it likely speaks to you especially if you have flat feet—which is about 8 percent of U.S. adults, according to a 2012 survey by the Institute for Preventative Foot Health.
But what are flat feet, exactly, and what does that mean for your fitness (and shoe shopping) routine? Here, expert tips for dealing with flat feet, plus which sneakers are your best bets for happy arches.
What Are Flat Feet, Anyway?
A "normal" foot has a medium-to-high arch and an imprint of the heel and ball of the foot. (An imprint is basically what would show up if you dipped the bottom of your foot in paint and then made a footprint on the floor.) Flat feet overpronate (when your foot rolls inward) and have a very low arch with a full imprint.
You can tell if you have flat feet if the arch of your foot touches the ground when you walk, and/or if your ankle leans inward while you're walking, says Dana Canuso, M.D., podiatric surgeon and founder of Dr. Canuso Skincare for Feet in Marlton, NJ.
This may seem like NBD, but here's why it matters: "Flat feet are very mobile in their bony structure, and they can be problematic because they are more likely to fatigue and break down due to imbalances and foot weakness," says Lutz Klein, M.D., CEO of currexSole of the Americas, an insole company.
Flat feet are partially genetic, so you can blame Mom and Pops for that one. "Most of our foot shape and structure comes from our parents," says Dr. Canuso. However, lifestyle factors, such as weight gain, wearing unsupportive shoes, and physically traumatic incidents as a child or adult can make flat feet worse. Other habits—such as poor posture, carrying things on one side of your body, tilting or leaning on one side to stand on a dominant leg—can all put pressure on your feet over time and cause weakness, making flat feet worse, explains Dr. Klein.
Having flat feet may be tied to other foot conditions and muscle spasms, too. For one, having flat feet might be the reason behind your plantar fasciitis, the most common cause of heel pain. FYI, plantar fascia is the flat band of tissue (ligament) that connects your heel bone to your toes and supports the arch of your foot, says Dr. Klein.
"When your feet are flat or collapsing, your plantar fascia stretches [think of the straight part of a bow-and-arrow bow] and this over-stretching causes the plantar fascia to pull away from its insertion point on the bottom of the heel, causing pain," explains Dr. Canuso. (FYI, consider trying these recovery tools for plantar fasciitis and foot pain.)
And, heads up: Wide and flat feet aren't the same. In many cases, flatter feet are also wider, but a wide foot could have a high arch, explains Zimmer. "If you have wider feet you should look for a wider shoe, but a flat arch does not automatically lead to a wide foot," he explains.
How to Strengthen Flat Feet
Unfortunately, there's no real fix for flat feet. Your best option is to work on strengthening them to keep them free of injury and tension and to avoid any pain both when you work out and during everyday activities.
One of the easiest ways to take care of flat feet is actually super easy: just walk around barefoot. Walking barefoot is beneficial because many people have their feet in poorly fitted shoes all day, which can further impact the arches and lead to flat feet, says Dr. Klein. (Related: These Stylish Sneakers Can Correct Your Foot Alignment)
You can also try to stimulate your muscles with exercises that can build foot strength. "Calf stretches, toe yoga (press the big toe down while lifting the other four toes up), and even exercises like gripping a towel with the toes can strengthen the feet and arches," says Dr. Klein.
You may also want to consider getting arch supports or insoles because they can help to train your foot muscles while you're moving around, says Dr. Canuso. "Insoles help support the muscles and ligaments of your arch, including the plantar fascia. They're designed to align the back of your foot and allow you to walk in a way that dispenses pressure evenly throughout the gait and running cycles, taking pressure off of muscles that may be overused in an overpronator," she adds.
Note: You should avoid rigid orthotics. "You cannot force bones in the foot to move," says Dr. Klein. "You need to strengthen the muscles and ligaments around these bones to treat flat feet." That's why dynamic insoles are better for creating change, he says. See a podiatrist for custom orthotics.
And if you have flat feet (or think you do) and are also experiencing any foot, ankle, knee, hip, or back pain, head to the podiatrist. All of those joints can be affected by flattening arches. (FYI, you should also be stretching your feet post-workout.)
How to Find the Best Sneakers for Flat Feet
1. Look at the last. "Finding the right shoe fit is about the shape of the shoe and how it's made—it's not necessarily about the padding, arch, or toe in the shoe," explains Dave Zimmer, owner of Fleet Feet Sports in Chicago. There are two ends of the spectrum in shoe construction: a straight-last shoe and a curved-last shoe. (A "last", BTW, is the shape that a shoe is built around). Flat feet generally do better in a straighter-last shoe, he says.
However, your best bet is to get your foot scanned to guarantee you're getting the right shaped shoe, he says. You can do that at a shoe store that has a 3D scanner (which you can find at most running shoe stores).
2. Look for low- or no-drop. In addition to wearing shoes with the right shape, you might want to wear shoes with a low drop alongside dynamic insoles, says Dr. Klein. "A low-drop shoe means that there is a low or non-existent heel-to-toe drop," he says. (For example, high heels are high-drop and flip-flops are low- or no-drop.)
"Shoes with a high drop encourage severe heel striking, which can contribute to knee injuries," says Dr. Klein. "They can also be unstable, which contributes to imbalances. A low drop shoe offers a reduced risk of injury because it mimics the natural 'barefoot' feel," explains Dr. Klein.
3. Look for arch support. When looking for flat feet–friendly sneaks at the store, you should avoid any shoes that have an obviously flat sole. "Look for running shoes that have an arch built into not only the sole of the shoe but the insert in the shoe as well," says Dr. Canuso. When trying on shoes, your arch should immediately feel supported by the shoe. If you notice any give under your arch, it's only going to worsen after wear, she explains.
Bonus tip: Be vigilant about changing your sneakers regularly. Changing your shoes depends on how much you use them, but if the soles and tread are worn out, it's time to swap for a new pair. "Change shoes before this happens. For avid runners, we suggest about 300 miles," says Dr. Klein.
Try These Sneakers for Flat Feet
Overwhelmed? Head to a shoe store and try one of these pairs recommended by Zimmer: