How I fixed my flat feet…

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I actually do not remember clearly when I started wearing shoes insoles to help me release the pain I was feeling in my feet after a run. At the age of 15, I complained of foot pain after running. I went to see a foot specialist and I was diagnosed with flat feet. One foot – the left – was more flat than the right one but this overall condition was the reason for the pain I experienced. I was given insoles made specially for my feet to fit within my running shoes. With those I could run normally. I was explained that this was a condition which would change a bit and the insoles would need to be adjusted every year as my foot would change. There was no cure,  I would be like that forever.

The problems with wearing insoles

Wearing insoles in your shoes is no fun. The insoles never fit perfectly unless they are custom made. You get blisters after long runs before it creates chafing. I was also experiencing pain when I was hiking/walking for long durations, so the insoles ended up into my hiking shoes and at some point in my daily walking shoes. The issue is that they were not fitting exactly and every time I was changing shoes, fitting was a problem. You have to buy a bigger size just to fit your feet and the insoles well. You also have to remove the shoe inner insole which is not always possible or easy to do. Well there is no universal solution: they were custom made to my feet but customs cut to fit within my running shoes. And every year I had to get new ones, and good ones are not cheap.

Fast forward 20+ years. I was already back into running after a long break. Somehow I had stopped over the years, put up some weight too. I started running with my insoles in my shoes. At that time I was not changing it every year (by laziness) though I could feel differences in my foot feelings with time. At first 2km were hell, then a bit better then 5km. My shoes and insoles were back into running mode. For about 6 months I trained. I did my first races in KL 10km, 12km and 15km. That last one was the 2xu compression run in November 2013. By January I was starting training for half marathon (standard chartered) which became a full marathon training following running friends.

The tipping point

At that time my wife was working at BFM 89.9 the business radio station in malaysia. Around May 2014 she interviewed a personal trainer Liam Harkness from BU Wellness and in the conversation somehow she mentioned I was running but I had flat feet. The trainer casually told her that this is a condition that can be fixed with proper muscular exercises at the feet level. No more details. When back home, she told me that. I could not believe it. After all I had been told that this condition would be there forever and that I would need insoles forever… So I searched what people were saying on the Internet. And yes ! There were people telling their story about fixing their flat feet.

One website that helped a lot was fixflatfeet.com. It actually comes first on Google ! The author was tracking his progress, measuring them by inking his feet on white paper sheets and trying all kind of exercises. And he fixed it. The web site is not very user friendly as tracking the exercises is not easy but it was more of a blog with a trial approach.

When you have flat feet, there can be many conditions but probably a very common one is that you have no arches on your feet and you can’t for example put a finger under your foot when you stand on your feet. You can fix that and build arches. They won’t be big huge arches like some people have naturally but you will build arches and technically stop having flat feet. Essentially having flat feet is having low arches and very weak feet muscles.  The exercises are aimed at building mobility in your feet, increasing strength and endurance in order to build more arch support with your muscles and being able to sustain that for long with all your weight on it.

Talking about weight, if you are overweight that can contribute significantly to your flat feet condition. After all, your feet arches have to support too much weight and give up under it. combine this with extreme support from shoes and weak feet muscles due to the lack of feet exercises, that’s a killer combination…

Working on your flat feet…

The recipe to follow was (heavily inspired from fix flatfeet.com):
  1. Patience (I’m not kidding here !)
  2. Loose weight
  3. Every day exercises
  4. Transitioning slowly to minimalist shoes after transitioning to Front Foot Strike
  5. Doing some barefoot activities once the feet would be more muscular.

Do this for a while and you will fix your flat feet issue (provided you just have flat feet and not something more complicated). I didn’t do everything that was said but I will share here what I did which helped me fix my flat feet. In fact, even if you have no flat feet and wear shoes all the time, it’s worth putting effort in strengthening your feet, calves and other lower leg muscles…  I first started to do the following exercises. You will notice some of these exercises are also recommended if you start transitioning toward barefoot running:

  • Arching your feet”: put your foot flat and while you keep your toes straight and not folding them (if you do so the arch is not working as much as your toes are “pushing” it up). Now try to flex your arches up. You won’t be able to do it long at first (cramp feeling). But it makes you feel and realise you have a weak arch that can’t flex long. How can it support your body weight ?
  • Spreading the toes:  put your foot up, spread your toes. You need to be able to do this as it will “wake up” the muscles that you’ve probably never used in your feet. It takes time to get a pretty good mobility of your toes. Spreading them is the first step.

 

  • Flexing the toes while keeping the big toe up: this is to increase your toes mobility and control over the muscles in your feet. Not directly related to building the arches, but the more control you have on your foot and the supporting muscles, the more able you will be to control other muscles in particular the arches ones.
  • Stretching of your calves – wall stretch and yoga pose downward dog
  • Raising your heels – This exercise is to build your muscles in the foot and in the calf. Stand up on your toes statically and stay up for 30 seconds. Go down and rest then repeat few times depending on your tireness. When you do this you will also flex your arches muscles in a dynamic way similar to the running movement. It’s also very good for your balance.
  • Raising/Lowering your heels: same exercise as the previous but you will need a stair step. Do the exercise being on the step and bring up your heels then lower down the hills. Keep this for few seconds then up again. Repeat many times. The difference is that when your heel is down, you won’t have the rest that the ground provides. It’s more difficult and good for balance too.
  • Walking on your toes: same exercise as the previous ones but instead standing up, keep walking forward as if you were wearing imaginary high heels !
  • Standing on your feet side: you stand on the external edges of your feet and stand up to put your weight on them. It’s good to increase flexibility of your feet and ankles/legs/knees as well. It will stretch, take it easy but it very good especially for your ankle. You can then walk like this once you are comfortable. This is also good because if engage your entire foot and contract your arches muscles.
  • Standing on the inside part of your feet: this is also to increase your flexibility in the ankle in particular. Once you’re good with this, you can start walking like this. This is good as at the same time it’s stretching your arches muscles.
  • Sorting marbles – transfer from one pile of marbles to a bucket using your feet only and the big toe with the smaller toes to catch and carry the marbles. This is great for flexibility in your toes. At the same time when you catch a rock/marble it contracts many muscles in your foot. You will have a foot more able than the other at this game.

Measuring your progress

This is important. I don’t think you need to do it very scientifically, ink your feet, measure the arches on the footprint… What I did was quite empiric and simple: go walk outside barefoot on an easy surface (tiles for example). It is dirty and your foot will get dirty where the sole is in contact with the ground. Once you have walked enough to get a good color on your feet, take a photo of your feet sole. You will see your footprint easily. Compare photos overtime. At some point try to put a finger under your arches.

Wearing minimalist shoes

At the same time I went to buy a pair of running minimalist shoes. After careful consideration I went for a Merrell road glove 2. It’s a zero drop road running pair of shoes. Very light. I knew however the transition would not be easy and take time. In January 2013 I had been running for 6 months with a Newton pair of running shoes. They have these dents at the front part of the sole which make them have only 6mm of drop. It had taken me months to be comfortable with them, building up strength in the calves. Essentially I had already moved to front foot strike coming from the world of hill striking. That’s a big step already. But I knew moving to minimalist shoes would be as long.

I started using the shoes to walk and took 6 months to swap the Newton with the Merrell. Moving from RFS (rear foot strike) to FFS (front foot strike) is not easy and requires time, effort and patience. Moving to minimalist is a similar effort. To be noted I started with the Merrell without insoles while at the same time I was running with my insoles in the Newton. I had to start running 2km, 3km… Slowly to get the feet right as there was also nearly no cushioning. It was about 2-3 months walking, doing strengthening exercises then 2-3 months running gradually short distances.

Don’t underestimate transition time…

danger

At the same time I was training for Putrajaya P100 after standard chartered. My LSD for standard chartered and river jungle marathon had been done with the Newton, so were the races. For P100 training I started reaching the point where I could do 20km with the Merrell. However impossible to reach 30km without big pain in the calves. I wasn’t quite ready. And that’s LSD slow pace ! Imagine a race. So I ran P100 with the Newton and the insoles. After that I decided to go full time with the minimalist but take the time to do so.

My first race with the minimalist was a 12km in December 2014, it was good but I was still not used to race pace with minimum cushioning. It takes time to build endurance in your feet muscles and calf. After this race I even experienced some slight pain in the feet heels on the left  foot. I went too fast on that and probably was heel striking due to the excitement of the race. After 1-2 weeks of rest, it went away. I then started running more barefoot starting with short distances while for my running I kept the minimalists but focussing on having a good running gait, trying to have a high cadence (180bpm), … You can read the posts on barefoot running for more info on this.

Another transition to barefoot running

I have to say it was slow and tough ! My feet sole skin is very soft hence it took a while to build some harder skin. Don’t be disappointed it does take time. But time is needed to build your muscles to a stronger level. From 1km to 10km it took me about 3 months. I had to fight blisters that were coming whenever I was increasing the max ran distance or when I was increasing the pace. In any way I was close to my usual distance or speed with shoes.

However it helped. When running barefoot on the road or dirt, you feet soles get dirty and you can see where you actually which part of your feet was touching the ground. And one day I realized that my arches were clean. The only reference was when I started to work at strengthening my feet muscles. There was no arches as I could not slide a finger under the arches without putting weight on the finger. Now I can slide a finger with no weight. Technically my flat feet are fixed.

Recently in June I ran 30km barefoot at back to endurance and 26km with the minimalists. I ran 70km in minimalist and sandals at route 68, 50km in minimalist at king of sungai Lembing. I guess it’s a definitive goodbye to shoes insoles. However you need to keep the exercises and working out Rhodes toes and arches as a preventive maintenance practice…

What’s next ?

What next for now ? I’m trying to run barefoot on longer distance and different surfaces while getting used to run with the Luna sandals. Running barefoot is not really possible on some surfaces or when it’s too warm in the afternoon. Also for trails I run with minimalist and once I master the road in sandals I might try the trails in sandals.

Online resources

You need to browse and find couple of resources on the internet. I think most valuable ones are those that try to give you methods using exercises. If you see something which says you need arches support or insoles… well not everything on the internet is to be trusted. If insoles were a solution, I would have had my flat feet fixed long ago just with those… One piece of advice would still be to clearly identify and classify the type of foot condition you have, then see what can be done.

  1. Weekly Updates @ Fixflatfeet.com – this is the best site though it’s hard to find information. Flat feet can be many conditions, so i’m not sure it covers 100% of the cases
  2. http://www.marksdailyapple.com/flat-feet-treatment/
  3. https://www.reddit.com/r/bodyweightfitness/comments/2soeip/simply_question_has_anyone_fixed_their_flat_feet/ – interesting Reddit forum about the topic where many people tell their story
  4. http://www.livestrong.com/article/416886-exercises-to-correct-flat-feet-in-adults/
  5. http://dailyvitamoves.com/fix-flat-feet-exercise-fallen-arches/
If you come up with this wikihow page… stay away from it, it just keeps saying “insoles, insoles”…
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