I often get asked “what do you think about orthotics?” My response is that I believe everyone should own a pair of insoles or orthotics, because life happens. Just about everyone has moments where their feet are over-stressed or hurt. Most people will strain an arch, step off a curb wrong, or in some way irritate their feet at some point over the course of a year. An insole is a great way to temporarily pull pressure off your feet while allowing them to heel. With that said, I believe the goal should be to use them as little as necessary—limiting use to only these situations. For example, if you break your arm, you get a cast, but once things heel you remove the cast and your muscles are atrophied from not being used. While you wouldn’t immediately go back to lifting the same amount you did before the cast, you also wouldn’t leave the cast on for the rest of your life. Unfortunately, this is exactly what many people do to their feet with the “foot casts” of supportive shoes, insoles, and orthotics. The problem of course is that they become completely dependent on these things, very unlike most humans who have existed throughout the ages with no need for “support” whatsoever.
While there are a very small percentage of people who will need to wear an insole due to something like a genetic malady or misaligned bone structure, nearly all people should be able to function without the need of extra support like orthotics or so called “stability” shoes.
Those who strengthen their feet and are no longer dependent on supportive insoles will experience numerous benefits, since the foundation of their body will now be strong. Some of the benefits are:
- Less likely to be injured
- Their arch will be able to provide its own ‘arch support’
- Lighter weight footwear due to not having to use a heavy insole or supportive shoes
- Ability to wear faster, lighter, more flexible shoes comfortably
- Ability to go longer without feet fatigue
- Ability to run faster due to stronger feet and lighter footwear
The goal is to slowly get the foot stronger and more functional while decreasing the amount of support used. This is accomplished most easily be removing the insoles from your shoes. Simply remove the supportive insoles or orthotics from your shoes until your feet start to fatigue or ache a little bit. At this point, put the insoles back in. Repeat daily, and watch as you are slowly able to go longer and longer each day without the extra support. Depending on the condition of their feet, some people may make it 5 hours without having to use the supports, while others may only make it 5 minutes.
Runners should start taking the supportive insoles out of their shoes for shorter or easier runs and slowly work up the distance they can comfortably go without them until they eventually don’t need the extra support any more. This may take anywhere from a month to twelve months.
Additionally, the following exercises may help—taking caution to start with a small amount and not to over-stress the feet.
Exercise 1: Balance on one foot. This can be done in public setting like waiting in line to pay for your groceries, but also as a standalone exercise at home. At home, try picking one foot off the ground while closing your eyes. The goal should be to eventually get to where you can do 90 seconds per foot with the eyes closed.
Exercise 2: Toe Towel Pull. This is a great one to do while watching TV or reading a book. Simply put a towel down in front of your foot and pull the towel in with your toes. When done, do the same with the other foot and repeat as necessary.
Exercise 3: Small Amounts of Barefoot Running. Since it is a dynamic, natural motion exercise, barefoot running is the most effective way to strengthen weakened feet and arches. However, it can be easy to over-stress the feet. Start with running 30 seconds barefoot on grass, smooth sidewalk, or a treadmill. Repeat every time you exercise, adding 30 seconds once or twice a week. Maximum results will occur when truly barefoot on grass, but using socks and other surfaces may be necessary depending on the situation. The goal should be to eventually be comfortable running barefoot for 20 minutes a couple of times a week, as those who can do so will rarely need use of any type of “support” for their feet.
Exercise 4: Barefoot jump rope or hops. Since this is a bit more of an explosive exercise, make sure you are warmed up and start slow. Start with 30 seconds and add 30 seconds every few days.
Keep in mind that most traditional running shoes have elevated heels and tapered toe boxes that create a need for more support, and that shoes with foot-shaped toe boxes and level, balanced cushioning (no drop from heel to forefoot) will make things much easier. When the foot is in its natural position, it has an incredible capacity to support itself and function dynamically. For example, most people that can’t function well without their supportive shoes and inserts can “magically” walk barefoot on the grass or at the beach just fine. What is happening? Because 99% of all shoes have elevated heels and tapered toe boxes, when these people wear shoes, their feet are deformed out of their natural barefoot position. When the heel is elevated even just half an inch and when the big toe is bent in just a quarter of an inch, the gaps between the bones that stabilize the arch open up and destabilize the arch, causing collapse and a need for “support.” So while some arch support may be necessary in nearly all traditional shoes, your arch will do quite well supporting itself in any shoe that is shaped like a healthy foot and that doesn’t have a raised heel, especially once those arch muscles have been strengthened a bit.
It’s also worth mentioning that a majority of world-class distance runners and other athletes have flat feet or low arches. However, they have strong foot muscles. In most all cases, flat feet or low arches are not a bad thing by themselves. It turns out foot strength is far more important than arch height when it comes to foot health. No one should wear supportive shoes or insoles simply because of the type of arch they naturally have.
In summary, keep a pair of insoles for when you over-stress your foot or something goes wrong. Strengthen your feet so you don’t need to use them very often. Be faster, stronger, and more injury free as a result. Good luck!
Check out my other article on “Should I still wear my supportive insoles when switching to more natural footwear?”