When a runner places his foot on the ground and transfers his weight through the foot strike and toe off, the foot naturally rotates. This rotation is called pronation. Knowing what arch type you have will help you pick the right running shoes.
Each person's feet are shaped with three basic types of arches. These arch types will give an indication of what is the right type of shoe for running. However, going to a running store and having a gait analysis done is the best way to find out exactly which type of shoe you need. Just because your feet have a certain arch type does not mean that you fit all the other patterns to determine proper running shoe type.
Note that while we call one of them "normal" or "natural" they are all normal and naturally occurring. Just because you have one foot type and not another does not mean that you can't run, it just means that there are shoes made to help minimize potential injury.
- Middle arch (normal)
- High arch
- Low arch (flat foot)
Feet with medium, or what is considered normal, arches tend to pronate in an efficient manner. Pronation is the way that the foot naturally rolls as the weight of the runner is transitioned from the back of the foot to the front.
A runner with normal arches, and therefore has what is called normal pronation, will land slightly to the outside of the heel or foot. As weight is shifted forward, his foot will roll gently inside so that he is pushing off with the ball of the foot behind the first 2 or 3 toes. If you look at this runner's shoes you will see that there is even wear at the back of the heel (sometimes slightly to the outside) and the ball of the foot.
When observed from behind this runner has little side to side movement in his feet and lower legs. It looks like a smooth, efficient back to front weight transfer.
Runners with high arches tend to underpronate, or it is also called supinate. This underpronation is defined by the runner landing on the outside of the heel and not rolling their ankle and foot inward as weight is transferred from the back of the foot to the front.
These runners run on the outside of their feet causing the smaller toes to do much of the work when pushing into the next stride. Looking at this runner's shoes you will see that all the wear is on the outside of the foot.
This runner's feet and lower legs look stiff when observed from behind. It looks like the runner is avoiding a blister on the inside of the foot. The smaller surface area doing the work is prone to injury because of the amount of weight and lack of shock absorption the foot is providing.
Low arched feet, or flat feet, tend to overpronate. This means that the runner with flat feet will tend to land on the outside of the heel or foot. Then as he moves forward and transfers weight onto the middle and front of the foot the arch will break down causing the foot to roll excessively inward.
This type of arch will make the runner push off with the inside of the big toe. Observing this runner's shoes will show that there is excessive wear anywhere on the heel, but usually the outside, and on the big toe. All the weight for the push off to the next stride is being done by the first toe.
Observed from behind, this runner looks like they kick their feet out to the side at the back of their stride, but work quickly to move the whole lower leg and foot back to the middle and in front of their other foot. This overpronation can be the cause of knee and hip pains as the new runner progresses in his running distances. It can also cause excessive stress on the feet and ankles.
Fixing Excessive Over/Under Pronation
There are different types of shoes that can help the runner. These shoes don't "heal" the runner. Remember that each of the arch types are normal. What a shoe can do is help even out weight transfer during the foot-strike and toe-off. This gives the runner more cushioning where needed or more stability if that is also needed.
A podiatrist can help a runner with custom orthotics too. These are used in conjunction with proper shoes for the runner's arch type. Orthotics are a compliment to the right shoes, not a replacement for them. While specialty running shoes can be expensive, custom orthotics usually cost $200 or more, but they can last through several pairs of shoes. When used properly, they can help eliminate many joint pains and bio-mechanical problems for the runner.
There are also those who recommend barefoot running as the answer to most foot problems. While barefoot running does not change the foot type, it will help the runner become more aware of the weight transfer which will cause him to become more efficient in his running style.
How to Know Your Arch Type
There is a simple way to know if you have flat feet or high arches. Wet one, or both, of your feet and step onto an absorbent surface. This could be a brown paper bag, or the sidewalk in front of your house. If the wet spot left behind is thick and fat, then you have flat feet, or low arches (overpronation). If the footprint left behind looks like an artist's representation of a foot, then you have normal arches (normal pronation). Finally, if your footprint is very narrow through the middle of the foot, or even disappears from front to back, you have high arches (underpronation).
Take some time to visit a local running store to get a recommendation on the right type of shoe for your feet. Good running shoes are expensive, but they may help prevent injury that would keep you from running.