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Let’s Talk About Arch Support May 19, 2010

Posted by The Barefoot MD in : Health, Running, Shoes , trackback

I walked into the store and the clerk asked me, “What can I do for you?”

I scanned the walls and found exactly what I was looking for . . . Vibram Five Fingers (VFFs).  I said, “I saw on the VFF website that y’all carry those shoes,” motioning to their small VFF display on the wall.  I knew what I was looking for.  I had recently made the decision to incorporate running into my life.  I didn’t want to go the traditional route because, let’s face it, I’m anything but traditional.  I had heard of the shoes and read on their website that the Sprint, KSO, KSO Trek, and the Flow were recommended for running.

The clerk asked me, “Did you read Born to Run?”


“That’s actually why these have been so hard to get a hold of recently, but we have the largest selection in Utah.  We’ve carried these since they came out.”

As I picked up the KSO I asked, “Do these have good arch support?”

Now, why did I ask this question?  Most likely for the same reason you have asked the same question.  I’m a product of advertising.  Do we really need arch support in a shoe?  I’ll address that in a bit.  The fact is, VFFs have absolutely NO arch support.  There is no padding.  The point is that these shoes allow your feet to function the way they are supposed to function.  In an extensive and well written essay, Dr. Joseph Froncioni, an orthopedic surgeon,  references several studies and summarizes that the “shodding” of our feet has several deleterious effects.  He references one study by Dr. B. Marti of 5,038 runners.  (Note that this study was done in 1989 so adjust the cost of shoes.)  He found that the incidence of injuries in runners using shoes costing more than $95 was more that twice as great as in runners using shoes costing less than $40.  What is common in the more expensive and more high-tech shoes?  Softer cushioning, greater arch support, more foot control, etc, etc, etc.  Multiple studies demonstrate the increasing age of a shoe results in less cushioning to the foot and reduced injuries.  It all comes down to feeling.  Dr. Froncioni poses this question and answer:

Why are super shock-absorbing athletic shoes causing more running injuries?   Dr. Steven Robbins from the Centre for Studies in Aging at McGill University in Montreal is the man who came up with the answer.  Dr. Robbins pointed out that the human lower extremity is not a delicate, rigid, passive structure requiring ‘packaging’ to protect it from impact.  This becomes blatantly obvious when one observes the nearly complete absence of foot disorders in unshod populations.  People who go around barefoot just don’t get plantar fasciitis or any of the other lower extremity injuries so common in shod populations.  The lower extremity, he points out, is a rugged, flexible, active, well designed (theologically) structure.  Wire this structure to a spinal cord and a brain and what you’ve got is a system fully capable of handling the impacts of running.

He notes that the impact of a heel strike form of running can generate a force equal to 2.5 times the runner’s weight at the foot and up to 7 times at the hip.  That’s a lot of impact!  There are several key components at play in the foot when the “barefoot” stride is analyzed.

First, and most obvious, is the fact that you feel your impact.  Second, and not quite as obvioius, is the motion of the foot as it impacts the ground.  Take off your shoes and jog 100 feet.  You may start out landing on your heel, but I guarantee when you get to the end of the 100 feet you’ll be coming down on the front part of your foot.  This is indicative of the sensory feedback you’ve just opened up by taking off your shoes.  Your body just adjusted to the environment.  The arch is meant to move and absorb in conjunction with the achilles, calf muscles, quadriceps, etc.

Next question.  Can my feet handle running barefoot after living a life in shoes?  Dr. Froncioni asks a similar question and shows us the answer in his essay:

Is it possible to rehabilitate the weakened muscles of a normally shod runner?  It certainly is according to another excellent study by Dr. Robbins (1987).  He asked 17 normally shod recreational runners to gradually increase barefoot activity both at home and outdoors over a period of several weeks and to maintain barefoot activity for about four months.  The runners’ feet were examined, measured and x-rayed at regular intervals to detect changes.  Results showed marked improvement in the anatomy and function of the arch.  The authors concluded that the normally shod foot is capable of rehabilitation of foot musculature.

So, the answer to the above question . . . yes, our feet can be rehabilitated.  However, as I’ve mentioned before . . . make that transition very slowly.  You’re going to use muscles you haven’t used in a looooooong time.  You’ll feel it the next day, especially in your lower calf.  You need to expose your feet to the normal stride a bit at a time over a long period of time so they get the signal to start rebuilding.  Listen to your body and follow Michael Sandler’s instructions on transitioning into VFFs here.

Now, go enjoy the world the way you were born . . . barefoot.

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1. Matthew Abney - May 19, 2010

David –

Great post! You do a wonderful job of explaining and articulating on the big misconceptions of barefoot/minimalist running…”arch support”.

One analogy I’ve hear about the arch is that it gets stronger with increased weight and pressure not weaker. A good stone mason would never dream of supporting an arch from the bottom because it gets weaker.

Anyway very articulate and nice references to real studies.