The Mighty Arch, Part 2: Strengthen Your Arches to Treat and Prevent Foot Pain
The arches of the Roman Aqueducts are so strong they're still standing after nearly 2,000 years.
In Part 1 of our blog post about arches, we discussed the idea that arch supports in shoes may actually weaken the natural arches in your feet. In this follow-up post, we'll provide you with tips to develop strong arches.
To recap the last post, arch supports may prevent those muscles from flexing and strengthening properly, which may lead to injuries such as plantar fasciitis. As explained in an article by Dr. Ray McClanahan , the strength of an arch comes from weight bearing down from the top when both supportive sides are on an even surface; pushing an arch up from below is counter-productive. In my own experience, removing my arch supports and strengthening my feet by switching to barefoot shoes (in my case, Soft Stars) appears to have actually cured my plantar fasciitis naturally, and we hear similar stories every day from the barefoot shoe community.
Here's how Christopher McDougall explains it in Born to Run:
"Blueprint your feet, and you'll find a marvel that engineers have been trying to match for centuries. Your foot's centerpiece is the arch, the greatest weight-bearing design ever created. The beauty of any arch is the way it gets stronger under stress; the harder you push down, the tighter its parts mesh. No stonemason worth his trowel would ever stick a support under an arch; push up from underneath, and you weaken the whole structure. Buttressing the foot's arch from all sides is a high-tensile web of twenty-six bones, thirty-three joints, twelve rubbery tendons, and eighteen muscles, all stretching and flexing like an earthquake-resistant suspension bridge." 
And for those with short attention spans, here's how they explain it in Beakman's World. It's very poetic how they "remove the arch support" to demonstrate the strength of the structure:
I remember this show being much less annoying in the 90s.
Here's what this info suggests:
- Strong arches = strong feet, nice round arc, less chance of injury.
- Weak arches = weak feet, flat feet, begging for plantar fasciitis.
- Arch supports = weak arches.
So, do you want strong arches? If so, then the good news is that there may be hope even for flat-footers. As McDougall puts it in Born to Run:
"Feet live for a fight and thrive under pressure; let them laze around… and they'll collapse. Work them out, and they'll arc up like a rainbow." 
Tips for Strengthening Your Arches
Please note that undergoing any new exercise regimen runs the risk of injury. People with weak arches should be very careful to avoid doing too much too quickly. It is recommended to consult a medical professional first. We make no promises about results.
1. Try New Footwear
According to Dr. McClanahan, modern footwear commonly weakens arches, not only with arch supports, but also with thick heels that place your feet on a ramp and position the ends of your arches on uneven ground . Pinching toe boxes and toe springs that force your toes to stay in an upward position don't help, either. To promote stronger arches, look for footwear that has flat zero-drop soles with no arch support, no toe spring and no tight or tapered toe boxes that pinch your toes together. Thin and flexible soles will also help your feet bend and flex naturally.
We think Soft Stars are the best for this, since every one of our shoes was designed to follow these principles. If you do look for other brands, we encourage you to check out our free infographic on how to choose barefoot shoes. You can even print it out and take it to the store with you.
Of course, if you want the ultimate footwear for strong arches, you already have it: bare feet! While it isn't always acceptable to go unclod, walking around barefoot a little each day and paying attention to your body's natural signals to avoid pain may do wonders. And remember, if you aren't accustomed to bare feet or minimalist/barefoot shoes, transition slowly or you'll risk injury.
2. Foot Arch Exercises
These simple exercises, presented in beginner and advanced versions, can be done in your own home, and all you need is a penny and a pen! Try doing them for a few minutes each day, increasing as your arches strengthen. Stop if you feel pain, and remember to take a day off here and there to let your muscles rest and recover if they feel sore.
Easy Beginner Version:
- Start with your bare foot on a flat surface, toes spread out.
- Place a penny under the ball of your foot and the end of a pen under the middle of your arch (sticking out from the inside of your foot).
- Activate your arch by flexing your arch muscle. You should feel the muscles on the ball of your foot pushing down on the penny, but your arch shouldn't be pushing down on the pen. These tools help you (1) avoid rolling your foot and (2) avoid pressing down with your toes (as an extra tip, you can slide a business card under your toes before doing the exercise–when you activate your arch, you should be able to slide the business card out easily with your fingers).
- Do your best to keep your toes relaxed.
Once you're ready to move on, you can try this advanced version. It builds on the above exercise to incorporate full body twisting and balance, helping you to maintain proper arches while you move:
- Using the same ideas from above, stand on a flat surface in your bare feet with a penny under the ball of your foot and the end of a pen under your arch. This time, stand with your back a few inches away form a wall or a door.
- Lift your other leg (the one without the penny or pen) and stand on one foot. Use the wall for balance, if necessary.
- Lift one arm and stretch it across your body until you touch the wall or door on the opposite side, maintaining a straight back. Keep your foot straight and your arch on the penny but above the pen. Your arch will want to follow the movement and roll off, but you will need to activate it to stay stable during the movement.
- Lift your other arm and stretch it across the opposite side of your body, still keeping your arch in place.
You can see both of these exercises demonstrated in this video, which also explains how weak arches affect pronation:
Massage therapy is a great way to loosen muscles and help improve mobility in in your feet. As many people with foot pain have discovered, tight muscles in your legs or back can lead to tense foot muscles. All those muscles are connected, so tension in your back can cause tension in your legs which can pull the tendons in your feet and cause stiffness and pain. Getting acupuncture or a professional full body massage are probably the best ways to deal with this, but there are also some simple tricks you can do at home to help keep muscles limber. These are great for loosening up and improving circulation, both before and after exercise:
- Use a Tennis Ball: place a tennis ball under the arch of your bare foot and roll it around, stretching the muscles in your foot and promoting blood flow. You can also roll the ball under your calves and upper legs to work out stiffness and knots. If you feel the tennis ball is too easy, try a lacrosse ball for deeper massaging. This is also demonstrated in the exercise video above.
- Use a Foam Roller: those big overpriced rolls of foam that are now available in every department and sporting goods store are fantastic for self-massage (why a roll of foam costs $30 is beyond us, but they do work wonders—our advice is to not waste money on the more expensive fancy grooved ones because even the simplest rollers work great). The exercises you can do with foam rollers seem to be endless, and there are literally hundreds of free videos online showing how to use them to massage every part of your body. Here's one we picked out that specifically targets foot and leg muscles related to arches and plantar fasciitis:
4. Get Professional Help
Hopefully, these tips will help you prevent, treat or even cure arch pain, such as plantar fasciitis. If you find you have persistent foot pain, if your pain appears to be getting worse or if you believe your problem is more serious than something that can be treated with simple home exercises, then it is strongly recommended that you seek the advice of a medical professional.
An expert podiatrist, physical therapist or chiropractor can explore many other variables that could be affecting your feet and prescribe treatment specific to your needs. Be aware, however, that there are conflicting theories about how to treat foot pain. Many traditional podiatrists will be quick to prescribe expensive orthotics or arch supports rather than seek ways to strengthen your feet naturally, though they may find other issues that need to be addressed that you may have overlooked. It's up to you to decide which treatment method you prefer and to understand the risks involved.
If you do decide to look for a doctor who treats injures by strengthening natural foot function, we're happy to say our friends at Runbare have put together a growing list of "barefoot" doctors around the country. The Evidence Based Fitness Academy (EFBA) also has a similar list. One of our favorite docs, the previously mentioned Dr. Ray McClanahan from Northwest Foot and Ankle, even offers consultations via phone or email.
If you have any other tips or stories of your own, feel free to share them in the comments below. Here's to happy feet!
1. Dr. Ray McClanahan. "Arch Support" Correct Toes (August 17, 2012). http://correcttoes.wordpress.com/2012/08/17/arch-support/
2. Christopher McDougall, Born to Run (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 176.
3. Ibid, 177.
4. McClanahan. "Arch Support"