The Mighty Arch, Part 2: Strengthen Your Arches to Treat and Prevent Foot Pain

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 [1], 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, Softstars) 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 his bestselling book 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." [2]

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." [3]

 

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 [4]. 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.

Bonus tip: if you want to speed up the recovery process, consider trying toe spacers like Correct Toes to help increase circulation and restore the natural shape of your foot.

We think Softstars 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.

Need a place to start? Here are some of our most popular styles, all handcrafted in Oregon, USA:

soft-star-ballerine-flatsshop-dash-runamocsshop-hawthorne-chukkasoft-star-solstice-sandal

 

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:

  1. Start with your bare foot on a flat surface, toes spread out.
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. Do your best to keep your toes relaxed.

Advanced Version:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. Lift your other leg (the one without the penny or pen) and stand on one foot. Use the wall for balance, if necessary.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:

 


 

3. Massage

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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, is a leader in the field and we would absolutely recommend him if you live in the Pacific Northwest.


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"

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39 Comments

  1. Maro Desjardins
    Thanks so much that was incredibly instructive and clear. I am a runner and have recently added yoga to the mix. I am 48 and have bunions and run about 7 miles a day. Recently my feet have been hurting so much when I wake up and I think these arch exercises should help. Thanks again.
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Glad you like it Maro. We hope your feet feel better!
      Reply
  2. heather
    I always had naturally high arches, and was told many times i needed shoes with arch support!
    After working at a heavy labour job standing/running on concrete all day and having to wear heavy warm boots for some years, I noticed that my arches had begun to fall a bit. Oh no! I generally wear flipflops as long as I can in good weather, but the lack support around the ankles which has issues. But I found that over the summer, my feet would get a bit better. I am still waiting to get some soft stars, but have been doing foot exercises which help.
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Glad to hear you're taking care of your feet! Many people ignore foot problems until they have a serious injury.
      Reply
  3. Arch Shoe
    Thanks a ton for sharing such useful tips. I hearty request everyone not to ignore foot pain either mild or severe because it could be an early sign of a variety of serious conditions and consult an experienced podiatrist if these tips won't work for them.
    Reply
    1. Elf martin
      Thanks. Great advice!
      Reply
  4. Isabel
    Hi, I tried the arch exercises and found that when I push the ball of my foot against the penny, the muscles on the inside of my knee will tighten. Is that normal?
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Isabel. It's certainly normal to feel the muscles in your calf and lower leg activate, although I'm not quite sure exactly which muscles that includes and how. Unfortunately, while we like to repost recommended exercises like these, we're neither qualified nor allowed to give medical advice.
      Reply
  5. Theresa
    Thanks for posting these exercises. I have one arch that is a little weak. I hope that the combination of losing a little weight and these exercises will keep me on my feet for a long time.
    Reply
  6. Plantar Fasciitis Causes
    Plantar Fasciitis Causes
    Great article! Absolutely agree with your points :) I wish more people were in minimal shoes!
    Reply
  7. Monty thiessen
    Thanks for this awesome sharing. I have Plantar fasciitis. I have big trouble while walking and running. So I decide to buy a running shoes and night plaster. Sometimes I have pain while sleeping. And also I will try your tips.I hope all we can have better and painless life.
    Reply
  8. jayden
    Thanks for nice post, I have plantar fasciitis and I want to fix it; I will try this method!
    Reply
  9. Derek
    I have always had flat feet. I have played squash at a very high level and now only coach. Even so I have to move and love to walk but it is painful. I have orthotics and look for boots for walking.

    Rather than surgery, is it worth working at arch strengthening exercises. The pen will not fit UNDER the arch. My foot sits down on the pen hard for your basic exercise.

    Any suggestions gladly received.
    Derek
    Reply
  10. Elf Martin
    Hi Derek. Sorry to hear about your foot pain. I've found exercises to work well for me, but like I said in part 1 of this series, I caught my plantar fasciitis early and I'm not sure how more serious cases would react to the treatment I used. You may want to refer to the resources at the end of this post and consult a doctor who specializes in natural foot health for a professional opinion.
    Reply
  11. flokon
    Hi there,
    most recently I have developed a sore (inflamed) plantar fascia. I never had problems with my plantar fascia in my life. I have regular arches I'd say, and upped my mileage to 7-10miles 4-5 times a week about 8 weeks ago.
    I've been using barefoot shoes (Vivobarefoot) as footwear (not for running yet!) since June and haven't had any problems so far.
    My question: how do I treat my acute inflamed fascia (it is diagnosed as inflamed plantar fascia by a doctor). I guess strengthening my arches is a no-go as long as my condition is acute? Is running ok? I don't have pain when running. if so, how long should I take a break from running, and when should I start with strengthening exercises? Also, are those exercises something that one can check off one's schedule once strong arches have ben established or are toes/arches to be exercised regularly as a runner?

    Thanks for your help, and greetings
    Flokon
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Flokon. I'm sorry to hear about your arch pain. Unfortunately, your condition is beyond our area of expertise (remember, we're shoemakers, not doctors). We recommend seeking the advice of a medical professional... ideally one who supports the idea of treating foot problems by restoring natural function rather than just assigning orthotics. You can find a list of resources at the end of this post. Good luck!
      Reply
  12. Ken Freeland
    thanks for this wonderful tutorial on building arch support... just what I was looking for!
    Reply
  13. Faris
    Hi, all what you put in this article make sense! Recently I have a pain under my toe when I run about 15k, the padiatrist recommended a custom insole. I kept try and error and back to him to make an adjustment to the insole but recently I started to have a soar shin and calf after 5k run. I decided to buy another shoe hopping to solve the problem but still I didn't use it yet due to a cold issue!
    For sure I'm going to follow your exercises and I wonder if this going to solve my shin and calf as well.
    Thanks
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      I'm glad you liked the article, Faris. Good luck finding relief for your toe pain!
      Reply
  14. HJ
    Would love to wear the 'barefoot shoes' you recommend but I seem to have lost most of the fat pads in my soles - and need some form of cushioning. Any suggections? Now I am in rocker soles (MTB) with orthotics but my arch muscles are so weak I cannot even go without orthotics for an hour and not have pain.
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi HJ. Sorry to hear about your foot pain. We don't offer cushioning in any of our shoes, but you may want to consult the opinion of a podiatrist who advocates treating foot pain by restoring natural movement rather than orthotics. I don't know anything about your case, but we frequently hear from people who claim they need cushioning (sometimes for the same reason as yours) only to find out that the right exercises and a careful transition to minimal shoes will eliminate their pain. Dr. McClanahan has many more helpful articles on his clinic website (www.nwfootanke.com) as well as on the Correct Toes website (www.correcttoes.com). Good luck!
      Reply
  15. Dom
    Does walking on your toe's (balls of your feet) help build/strengthen your arches, like dancers/ballerina's?
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Dom. I've never heard of toe-walking as an exercise for arches. On the contrary, I learned from minimal running workshops that extreme forefoot running (i.e., running without letting your heels touch the ground) can cause excessive strain on your calves and may lead to injury.
      Reply
  16. Tara
    Hi,

    I have fallen arches and I have pain in my feet and also in my knees and ankles. I wear orthotics but still the pain doesn't go. If I do these exercises will it build my arches and alleviate my leg pain too ? How many months would it take to see the difference
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Tara. For liability reasons, we can't make any promises about medical treatment or recovery. While many people have used these exercises to strengthen their arches, results can vary depending on each individual's situation. We recommend contacting a medical professional who encourages treating foot pain by restoring natural foot shape rather than orthotics or surgery. You may want to consult the website of Northwest Foot and Ankle (www.nwfootankle.com). Good luck!
      Reply
  17. BIll Wright
    great exercises. How much and how often should we do them?
    Reply
  18. Mirjam
    Thanks for this useful article! I developed plantar fasciitis a months ago (it was quite sudden). The turning point in my recovery (the physio exercises didn't seem to do much) was walking barefoot on a beach for several hours! Afterwards I put my shoes back on, and I was walking normally without a limp. I'm now halfway towards my usual exercise level, though not running yet. Any advice on how I might go about this?
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      So glad you found it useful, Mirjam! I'm no expert, so I can't give medical advice, but I can tell you that the tips and exercises on this page helped me. Also, resting and letting muscles recover was important, too. I found I couldn't go back to my old shoes because the plantar fasciitis would eventually come back. Switching to minimalist shoes kept it away, but if you do that then you'll want to be careful to transition slowly (see our post about that from September 2015). Best of luck to you!
      Reply
  19. Steve Withington
    Steve Withington
    Hi,,
    i had a problem with my left foot arch dropped and also near small toe top side a pain was told by docs it might be ligaments or morton nuroma !!! just get a stab pain top left like i have twisted the foot under going with physio but had it now over 6 months does seem to be getting better if ligaments how long i did run and jog a lot but stopped now since this happen.I just walk taken some fitness out of me now, any help or idea would be great
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Steve. I'm very sorry to hear about your foot pain... it sounds very frustrating! Unfortunately, we are not medical experts and are not allowed to give medical advice (only relay tips from doctors). I recommend seeking the help of a medical professional, preferably one who seeks to treat foot pain by restoring natural movement instead of just prescribing orthotics, drugs or surgery. You may want to consult with Dr. Ray McClanahan's clinic, Northwest Foot and Ankle: CustomerService@nwfootankle.com or 503.243.2699 ext 112. Sometimes they can do consultations over phone or email. Best of luck!
      Reply
  20. Riza
    Hi, I’m very much interested to know and try this natural treatment but do you guys happen to know any doctor or therapist here in Edmonton, Canada who shares the same line of thought? All the ones I’ve been to so far always suggest that there’s no other option but to wear orthotics, thanks in advance!
    Reply
  21. Chad
    I have walked my whole life, but last year I got plantar fascitis on one side, then my ankle blew on the other. I thought it was all my weight, so I lost 109 lbs in a year. It just got worse. I have fought to walk pain free for a year. Went to 3 physical therapists, 3 doctors, and at least one PT told me he had never seen arches "come back" and that I need to keep orthotics in at all times, however I wanted to walk around the house without orthotics.

    I finally ran into the video listed above that shows the penny/pen exercises. I forced and was cognizant about strengthening the arch for 2 days. My knee pain has slowed down. I am walking barefoot without much pain.

    TWO DAYS with the right information can change your life!!!!!

    It makes me so mad that the established medical practice is to NOT TRY TO LET YOU STRENGTHEN WHAT YOU HAVE
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      We're glad you were able to find a solution to your pain, Chad! And yes, we understand how frustrating it can be to be given expensive, complex solutions for foot pain when taking simple steps to strengthen your feet will usually do the trick.
      Reply
  22. Andrea
    How do you get a good arch in your foot? What exercises? Thank you!
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Andrea. The exercises are shown above in this post.
      Reply
  23. Jasmin
    Great job. Thanks!
    Reply
  24. Lilia Robberts
    Lilia Robberts
    Thank you for sharing exercises I can do to improve my arches strength. I didn't know if I placed a penny under the ball of my foot and then put a pen under the middle of my arch that when I flexed my arch muscle that I should feel my muscle pushing down on the penny, but I shouldn't feel the pen. Along with doing these exercises, I am going to be finding myself a good foot doctor to go to.
    Reply
  25. Linda Myerson Cohen
    Linda Myerson Cohen
    Does this apply in the case of adult onset flat foot? Can these exercises potentially help my fallen arch?
    Reply
    1. Elf Martin
      Hi Linda. We've heard from many people that these exercises work for them, but We can't make any guarantees. We have heard from Dr. McClanahan that while some people have flat feet due to weak arches and will likely benefit from the tips above, others have a medical condition that causes their feet to be flat and will not be able to change that with exercise. We're not medical professionals here, so I'm afraid I can't tell you which category you'd fall into. You may want to check out Dr. McClanahan's other articles or contact his clinic for more info: www.nwfootankle.com. Best of luck!
      Reply
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