Every athlete, professional or otherwise, has to deal with the body’s quirks. We each have a few unique details that make us different from the general populace. Most of the time, these are minor variations that occur naturally in the population like weak knees, double-jointedness, or having one leg ever so slightly longer than the other. Other conditions might be the result of past experiences or previous injuries that never fully returned to normal like an ankle that’s prone to re-spraining or the lingering risk of carpal tunnel syndrome, even if you’ve got it mostly under control.
Athletes with Flat Feet
One of these small physical variations that makes life more interesting is flat feet, also known as collapsible arches and pes planus, depending on who you’re talking to. Flat feet may or may not be identifiable when the foot is held up in the air to examine, but is undeniably obvious when standing. When you put weight on a normal foot standing on flat ground, the arch remains in place, tensing to provide shock absorption.
With flat feet, the arch simply isn’t there. Your foot depresses all the way down to the ground, leaving a complete footprint instead of one that only shoes the toes, balls of your feet, outer foot, and heel. Many people live their entire lives with flat feet and have no noticeable problems. For athletes, this abnormal foot behavior can result in serious injury if not prepared for.
What are Flat Feet from a Medical Perspective?
In medical circles, flat feet are usually referred to as ‘pes planus’ which roughly translates to ‘feet like flat planes’. While flat feet are easy to diagnose from the outside with zero medical experience, knowing the reason behind flat feet is incredibly useful when planning to compensate for them during exercise.
Normal arches are not bones or cartilage, so you’re not missing anything vital. Instead, they are formed by a band of tendons pulled taut that attach the heel to the rest of your foot bones. These tendons elastically hold your foot in the ‘arched’ position when suspended in the air and when placed on the ground to support your weight. The purpose of the arch is to act as shock absorbers, flexing just a little with each step and landing to give you a strong walking and running push-off and support.
Flat feet, on the other hand, occur when those tendons are loose and do not pull together properly. Variations in tendon tension from person to person can result in some flat feet looking normal when held in the air while others are visibly flat because there is little to no tension in their foot tendons.
Causes of Flat Feet
The most common cause of flat feet is heredity. About 30% of the population has at least minorly flat feet and most of them inherited it from one or both parents. Inheriting flat feet simply means that your family tends to have loose foot tendons. Sometimes children appear to have flat feet when young but develop arches as they grow while others have arches when young but growth spurts result in flat feet by adulthood.
Other reasons to have flat feet are usually related to some kind injury of the foot tendons that causes looseness and never fully recovering. Stretched or torn foot tendons can cause it, as can any damage to the structure of your feet. Being overweight puts you at greater risk for developing flat feet and also makes it more difficult to live with having them. You can also get flat feet form certain health problems like nerve disorders and rheumatoid arthritis.
Everyday Challenges of Flat Feet
The most notable difference between arched and flat feet, and the one that causes problems for flat footed people, is how you stand and step. Because the arch prevents the inside of your foot from hitting the ground, it means you only stand on the balls, outsides, and heels of your feet. This is the proper way to stand for good structural health in your muscles, tendons, and skeleton. Standing without arches subtly changes your posture, effecting how your legs hold weight, the way you walk, and the effects of standing for long periods of time.
The most common physical challenges of people with flat feet, therefore, tends to be pain in the feet, knees, hips, and lower back. People with flat feet may find that they have additional foot pain and aches after standing too long, that the knees take more damage from movement, and that the subtle difference in joint alignment can cause hip and back problems that usually manifest as aching. Pregnant women with flat feet often have an unusual amount of trouble getting around while they carry the temporary extra weight and are at a higher risk for long-term knee and hip damage without care.
Injuries Caused by Flat Feet
While most people with flat feet grapple with minor aches and pains, any sort of intensive athletic activity puts additional stress on the flawed foot to hip alignment and can put you at a higher risk for sports related injuries. Not every athlete with flat feet is accident-prone, but some experience repeated problems with the same few conditions.
Ankle Sprains – Flat feet allow your ankle to roll quite far inward while standing flat on the ground. This may seem like a flexibility bonus until it rolls in too far when your landing from a jump or a running step, at which point it promptly becomes a sprain. People with flat feet may sprain their ankles much more often than others.
Meniscus Tears – When flat feet put extra stress on the knees, this can cause damage, especially if you’re dealing with repeated impacts from heavy steps. This can cause tears in your shock-absorbing cartilage pads in your knees, known as the meniscus, causing permanent knee pain when exercising.
Shin Splits – Without shock-absorption from the arches, your feet and legs take greater impact from every running step, putting you at a greater risk for shin splints. Compression sleeves help improve blood and oxygen circulation to your legs and feet, as well as reduce muscle vibration which could cause soreness and fatigue.
Hammertoes – Sometimes the structural difference in flat feet will cause other structrual foot problems like hammertoes, which occur when the middle joint of a toe gets stuck in the ‘up’ position.
Achilles Tendinitis – People with flat feet may flex too much with each step, putting unnecessary stress on the achilles tendon, causing swelling, tears, pain, and tenderness.
Plantar Fasciitis – If your arches are soft but your plantar fascia (tissue under the foot) are not, you can trigger this painful heel condition by over-stretching the underside of your foot with each step.
Arthritis in Knees and Hips – The structural problems associated with flat feet can result in grating of the joints along the knees, hips, and lower back which can result in or exacerbate existing arthritis in these joints.
Home Treatment Options
Unless you’re willing to discuss surgery with your doctor, there is no ‘cure’ for flat feet but there are a few things you can do to compensate for the support and structural deficits you may be struggling with. Always start with the shoes. Stay away from flats whenever possible and seek shoes that provide a comfortable molded arch as part of the sole. You can also get special inserts for your shoes, often sold at sports shoe stores or ask a doctor to make you orthodics molded to your exact foot size and desired shape. For walking around barefoot or in flats, you can maintain good posture and support structure by consciously arching your foot with each step and putting your weight on the outside of the foot rather than the whole surface.
As for the joint problems, if you’re suffering from constant turned and sprained ankles, a simple ankle brace might be enough to prevent the problem or keep you mindful of your ankle position and knee braces are often helpful for distributing impacts when your shock-absorption structure is flawed.
Living with flat feet may be challenging, but there are thousands of flat footed athletes who don’t let it get them down or slow down the workout routines in the least. All you need is a little awareness and compensation and your flat feet will soon be just another one of those little physical quirks. For more information about preventing flat feet from ruining your athletic pursuits, contact us today!