In a world where we are bombarded by advertisers and marketers from large corporations and international brands its important to stay above the surface and not fall to slogans or false promises.
With that in mind, fitness walkers should be cautious about choosing shoes that market as having arch support or motion control as you may not necessarily need the additional support and cushioning these provide.
Who Needs Arch Support in Walking Shoes & Why?
Strictly speaking every person benefits from some level of arch support in shoes. Bear in mind that the shoe industry uses the label to mean support formed by moulding a raised shape into the insole in the arch area. Underpronators, overpronators and normal arched people all need support if on their feet all day. The actual shape you individually need is dependent on activity as well as your foot type. Whilst individual needs vary, the average need can be compartmentalised into activity type and arch type.
Walking Activity Types
Fitness & Power Walkers
Fitness & Power walkers walk longer distances than the average person and walk at a much faster pace. This means the flow of pressure to their feet during a stride cycle is different because of the speed they walk.
The heel hits the ground with more force than an average walker, more like a runner.
The movement or flow of pressure from heel to midfoot and arch area is rapid and transitory but repetitive.
The force of pressure on the toes and ball of the feet is necessarily more in order to maintain a quick momentum.
As you can see there is quite a lot going on in the foot and it is very repetitive because of the number of strides they need to take to cover the distance they walk. As a result, they tend to get more foot issues than the more casual walker.
That is why they are the main audience for walking shoes with arch support if they suffer from overpronation, supination, or experience pain in their heels, ankles, and shins.
Your lifestyle or foot shape may not require more than normal arch support so read this article before you pay extra for walking shoes.
More Casual Walking Exercise
Most people are not power walkers but engage in walking at a more normal pace. They may walk and engage in power business meetings, they may walk in social groups or with loved ones, they may go out with their families or walk the dog or they may just walk to get away from it all, get some exercise and grab a moments peace to listen to their favorite podcast.
The commonality between these groups is that they walk for moderate distances and at a moderate pace.
In the motion of their stride, their heels impact the ground with less force than fitness/power walkers because they are moving slower. Their arches have more time to flex and distribute pressure better unless they are flat-footed in which case there is more time for the foot to go through the normal phase of pronation.
There is less pressure on their toes and the ball of their feet when pushing off to continue their forward motion.
Their needs are less intense than fitness & power walkers and runners but they do still have a need for arch support. the biggest difference is in the levels of cushioning needed in the various parts of the shoe - and comfort.
Walking on Treadmills and Other Exercise Machines
People who enjoy treadmill walking or exercising on machines, or are forced to by the weather, have yet different needs.
Most machines and treadmills particularly have some spring in the walking surface. This is totally different from walking on concrete and more akin to walking on grass yet even more springy.
For this activity, you need support to your arches as there is still the pressure distribution and roll phase of each step taken. However they do not need, nor do they want a lot of cushioning because they are getting this already from their exercise machine of choice.
Other machines such as elliptical trainers and crossfit machines have much much lower impact pressure profiles for each step as the foot remains on the foot plates and simply pushes to maintain motion.
Trail walkers tend to walk longer distances than casual walkers and walk over more rugged, often wet, terrain.
This activity requires a shoe with much reduced flex and a thicker, more rugged sole to stand up to the rough ground underfoot.
They also need to provide stability to maintain balance as you walk over uneven ground whilst providing some cushioing for comfort.
Waterproofing is essential if you intend to walk through wet ares, wet grass, tiny streams and the like. The degree of waterproofing needed will naturally depend on where you intend to walk yur trail.
These shoes, more commonly boots, are much heavier than is desirable for any of the above types of walking. Support is needed for the arch to avoid pain developing because of teh distances and longer times spend walking at any one time.
City Walkers, People at Work & Shoppers
City walkers are those who regularly walk for fairly long periods on concrete surfaces. they wall going about their business, maybe delivery persons or maybe just shopping or commuting.
These people need some support but their walking tends to be more intermittent, with short bursts of walking leading into periods of standing still.
For some activities, the standing periods can be quite long and for others, the walking periods are longer. Once again arch support suitable for your feet will help if you have an issue but otherwise, you are mainly looking for comfort.
Cushioning throughout the shoe and a suitable design of shoe which may be dressy or casual or a work type shoe with safety toe caps.
Click to Watch a Video on Arch Supports
What is Arch Support?
Our feet are naturally built with arches that support our body weight while standing and walking.
Because of how different our feet are built some people may require extra support and cushioning for the arch of the foot to prevent and minimize pain as well as help in the injury recovery process.
Arch support in shoes is essentially any material and mechanism that is slightly lifted with extra cushioning and support that allows for the even distribution of weight on the surface of the insole.
The arch of the foot works in unison with bones, tendons, and ligaments to allow the foot to store elastic energy every time it comes in contact with the ground and then the recoil effect by the arch pushes off and propels you forward like a spring.
There are three types of foot arches.
The first is what is known as a “normal arch”, not to say that other foot arches are somehow non-normal. In this, anatomically ‘normalized’ shape the foot has a clear but not overtly expressed… well, arch.
The two others are fallen arches and high arches.
A fallen arch refers mostly to flat feet that have little to no distinctive arches in the middle of the foot. Feet with fallen arches are much more likely to develop overpronation.
Pronation is the word used to describe the natural roll of the foot when placed on the ground in the movement phase.
This phase is essentially three stages heel strike - arch distribution - push off. Every time you take a step your foot naturally curves inwards but too much of this phenomenon is known as over pronation and can lead to joint pain as well as long-term injury
Contrarily, a high arched foot has a dramatically raised mid-foot. The connective tissue and bone alignment of high arched feet do not allow for much flexibility and the arch does a poor job of absorbing pressure and allowing the foot to roll normally. This leads to higher pressures in the outside area of the foot (because the arch is inflexible and does not 'flex or spring' to distribute pressure and is suggestive of supination.
Arch support and similar orthotics like motion control were introduced as a means to help overpronators, flat footers, and supinators who may experience pain during long walks with non-supported walking shoes.
However, how are we to know that shoes branded as having arch support aren’t just marketing ploys by large companies. After all on average a shoe with arch support or motion control is priced around 25% higher than regular minimalist shoes.
The following information is based on a wide range of studies including medical studies such as the effect of orthotics on flat-footed children, the effect of orthotics on improving balance and reducing pain. There is a multitude of studies to look at if you want to spend a few months reading them all but the best study is personal empirical evidence.
It is undoubtedly true that shoes with support in the form of moulded insoles do reduce pain for some people. It is obviously true that a shoe with rigid reinforcement in the shoe to prevent flex will be less flexible than a shoe without; all other things being equal.
Most of my day is spent researching shoes and reading users comments, researching manufacturers literature and reading various studies. I mix what I read with my personal experience to try to explain things to you understandably and strip out the hype and technobabble that just serves to confuse.
I can tell you that many people find relief through supportive shoes that match their needs and others who experience discomfort from certain features of a shoe.
Anyway, this article will mostly focus on walkers and arch support in walking shoes.
Who Can Arch Support Help?
While over pronation and supination are literally opposite issues they may have the same solution for fitness walkers.
Arch support in walking shoes is a general term for a raised and more cushioned midsole and insole. For instance, a combination of motion control and arch support is good for overpronators. Pressure on their midfoot is more evenly distributed by the supportive insole and the motion control reduces rotational flex in the shoe which would otherwise allow it to twist, causing roll which is what needs to be reduced for overpronators.
Whereas a slightly raised arch with extra cushioning will help increase balance, once again by allowing more even pressure and stability for supinators but the motion control or reduced torsional flex is less necessary because their inflexible arches are not rolling so much in the first place.
In fact, enhanced arch support in walking shoes will prove beneficial to treadmill, road, and light trail walkers with flat feet, overpronators, and supination suffering from knee, shin, ankle, and heel pain.
You would think that walking and running are similar enough for the use of arch support to have similar effects but this isn’t the case unless we are talking about power or fitness walking.
By this, I mean walkers who walk at a very fast pace (almost jogging but not quite) and over longer than average distances.
Running shoes are quite suitable for this activity type because the motion and pressure forces on the foot are similar between runners and power/fitness walkers.
It really boils down to weight. When running you are bouncing off on one foot, two to three times your body weight.
Whereas when walking you aren’t so much using the bounce from your inertia rather you are rolling off from your heel to the ball of your foot in a smooth motion with often two feet on the ground using only one to 1.5 times your body weight.
Those who suffer from knee pain and have walking shoes with arch support will not necessarily see faster recovery time but at least there will be no extra pain inflicted on the knee.
If you have knee pain and are looking for shoes that might help, our review of shoes for Knee Pain article might help you.
Pain from shin injury or more scientifically medial tibial stress syndrome can be easily reduced in people with high pronation with the use of arch support and extra cushioning.
Arch support is especially beneficial for people suffering from flat feet or severe overpronation. In this instance, extra support and comfort actually can help prevent shin injury and not just lessen pain.
No one likes getting a sprained ankle but you can take some steps to prevent injury during your speed, tread or road daily walks.
Arch support will soften the load and weight on the Achilles as well as keep the foot straight and stable so that future sprains can be avoided.
Some studies have observed that orthotics can help shorten the recovery time for inverted ankle sprains.
Injuries to the heels are among the most common that happen to fitness walkers.
Because of the extra cushioning in the shoe and the added arch support, people suffering from heel injury have reported feeling relief in the affected area. Arch support for heel pain is especially useful for supinators.
For anyone with flat feet, a more neutral cushioning is recommended.
The Bottom Line
Here’s the thing, shoes marketed as having arch support are in fact more expensive than non-supported models. However, if you are a passionate fitness walker who has a rigorous walking routine you may want to consider paying extra for added support.
The cushioning of the insole and midsole as well as overall build of the shoe that supports the foot arch allowing for a smooth roll-off from heel to ball and an elastic spring-like lift-off from the ground with minimal effort is well worth it, especially for anyone suffering from supination, mild over pronation, and severe pronation or flat feet.
How to Know if I Have Pronation?
There's an image above which shows a person with overpronation. Unfortunately you can't see yourself from behind but you could ask someone to take pictures and study your stance as you go through the stance cycle.
There are simple tests you can do right now to get a better understanding of your foot’s pronation. Keep in mind these tests are not exhaustive and should not be the only factor that determine whether you need arch support, motion control, or custom orthotics in your walking shoes.
A common method is knows as the wet yes. Simply dampen the bottom of your feet and place them on a piece of hydrophilic paper or similar cloth.
If you have an almost singular flat image then your feet are over pronated whereas if you see a thin line connecting your toes and heel with little ball area covered then you are likely a supinator.
The same test can be done with washable paint.
You can also look at the bottom of your old walking shoes. The portions with the most wear and tear will indicate your pronation. Those worn on the insides indicate over pronation and vice versa for supination.
Again most experts insist that this should not be the only factor that determines what kind of shoe you need. Each foot is different and those with over pronation may not necessarily benefit from motion control or arch support.
Do Runners Really Need Arch Support?
Arch support in running shoes may actually lead to complications and shorter injury recovery times.
Studies found that the elevated insole can result in pain and osteoarthritis of the knees. This occurs due to the increased impact on the knees after every step, in fact, the impact was 12% higher when compared to barefoot walking even in people with supination or over pronation.
Despite what brands will tell you, runners may not necessarily need arch support instead custom orthotics and other running shoes will do the trick, unlike fitness walking shoes where arch support plays a much more important role.
Similarly, motion control shoes only correct 2% of your gait while running whereas in walking they play a crucial role in providing support, cushioning, and the necessary elasticity to spring off the ground.