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Common Foot Problems FOOT HEALTH INJURIES

Can You Be An Athlete With Flat Feet: Examining How Flat Feet Affects Athletes

If you or someone you know has flat feet, you may be wondering whether it will affect athletic performance. Different sports require different demands from your feet. Many people assume that if you have flat feet, your ability to play sports will be impacted.

Having flat feet (especially if it is not painful) is not a disadvantage when it comes to playing sports. You can be a successful athlete with flat feet. However, if you have painful flat feet with excessive pronation (as well as leg and knee problems), you may notice some limitations while completing some sporting activities.  

In this article, you’ll learn about flat feet and their impact on athletic performance, along with solutions on what you can do.

What Is a Flat Foot?

A flat foot is when your arch collapses when you stand. There are mild, moderate, and severe flat feet. 

When you roll inwards as you walk, you are “pronating”.

Some people with moderate and severe flat feet may over-pronate, which can cause issues in their arches, ankles, legs, and knees.

running

Does Flat Feet Make You Slower?

Having flat feet alone does not necessarily make you slower. However, overpronation can affect your gait and cause your body to expend more energy, which can make you feel more fatigued and potentially slower.

A study done by J. Sharma in the Indian Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery looked at 99 subjects (ages 18-25) with both “normal” arches and “flat feet”, and studied their ability to complete a 100-meter sprint, a 600-meter run, and a 12-minute run-walk (1)

What they found was that the normal-ached individuals performed better in the 100-meter sprint and 12-minute run-walk, however, there were no differences between the two groups in the 600-meter run. 

They concluded that individuals with a collapsed arch may have weaker muscles which can limit them from sprinting effectively. 

Although having a collapsed arch and overpronation may cause you to run a bit slower, flat-footed individuals can sprint and run marathons with proper training.

Solution

If you are a runner, never underestimate the power of the right pair of running shoes! 

If you participate in sprinting or running for long distances, you should always go to a running shoe store to pick out your shoes. 

It can be tempting to pick shoes online but refrain from doing this.

You should go to the shoe store at the end of the day when your feet are the most swollen. 

This will help prevent you from getting a shoe that may feel too tight later on.

If you wear shoes that are too tight, you may develop black toenails due to repetitive injury. 

The employee at the shoe store will use a Brannock device to measure your foot size and see how you walk. They will provide recommendations on the best running shoe for your foot structure. 

You can also request recommendations from your foot doctor.

You should try on multiple pairs of shoes before picking the pair that is right for you. This can make a big difference in your running ability. 

children sports

Can Flat Feet in Children Affect Their Ability to Play Sports?

All babies are born with a flat foot structure. Most children, ages 2-6 have flat feet. As children become older, the arches become more visible.

The final formation of foot bones is completed by age 18 (2). However, some children go on to adulthood and never form an arch.

A study done by A. Tudor in the American Academy of Pediatrics studied speed, power, reaction time, and balance in 218 children ages 11-15 years, with “normal” and “flatfeet” (3).

What they found was that there was no difference in athletic performance between the two groups. 

This is encouraging because oftentimes flat feet in children can be seen as a disability, and many children may be discouraged when trying to participate in sports, even if they are fully capable of participating. 

However, there are some things to be aware of that can limit performance in children with a flat foot structure. 

For instance, a lot of children are born with knock-knees. This is when your knees are close together (sometimes touching), and your legs go in an outward direction.  

Most children’s legs straighten out around 7 years of age. However, some children continue to have knock-knees into adulthood.

If you have knock-knees with a flatfoot, this can cause some issues when playing sports because your ankles and feet have to work harder to maintain stability.

If you are a runner, knock-knees may also cause some knee pain. 

Solution

Rarely, knock-knees may require surgery. However, there are non-surgical options that can help. 

Custom orthotics can be advantageous to help rebalance the foot. You can visit your local foot doctor to get orthotics made. 

Your feet would be cast using a plaster mold, and custom inserts would be constructed from that mold. The inserts can be placed directly into your shoes. 

In an adult, custom inserts can last up to 7 years. 

However, in children, due to the rapid growth of the feet, custom inserts may only last 6 months before they need to be replaced. 

Pro-tip: Check with your insurance company to see if custom orthotics would be covered, and how many pairs you can get in a year. 

Custom orthotics can be pricey (ranging anywhere from $400-$800), and the cost can add up. 

If custom orthotics are not covered by your insurance, and your child needs some type of arch support, they can wear the Powerstep Shoes Kids Sport Insole

It is for children who have mild to moderate flat feet. It is not for children with high arches. It is fairly inexpensive and will provide good support to the arch. 

For adults, I would recommend the Powerstep Protech orthotic. It has a firm arch, with a deep heel cup that will provide adequate support and keep your heels from sliding. 

gymnast feet

Types of Sports and Impact on Flat Feet

There are certain sports where having a flat foot structure is more often seen. 

For instance, flat feet are more commonly seen in gymnasts as well as wrestlers. These athletes train barefoot regularly.

There is evidence to suggest that people who undergo intense training (before their feet are done growing), may show adaptive changes in their feet (4)

This is not necessarily a bad thing. If your feet have flattened due to intense training, this could be advantageous because your body has learned to adapt to the demands of the sport. 

However, in certain sports like basketball that require you to jump high, some limitations may exist in someone who has severe flat feet. 

Your calf muscles may be slightly weak, requiring your body to work harder to jump higher.  

This can be treated with physical therapy.

surgery tools

Can Flat Feet Be Corrected in Athletes?

Although there are a variety of non-surgical options available for collapsed arches such as orthotics, bracing, and physical therapy, they cannot change the shape of your feet. Surgery would be needed to correct a flat foot structure. 

If you have severely flat feet that cause constant pain, you can speak to your foot doctor about flat foot surgery.

Flat foot surgery involves cutting and reconstructing the bones in your foot. This will create an arch in your foot and reduce pain. 

However, flat foot reconstruction surgery is an extensive surgery with a long recovery, and should only be done as a last resort. 

If you are an athlete who is looking to get flat foot surgery, expect at least 3-6 months of recovery followed by extensive rehabilitation to regain your balance and improve your strength.

Famous Athletes With Flat Feet- Who Are They?

There are many famous athletes with flat feet. 

Some well known flat-footed athletes include basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal, who has flat feet. 

Soccer player Lionel Messi is another well-known athlete with flat feet. Despite having flat feet, Messi has been known for his impressive footwork, agility and balance on the field.

In addition to these athletes, Olympic gold medalist swimmer Michael Phelps has also been open about his flat feet. Despite this, Phelps has achieved success in swimming, winning multiple Olympic gold medals over the course of his career.

Overall, these athletes prove that having flat feet doesn’t have to be a barrier to athletic success. 

With the right training, treatment, and mindset, athletes with flat feet can achieve their goals and perform at the highest levels.

athlete playing football

Conclusion

Many people with flat feet can go on to become successful athletes. However, if the flat foot is painful, it’s important to be assessed by your foot doctor.

Every foot is highly individualized, and the ability to play sports is not just solely dependent on your foot structure. Your legs, thighs, and hips also play a role in the structure and function of your feet, and should be taken into consideration. 

It’s important to seek care quickly to ensure positive outcomes. 

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References

  1. Sharma, J., & Upadhyaya, P. (2016). Effect of the flat foot on the running ability of an athlete. Indian Journal of Orthopaedics Surgery, 2(1), 119–123. https://www.academia.edu/24451706/Effect_of_flat_foot_on_the_running_ability_of_an_athlete
  2. Lichota, Małgorzata, Plandowska, Magdalena and Mil, Patrycjusz. “The Arches of the Feet of Competitors in Selected Sporting Disciplines” Polish Journal of Sport and Tourism, vol.20, no.2, 2013, pp.135-140. https://sciendo.com/article/10.2478/pjst-2013-0013
  3. Tudor A, Ruzic L, Sestan B, Sirola L, Prpic T. Flat-footedness is not a disadvantage for athletic performance in children aged 11 to 15 years. Pediatrics. 2009 Mar;123(3):e386-92.https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19254974/
  4. Aydog ST, Özçakar L, Tetik O, et al. Relation between foot arch index and ankle strength in elite gymnasts: a preliminary study British Journal of Sports Medicine 2005;39:e13.https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/39/3/e13.citation-tools
  5. Kumala, M. S., Tinduh, D., & Poerwandari, D. (2019). Comparison of Lower Extremities Physical Performance on Male Young Adult Athletes with Normal Foot and Flatfoot. Surabaya Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Journal, 1(1), 6–13. https://doi.org/10.20473/spmrj.v1i1.16156

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Vaishnavi Bawa
Dr. Vaishnavi Bawa is a Podiatrist who specializes in treating foot and ankle pathology. LifesLittleSteps mission is to educate the public about foot health in an easy-to-understand manner using evidence-based medicine.
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