Does Arch Height Affect Athletic Ability?

By Oghale Eleyae, DPM

     Among all the things that I learned during my sports medicine fellowship at the Barry University School of Podiatric Medicine, I became fascinated by one particular phenomenon. There seems to be a relationship between foot type and specific sporting events. After close observation and an ongoing study, I have noticed that athletes with tibia varum, cavus foot type and, sometimes, an in-toe gait tend to excel in sporting events that primarily involve quickness in acceleration, stop and go maneuvers, and cutting.

     Researchers have made correlations between foot type and specific athletic abilities in the past. Orendurff, et al., compared plantar pressure in straight running, accelerating, jumping and cutting maneuvers.1 They concluded that plantar pressure in straight running is less than that in accelerating, jumping and cutting maneuvers. While the purpose of this study was to determine shoe gear cushioning requirements, the study shows there is more stress on the foot during acceleration and cutting maneuvers. The foot has to supinate to achieve a rigid lever necessary for pushing off during acceleration, stop and go maneuvers and cutting.

     Another study by Lees, et al., looked at the relationship of ground reactive forces to arch height.2 They determined that the structure of the foot was not the major factor in determining the transmission of ground forces to the musculoskeletal system in forefoot running. This study may imply that the foot type should not matter when it comes to certain athletic abilities. However, this study looked at straight running in relation to a vertical ground force rather than cutting and acceleration.2

     As foot and ankle specialists, we agree that pronation is necessary for absorbing shock. This implies that an individual with a reduced medial arch will pronate to absorb shock on foot strike before resupinating in order to push off. On the other hand, an individual with a high arch is likely to pronate less, depending on how rigid the foot is, and accordingly resupinates more readily.

     This may explain why an individual with an increased arch may be more successful in sports like soccer, which involves a great deal of stop and go maneuvers, cutting and acceleration.

Key Insights From A Biomechanical Perspective

     The correlation of arch height and athletic ability makes sense on a biomechanical level. As biomechanists, we should understand how the ankle joint, subtalar joint and midtarsal joints work together to absorb the shock at foot strike. (We would not necessarily be looking at shock absorption at heel strike because the heel does not always hit the ground in a running gait.) Then we should evaluate the subsequent realignment to form a rigid lever for propulsion.

     Accordingly, the mechanism goes from supination to pronation at foot strike to midstance (shock absorption) and then back to supination for propulsion. Since those with high arched feet are supinated in relaxed or neutral stance positions, they usually form a rigid lever quicker than others. This is an advantage as far as athletic ability is concerned. However, it leaves the athlete prone to certain injuries.

     A high percentage of athletes I saw who were involved in physically demanding events like soccer and basketball usually presented with injuries consistent with a high arched foot type and tibia varum. Examples of these injuries include ankle sprains, styloid process irritation, Jones fractures, fifth metatarsal head pain, inflamed peroneals, shin splints, etc. The frequency of these types of injuries provides insight to the common denominators. In these cases, the common denominators are foot type, shoe gear and type of sporting event.

     A Few Thoughts On An Ongoing Study To Investigate Arch Height

     Just to be clear, this connection between arch height and specific athletic abilities is based on anecdotal observation. It is currently not supported by any study published at this time.

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