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Arch support in a shoe seems to be important these days. I recently read an opinion that Vibram five-fingers shoes might not be as good as once thought, partially due to lack of arch support.

People used to run and do all activities without shoes. Even recently, Converse (presumably without arch supports, same as today) were an official shoe for things like basketball. Our feet are not formed with shoes in mind. Shoes were an afterthought.

So, why is arch support so important? Is it because our feet have become accustomed to them and are now incapable of safely walking / running 'the natural way'? Is it a marketing gimmick? Or something else?

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I mostly agree with Marten's answer in that feet have changed with the widespread adoption of constant wearing of shoes, but I disagree with some of his other facts such as his assertion that there are no successful barefoot or minimalist runners (never mind that, at high levels of competition, arguing about minimalist equipment is kind of silly since they're working at the level of shaving off hundredths of a second).

Essentially, some people have weaker, or even fallen, arches, or "flat feet" as the old term went. Sometimes it's something you're born with. Sometimes it's the result of past injury. If you have flat feet, you're going to need arch support, the same way that you'd need braces on your leg if you'd sustained injuries that left your legs unable to handle the regular impact of running. For most people, it simply is not an issue.

The best advice I've seen on barefoot and minimalist running is to try it in small segments first, 50-100 feet. It does change your technique, providing strain in body structures that you may not have exercised, even if you regularly run in shoes, so you want to start out slow and then ease your way up. Listen to your body. Also, if you are actually diagnosed with arch problems, talk to your doctor. There's some evidence that barefoot walking or running can help, but actual results may vary depending on the cause of your fallen arches, and leaping into it is more likely to cause injury.

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  • What's weird is that I have water-ski flat feet, but do a lot of running and walking. Long multi week backpacking trips, etc. I use zero-rise flat shoes, and generally find arch "supports" to be painful. I've always been a little curious about the whole arch support thing. – Eric Jul 17 '15 at 17:25
  • {nods} Some people have perfectly strong feet, but they're flat. There is no 100% solution. – Sean Duggan Jul 17 '15 at 17:37
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    Zola Budd ran barefoot in track events, here is a video of her setting the 2000m world record in 1984. – Phizes Jul 17 '15 at 19:36
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First, feet do not look the same anymore, the use of shoes from early on shapes our feet, not only in their performance but also in their shape.

This is a picture of feet used to shoes and feet that has not been adapted to shoes:

Feet adapted and not adapted to shoes

So basically, you can not expect that since we didn't use shoes, it's now safe (or better) to run barefeet. If you're flatfooted like me, running with shoes with arch support is a lot more efficient since you don't collapse (roll inwards) in every step. Also, sometimes, doing what's natural is not always best. Toughening out infections is not as good as using antibiotics. Similarly, shoes could enhance our natural pedal abilities. In addition, feet are evolved to run on dirt, not on asphalt or concrete.

Regarding injuries, there is not really any good support for arch support. In a US army study of almost 3000 people, prescribing running shoes had no effect on injury rates.

Looking at professional runners, there are 0 highly successful runners who run without shoes or with toe shoes afaik.

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