Overprontation and Hiking

Overpronation is when the foot over flattens during walking. During a hike, this over flattening can cause the joints to take on more rotation force which can lead to common aches and pains in the ankles, knees, and hips. This post will look at causes and solutions for hikers with overpronation.

As a physical therapist assistant for the past five years as well as a personal trainer, I know that a lot of problems can start in the feet.

Where Does It Hurt?

The survey results were found at the website The Trek, which does an annual survey for Appalachian Trail hikers. You should check it out, it’s pretty in-depth; these results are from 2017. The biggest age range in the survey was age 21-30, which is not that surprising until you see the percentage of hikers with common joint problems that are typically not present until later in life.

According to the survey, hikers reported pain in the following areas:

  1. 63% Feet (I’m putting overpronation in this category)
  2. 58% Knee problems
  3. 21% Back Pain
  4. 18% Hip Pain
  5. 12% Headaches (generally posture related, but could also be dehydration which was reported by 37%)

flat-feet

Overpronation is an excessive arch drop while walking or even standing. There is naturally some pronation that occurs with walking; this is just a more extreme version of that. The reasons for overpronation are varied but generally involve weak foot muscles or weak hip muscles.

The implications from this fallen arch will move up the leg and affect the rest of your body.

Check out our FREE Download here!

How Overpronation Effects The Body

To begin, the body has a series of mobile and stable joints in alternating fashion. Take a MobilityStabilitylook at the image to the left to get an idea of how this looks. When the body is missing motion that a mobile joint provides, the body will try to find that motion from a nearby stable joint. That’s what neighbors are for right?

Unfortunately, the body’s attempt to find the motion will not serve you well long-term.

For example, if you are missing ankle motion, your body will try to find that missing motion from the foot or the knee. Since these are considered stable joints, they don’t have much to offer for motion and that’s where the pain and discomfort start to creep in.

With overpronation, the body has too much motion creating ramifications for the knee, hip, and low back and even up into the shoulders. This can, for some people, be the source of their headaches!

main-qimg-6ee57a4a4623404de3a03d2ea65c4728-cWhat happens at the ankle, happens at the hip.

Let’s follow the fallen arch upwards. See how the arch collapsing creates knee movement inward? The opposite end of the femur from the knee is the hip. The ankle rolls inward, as does the hip.

Since the hip is now missing some motion and being asked for a more supportive/stable role, the low back is going to be asked to provide motion. Your lumbar spine disagrees with this notion of motion, and low back pain can now take root.

What Does That Mean?

This loss of motion, even a few degrees or millimeters, can create a muscle imbalance which can create even further issues. It can create knee pain, a pinching feeling in the front of your hip, low back pain, mid back tightness, and headaches.

You’ll note that the right side of the image above shows a “corrected posture” where the overpronation has been corrected with the use of an orthotic, like Superfeet. It can really be that simple! Of course, you’d be better suited by building foot and hip strenght as a long term solution.

In a more dramatic image, you can see again how that arch affects the knee and hip.

The knee responds to overpronation by hyperextending (going slightly beyond straight) and placing undue strain on the meniscus.

The hip responds by decreasing its full range of motion to provide stability and that can cause significant problems down the road (generally speaking, decades). Joints need a full range of motion in order to stay lubricated and healthy. If left unchecked, it can result in arthritis and joint degeneration, which is what causes people to get their knees and hips replaced.

Okay, Now What?

There are a few common courses to help address this: orthotics, better footwear choices and exercise. Being able to strengthen the foot is best long-term, as the orthotic can act as a supportive crutch and not actually allow the foot to get stronger.

Selecting a better shoe will also be really helpful. Altra’s seem to be the default shoe for hikers, but they don’t really offer much support. Hikers like them because they are cushy and offer a wide toe box. Some of the problems with Altra’s is the lack of arch support and that they are designed for runners, not hikers. These are trail runnig shoes and not designed for hikers who will be carrying a 35lb pack!

Exercises

Sometimes with overpronation, the muscles simply tire out and can no longer help support the arch. A simple exercise like this can help to build the main muscle that supports the arch, Abductor Hallucis. When weak, this muscle cannot maintain the arch shape, feeding into the overpronation.

Short Foot

For this exercise, contract the muscles to pull the arch straight up. I like to imagine that I am shortening my foot by trying to bring my big toe and my heel together.

Perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps, holding for 7 seconds each repetition.

Slanted Arch Hold

This alternate arch builder exercise uses a slant board and may be easier than the above exercise to start out. It can be performed for repititions or just holds – both are effective.

Work up to 30 second holds, repeat 4 times. Alternatively, work up to 4 sets of 20 raises.

Why rely on an insole when a simple exercise will benefit you in the long run?

If you are experiencing discomfort in your ankles, knees, hips or low back with your training hikes or while out on your thru-hike, remember that it may be caused by your feet! Start the exercise to help strengthen your foot, walk around in your yard, park or beach and home barefoot more often.

By doing your shakedown hikes, you will be able to test out your footwear. Be critical in how they feel! If they are uncomfortable in the slightest, make adjustments. In addition to your training hikes, be sure to physically train for your hike too!

Be sure to like our Facebook page and follow us on Instagram and Twitter!

You can reach me info@trailsidefitness.com with any injury issues, past or present that you feel will impact your hike. Training questions are also welcome – I am happy to help!

9 thoughts on “Overprontation and Hiking

  1. This is great info! I honed in on your comment about overpronation possibly causing headaches – I get a headache after nearly every hike of more than 3 miles, but assumed that I needed more salt, water, sleep, etc. Can you point me to research that shows the headache connection? I’m sure tired of them!

    1. Hi Leslie! Most often headaches relate to postural issues, same goes with hiking related headaches. If your head is not centered on your spine (think ears over shoulders) you strain the neck muscles which compress a nerve in the back of your head leading to headaches. Hikers tend to walk with their head forward of their shoulders, straining the muscles which leads to the headaches. You can read more about that here: https://wp.me/p9n1Qb-9S. Flat feet can be a part of the problem, as they affect the hips, where your spine attatches. As the body compensates for this, it will shorten/lengthen muscles which can lead to postural changes and thus your headaches. While not common, it does happen. You would need to be evaluated by a Physical Therapist to see if that is really the problem, or if it is more posture related due to work positions or strength imbalances from recreational activities.

  2. Good advice. It’s more than most people think about when it comes to arches and shoes, but I think many could benefit from a part 2 with a ton more info. I like that you make it clear that things can change and buying flatter shoes/footbeds isn’t the answer, as it just encourages other problems up the leg. I’d enjoy another, more in depth post about changes that can be made.

    The advice I’ve given to friends parallels yours here. But I’m no expert, just someone succeeding at maintaining/improving their own pronation.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but my suggestions also mention the feeling of flexing your arch through the end of your stride, so that it feels like you are pushing against the laces with the top of your foot and cupping the bottom of the foot through the push off. As a drill, I suggest even letting the toes form a claw, just to bring it to an extreme and highlight the muscle which needs to be flexed through the end of the stride. Then I say to straighten the clawed toes after a short distance, but only until the ball starts to touch during heel lift, and maintain that flex for each step after. The feeling of pressure up on the laces seems to be a helpful way to gauge the position change. Another thing i say is that insoles with a hair more support than you’re used to should not be a playdough mold, but a reminder to keep forcing that motion when the muscles get tired and the feeling of walking on tennis balls starts coming back, usually on downhills.

    Feedback has always been positive for reducing arch pain. You cover flexing exercises while standing flat, but my girlfriend really struggles with conceptualizing it and doesn’t even know if she’s even flexing the muscle. I think this addition compliments that. Maybe you could expand on something like that and cover even more gait issues relating to pronation?

    We’ve got a year before our thru-hike and I think more info would be helpful in correcting as much as possible to prevent an injury, ending our hike.

    1. Hi Dustin!
      I really appreciate the thoughtful comment and feedback! I think a part two for overpronation may help those looking for more indepth knowledge find clarity around issues it can present. I have a lot of content ideas planned and other projects I’ll be working on this year and I’ll add this one to the list. Thanks for reading and commenting, I really like to hear from my followers!
      Happy Trails,
      Lee

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.