Overpronation is a term that’s overused and often misunderstood. Running shops are full of corrective footwear (sold as “support”, “stability” or “motion control” shoes) designed to correct it. So how can you tell if you are an overpronator?
Pronation is the motion of your foot rolling inwards slightly after it has hit the ground when you’re running. It is natural and essential to pronate when you walk or run, to help your body absorb the shock of landing. But issues can arise when you overpronate, meaning that the foot rolls inwards too much: the arches ‘collapse’. There is also a condition known as supination (or under-pronation) when the foot doesn’t roll inwards enough, but overpronation is a lot more common.
Overpronation is created by either foot or hip instability, or in some cases, both. “True overpronation comes from the foot,” says chartered physiotherapist Lucy Macdonald, who specalises in the biomechanics of running at her London clinic (octopusclinic.com). “The bones of the foot roll inwards too much and this can be cured with a good orthotic [shoe insert], either from a podiatrist or from a running-specialist physio who offers orthotics.”
However, the most common form of overpronation among female runners is in fact created by hip instability, which causes the leg to roll inwards. The culprit, you might be surprised to learn, is a weak bottom! “The muscle that is usually to blame is the gluteus medius, which is the stabilising muscle on the sides of the buttock,” says Macdonald.
Ask a friend to observe your feet and knees as you stand, walk and run; alternatively, do these three things in front of a mirror. First study your feet. Do they appear flat? If you cannot stick a finger underneath your arches, then they are collapsed. Next, let your eyes drift upwards to your knees. Do they slant inwards and hover over your big toes? If so, the source of your overpronation is probably your weak glutes.
Physiotherapy can help with overpronation caused by weak glutes. “Exercises can strengthen the gluteus medius and the side effects are good,” says Macdonald. “Once you’ve built up its strength, you’ll have a rounded, pert bum!”
Macdonald recommends the running man exercise to boost your glutes: “Stand in front of a mirror in a running stance. Place your right foot in front of your left foot, bend your knees and tip your weight forwards, so that the majority of your weight is on the ball of your right foot. Look at the alignment of your leg in the mirror. Your knee should be hovering over your second or third toe – if the hips are contributing to your overpronation, it will probably be hovering over your big toe. Correct the alignment and begin the exercise.
“Move your left foot in front of your right, placing it where you would it you were running, but don’t put much weight on it; then move it back to where it was, behind your right foot; then move it forwards again. Do 30 reps of this daily on each leg. You should be able to feel it in your side glutes; if you feel it more in your calves, then place something (such as a rolled up sock) under your heel.”
If you think you overpronate, the best thing to do is to visit a physio who specalises in running – he or she can diagnoses where the issue stems from and advise on footwear. Then visit a specialist running shop, where sales consultants will examine your feet and knees, and watch you walk and run. Buying from a non-specialist shop could result in you being sold stability shoes when you don’t’ need them, which can create problems.
“Stability shoes can be heavy and over supportive, preventing some people from having big toe flexibility,” says Macdonald. “Footwear should allow a rocking motion from the heel and push-off motion from the forefoot. Anti-pronation shoes are great for some runners, but they don’t suit everyone. For example, if you have a light frame, stability shoes can do more harm than good and you may need insoles in a neutral shoe instead.”
There is a school of thought that says overpronation should be addressed through changing your running style rather than relying on corrective footwear. Again, you’ll need expert help to do this – and plenty of patience. If your overpronation is severe and has already caused you pain or sport injuries, then you will need to see a physio and do remedial exercises (like the one described above) as well as wearing the right footwear, even if you don’t want to change your running technique. It is worth taking up a programme of regular strength and conditioning work for your glutes and core muscles (in your stomach and back) to prevent problems developing down the line, regardless of whether or not your overpronation is causing you problems.