Pronation: What Would You Do Without It?



As you proceed down the functional path to build the complete athlete, keep this analogy in mind.  The way that force is imparted into the ground and the subsequent ground reaction go a long way to determine the quality of the athlete’s performance.  The ability to use the ground effectively plays a significant role in injury prevention and rehabilitation.  – Excerpt from Athletic Development by Vern Gambetta


Everybody that runs (or walks!) across planet Earth is an athlete. And the environment of your foot is super important to your overall function.  If you have an artificial support obstructing your foot, the ground will not give an inch.

No matter what, the ground is still going to push up when you come down.

When you hear the term pronation, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Like most things in life, I guess it would depend on your perspective.  In other words, where do you sit (or stand!), and what do you notice from your vantage point?  With all of the information about whether  a “traditional” running shoe is better than a lightweight minimal running shoe swirling about, you must have a frame of reference that you can pull from.

If you have ever taken a Kinesiology class, you have some science at your disposal.  In other words, you can visualize pronation as a motion that involves your forearm rotating in.  Just in case you are not familiar with the study of human movement, pronation of your forearm involves a combination of joints with essentially the same name.  One joint sits right beside your funny bone, and allows for a pivoting of the adjacent bone.  And the other joint is located farther down your forearm, right above your wrist.  Just add a pulling force from a combination of muscles, and together both joints allow the bone that is located on the thumb side of your forearm to rotate in.

If you paid attention in your college class, you can most likely recall another time that the professor mentioned the term pronation.  Yes, the same term was also used to describe a motion where the bottom of your foot is facing away from the midline of your body.

If you are not familiar with the motion that I’m referring to here, I invite you to feel the motion in your own body.  It’s really easy to feel what I’m talking about. All you have to do is turn your foot out so that the inside edge of your foot is still in contact with the ground.  And once again, a combination of muscles had to create a pulling force in order for every bone in front of your heel to turn in the same direction which is out (not in!), i.e., pronation.

I only mention that your foot is turning out because you might have heard that your foot is rolling in (too much!).

If you are not a runner, you are most certainly walking on a daily basis.  Either way, you might see the term pronation very differently.

For you, it might be viewed as an apparent weakness throughout the arch of your foot.  Like so many people, you have been told that you are overpronating.

The term overpronation has a nice ring to it.  Do you agree?


And that is the idea.  Not to point fingers, but let’s face it, there are fascinating stories all around the term overpronation. 


And you are faced with a very difficult decision…what can you believe?


To say it another way, just because it’s a good story does not mean it is based on facts.


With that, I’m going to be very brave and go out on a limb:  I’m betting that somebody in the walk-in specialty running shoe store told you that you needed that “stability” running shoe that you are currently wearing.

I’m also willing to bet this:  they told you that your foot was rolling in too much on one side (which you now know is a turning out!).  And just like that, you were not only given a label, you were also tucked away in a special category.

Let me guess; you were also told that your foot could no longer support itself. Then right on cue, you were informed that you need outside support that can only come from anything but your own body.


You could also describe this as a very harsh sentence for your feet and your entire chain.  


And that is a very different story.  A story that is based on the science of Biomechanics.


At this point, I feel I should tell you that there is a science that was made specifically for a specialty running shoe store.  It was crafted in a land very far away.  And then…there is real science.

The science that comes out of these specialty stores uses marketing lingo that can only be found on the pages of the running magazines.

These words are so obscure that you can’t even find them in an urban dictionary.  I imagine every brand is hard at work to find the next best word that will sell a “stability” shoe that nobody needs.  Meanwhile, there is a race to the bottom, and nobody can see the finish line.

All the while, the injuries are piling up right in front of their door.


Okay, I think we are onto something here.  From there, you were given the news that you were an overpronator on your left foot. Then, they lead you over to the wall with all of the “stability” running shoes.  And it goes down hill from there.  Why?  Because overpronation of your left foot is not a problem that a running shoe can solve.

In fact, the “stability” running shoe is contributing to more problems throughout your chain.

Before we go there, let’s utilize our critical thinking skills for a moment. If you are only overpronating on your left foot, why do you need that dense gray material in the form of a bar that sits throughout the midsole cushioning on the inside of the shoe for both feet?  I’m thinking that you might end up underpronating (supinating) with your other foot.

You could say the dense area that I’m referring to is like an orthotic that is built right into the shoe.

Essentially, you are getting two for the price of one, when in reality, your body doesn’t need (or want!) either one.  Why?  Well.  To your body, the shoe with the orthotic built right into the midsole cushioning system is a stressor to the muscles throughout your chain.


When the artificial support is obstructing your foot from moving at the right time and in the right direction in the running gait cycle, the ground will not give one bit.  


The ground is the one constant that is guaranteed to be with you every step of the way.  


Therefore, choosing the right running shoe is a variable that you can (and must!) control.  


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Photo Credit: Henri Bonell via Compfight cc



At this point, I’m hoping that you are thinking about what your foot is really doing in the running gait cycle.

One thing to consider is this:  your foot is not working alone.  In fact, it is impossible for any body part in the chain to work alone in sport.


Last week, ESPN slowed down left handed pitcher  CC Sabathia’s delivery to 1,500 frames per second.  It was like poetry in motion! You could see everything throughout his large frame moving at just the right time.

The end result:  by utilizing the entire chain, he is capable of slinging the ball at upwards of 90 miles an hour on every pitch for at least 100 pitches per game.

And his mechanics determine his longevity in the game.  (emphasis added)

ESPN’s camera slowed it down so much that after he released the ball, you could see beads of sweat come flying off the front of his shoulder.  At that point in his pitching motion, everything on his left side was going through pronation.

Right after he released the ball, you could see his shoulder blade slide around his rib cage. Then, his humerus rotated in.  And right on time, his forearm followed along in the same direction.  All of those motions (and more!) occurred at the very end of his delivery.  Ultimately, his entire arm came flying across his body with his hand eventually slapping up against his opposite side hip.

And yes, you guessed it, the right side of his body was supinating at the same time that the left side of his body was pronating.

In order to launch the ball as a left handed pitcher, Sabathia’s right foot stayed in complete contact with the ground to close the chain on that side of his body.  So, what was his left leg doing?  His left foot was off the ground as his entire leg moved through space in the open-chain.

There you have it. In order for him to throw the ball with that kind of velocity, he had to utilize his entire chain from the ground up.  And when something is not moving in the right way, the sequencing will be off.   Then, it is just a matter of time before the human body starts to break down.  It never fails.

Ultimately, when we are talking about human motion in sports, it’s not only about what your foot is doing.  It’s also about what the ground is doing to your foot when it is in complete contact with the ground.  And there is no better example than running.


To say it another way, when the chain is closed, and your entire foot is in contact with the ground in the running gait cycle, all of the movements that are occurring throughout the 33 joints in your foot are occurring without your conscious effort.  The ground is driving your heel (a component part of your rear-foot) out (eversion), and your fore-foot in (inversion).

And much like the intricate motions that a pitcher has to go through in order to throw a baseball at a very high speed, running requires motion from all of the joints in the chain.

The swing leg in the running gait cycle is occurring in the open-chain, and driving motion of the opposite side foot where the chain is closed.  And that is occurring up until both feet are off of the ground for the flight phase.


And that is why symmetry is of utmost importance in sports. Both sides are working together at all times.


When you turned your foot out earlier, everything moved in the same direction while the inside edge of your foot maintained contact with the ground.  In that example, the ground had nothing to do with the movement.  Instead, it was all about you.  You did that consciously.

In the running (and walking) gait cycle, all of the joints that are above the level of your foot are being driven by the ground, gravity and momentum.  And just to add another layer, when the chain is closed all of the joints throughout your chain are pronating (flexing) to absorb and dissipate force.  Yes.  From your foot all the way up to your jaw.

So, you can see that you are built to be an efficient shock absorber.


And the starting position of your foot matters a great deal!


Which brings me to this:  I can’t tell you how many people come into my office with the majority of their body weight on the outside of their foot.  Why?  Well for starters, it could be because the midsole cushioning system is broken down. Or, very often there are some muscular imbalances taking place in the chain, and that is the way the body chooses to adapt.  And last but not least, the athlete is wearing a shoe that is not right for them (or anybody!).

Whatever the situation is, the athlete’s foot is not prepared for landing.  And no amount of conscious effort will allow the foot to be in a neutral position.

A “traditional” running shoe is strategically built to drive motion in a specific direction.  Or even worse, to limit motion in a specific direction.

Now, try to imagine that foot coming into the ground like that over many miles. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?  But that is what is happening when you run in many of the “traditional” shoes that are on the market.

Your foot was never meant to be jacked up.  And when it is in an environment that drives the entire chain forward, it has no choice but to adapt to the downward slope.  So, then your body does what it does best…it adapts.

And it doesn’t stop there. Very often the cushioning on the inside of the forefoot is built up as well.  Why? Well, all of that cushion brings the ground up to the inside of your foot.  And then when your foot is supposed to roll in towards your big toe, it can’t because all of that cushioning is limiting the range of motion.

Essentially, you are weaker because the muscles are unable to lengthen in all directions.

And all of the “traditional” shoes are different.  However, there are some consistencies.

The bottom line is this: the position that your foot starts out in matters a great deal.  If your starting position is altered in such a way that your foot can not pronate at the right time, you put yourself at risk for an injury long-term.

When the starting position of your foot is altered in any way, it is impossible for your foot to move in the right direction.  And if you can not pronate, you can not do the opposite which is supinate.  In which case, you are unable to overcome the pull of gravity with efficiency.

Your capacity to supinate is just as important as your ability to pronate.

And then there are the muscles to consider.  Because let’s face it, without muscles that are finely tuned to contract when called upon, it is impossible to have quality motion at a joint.



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I have held a license to practice massage therapy for over 20 years. For the first 18 years of my career, I was a nationally certified personal trainer. During that time, I completed thousands of one-on-one personal training sessions. And I went on to teach biomechanics to personal trainers, group exercise instructors, and physical therapists throughout New England. I worked as a sports massage therapist at ESPN. Over the last few years, I have been quoted in Runner’s World UK, Massage Therapy & Bodywork, Massage Magazine, IDEA Fitness Journal and The Guardian Liberty Voice. I have also served as an applied biomechanics consultant for the fitness staff at Canyon Ranch, The Greenbrier, and ESPN. I currently teach applied anatomy & kinesiology at Parker University. And I have a private sports massage therapy practice in Dallas, Texas.
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