As we head towards summer, out come the sandals and you can hear the runners groan. I don’t know many runners who are proud of their feet. Runner’s feet is not the most glamorous of topics to discuss but it’s a very necessary one. This week the focus is on toe nails. What issues do runners have with toe nails? Why do toe nails go black? Does it matter if you lose a toe nail? And, what can you do to look after your toe nails as a runner? 

Ingrowing toe nails 

If your nail grows into the fleshy skin at the side of the nail it can be really sore. It usually starts as a sharp feeling when you’re walking. The skin starts to get a bit red and swollen but it can progress to infection where the toe is incredibly painful and there might be gunk oozing out from the ingrowing area. Act early by bathing your feet in salty water a few times a day. Keep them as clean and dry as you can and avoid shoes that pinch the area. If things get worse, then you’ll need to see your doctor for treatment for the infection, this may be antifungal or antibiotic treatment depending on what the doctor thinks is causing it. Follow the nail care tips below to help avoid this but if it’s repeatedly happening then you might need minor surgery to remove a sliver from the side of your nail. Don’t try doing this yourself.    

Thickened toe nails  

There are two main reasons your toe nails might become thickened and they are 

  1. Repeated trauma.  
  1. Fungal nail infections 

Traumatised nails

If your nail is repeatedly knocked it can thicken up. The most common reason for this is poorly fitted shoes. If your feet move forwards in your shoe when you run downhill, then the nail can get traumatised as it repeatedly hits the end of your shoe. This is more likely to happen in off road shoes which are typically a harder material than a softer road shoe. No treatment is needed just good nail care (see the tips below) and patience while the thickened nail grows out.  

Fungal nail infections 

Fungal infections of the feet are common; you’ve undoubtedly heard of athlete’s foot. These fungi just love warm, dark, damp places and a trainer is the perfect environment for them to flourish. If the fungus penetrates the nail then it can become thickened, discoloured (usually yellowish) and either hard or weak and crumbly. This makes the nails difficult to trim. The infection can spread to other nails and treatment takes many months because you need to wait for the new, uninfected nail to grow from the base. You can buy preparations to treat fungal nail infections over the counter so have a chat to your pharmacist. Sometimes long courses of antifungal tablets are needed from your GP. These types of nail infections aren’t actually harmful but they’re unsightly and can make the toe feel tender which isn’t great for a runner.  

Black toe nails 

Behind the toe nail is the nail bed. It’s pretty delicate and it doesn’t take much for the tiny blood vessels in the nail bed to bleed. The blood gets trapped under the nail and turns black, it’s essentially a bruise. Black nails can look gross and be a bit tender but they aren’t harmful so there’s no need to do anything other than wait for them to resolve. If you have a very black nail you might eventually lose the toe nail but don’t pull it off in anticipation of this. let it stay in place for as long as possible. 

Just a word of caution, you can get melanomas under nails. If you have an unexpected black area under your nail that isn’t going away, then get it checked by a doctor. This is more common in people with brown or black skin.  

Losing toe nails 

Most endurance runners have lost a nail at some point. It might be straight after a long run or in the following days. I chuckled at a sign on a marathon saying, ‘Who needs toe nails anyway?’ And that is a pretty good point because nothing terrible will happen to your toes if you lose a nail. The nail bed underneath is quite delicate and it prefers to have a nail overlying it to protect it from damage and infection but it can cope alone if it has to. If a nail is partially off, leave it in place to protect the nail bed. It would be really painful to pull the remaining bit out anyway. It can take up to a year for a new nail to grow but you will see it slowly appearing from the base of the nail bed.  

How to look after your toe nails as a runner. 

Thankfully there’s lots of things you can do to prevent problems with your toe nails. Getting into good habits and taking a bit of time to think about your feet will prevent lots of these issues.  

Socks and shoes  

Make sure you have: 

  • A shoe with a wide enough toe box for the shape of your foot 
  • A shoe big enough to give your feet room to spread out a little when you run. This may be half a size, or even a full size bigger than your regular shoes, depending on the brand 
  • A good lacing pattern that holds your foot firmly in place 
  • Good socks of the right size that don’t squash your toes. 

Foot hygiene 

  • Wash and dry your feet daily and after every run 
  • Spend time barefoot 
  • Dry and air your trainers after a run 
  • Consider alternating between two pairs of trainers  
  • Treat any athlete’s foot early to avoid it spreading to your nails 

Nail care 

  • Don’t cut your nails too short 
  • Trim nails straight across, this will encourage them to grow straight and help to prevent ingrowing nails 
  • Don’t cut your nails the night before a race. You don’t want to find out you left a sharp bit the hard way!  

We tend to take our feet for granted and then only notice them when there’s a problem. As a runner that problem can prevent you being able to do the thing you love so take a bit of time and make a bit of effort to look after your feet and you will be rewarded. 

If you’re a runner and want to learn more about your body and how to look after it then buy my book, ‘Run Well: Essential health questions and answers for runners’, published by Bloomsbury and available everywhere you buy books.  

Featured image: Alexis at Pixabay 

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *