Warning, this blog contains lots of information about feet and toenails and preventing lost toenails when running. If you get the ick factor when discussing toenails and feet, look away now! The pictures are stock photos – we won’t subject you to pictures of our feet!
Last updated May 2023
Some of you will identify with this – the lost toenail. It’s an issue that many a runner has suffered with. From wearing the wrong trainers to stubbing your toe on a rock, there are plenty of occasions, as runners, when we are faced with the prospect of losing a toenail – usually the big one. So, what is the secret to preventing lost toenails when running?
Why Do Runners Lose Toenails?
When your toenails are too long it increases the risk of trauma as the toe hits the toe box. When you push off, with one foot behind you and the other one striking the ground, the toes on your trailing foot extend up. In this position they hit the toe box of the shoe.
Repeating this action over and over again causes a series of micro traumas which lead to bruising beneath the nail plate. The bleeding can cause the nail plate to separate from the nail bed. It won’t fall off immediately but over the course of a few weeks it will become loose.
Other kinds of trauma can also lead to lost toenails including kicking a rock! Ever done it? It hurts. It makes you swear, stops you in your stride and can bring tears to your eyes. The result? A big bruised swollen toe and a potential lost toenail.
BUT HOW CAN YOU PREVENT IT?
Top Tips for Keeping Your Toenails Intact
Having some experience in this area (and having just completed another bout of road marathon training), I thought I’d share my top tips which have been kindly offered by a range of experienced runners during my time running. Please note – even with your best efforts, some people are prone to losing toenails once you start undertaking longer distances. We can’t guarantee you won’t lose a nail but we can help you to minimise the risk.
1. Choose Well Fitting Shoes
This can be quite tricky as you often don’t realise the problem until you have ran over 5 miles in a pair of shoes. You can’t often predict a problem from the outset and just trying in a running shop that offers a fitting service won’t give you the full experience. I ran in a pair of Mizunos for a long time while road running. I had no issue running a half but when I started training for a marathon, at about 18-20 miles, I started to run into problems (pardon the pun). I tried the Saucony for a while – at 5 miles my toenails started to hurt. The key is to find the right size – too small and your toe is right up against the toe box, too big and the toes will move around, hitting the top of the toe box.
Edit – May 23 – I am now using Nike Alphafly for road running. The fact that the upper mesh is so thin means my toes aren’t bashing against a hard toe box constantly. I have found this to be a revelation and it is usually road running which does it as it’s a more repetitive pavement pounding action. Also, I am bashing out PBs – of course, its all down the shoes right?
When I switched the focus to trail running and bought my first pair of inov-8 Roclite trail running shoes, I never had a problem. In fact, since I switched to trail running, other than the time I kicked a rock, I haven’t lost a toenail. This is often because trail running doesn’t cause the same repeated action that you get with road running.
Instead of pounding the pavements over and over again, you have different profiles to contend with – running up hill, downhill, on the flat. Then there are occasions when you stop to go through a gate, climb over a stile etc. This range of different movements and breaking the cycle of micro traumas can offer some protection and go some way to preventing lost toenails when running.
Even so, that’s not the same for everyone and trail runners, especially those that run ultra distances face lost toenails just as much as road runners. Choosing shoes that fit and finding the right pair is just part of the battle. To avoid the trauma of kicking a rock, choose a pair of trail running shoes that have a protective toe cap that connects to the rand such as the Salomon Speedcross 5. If you need a wider toe box, you could check out wider fitting trail shoes
Keep Your Toenails Trimmed
The longer your toenails, the closer to the soft part of the front of the toe box they are. Keeping your toenails trimmed will go some way towards protecting them from getting bashed. Trim them regularly, especially when running long miles. This can also prevent them digging into the neighbouring toe which can be another side effect of running long miles.
Silicone Toe Covers
Amazing! Not only do they stop your toenails getting bashed by providing a barrier between your toe and the toe box of your trainer, they are also ideal when you have already bruised the nail and it’s throbbing. Not good in the middle of training. Just pop them on your toes and then put your socks over the top! Warning – they can get quite manky when you do a muddy long run! I have packets of these in my kit drawers, the car, running bag etc. A life saver for me and even better when combined with the Injinji toe socks.
I swear by these, especially when my toe is throbbing. the trouble is I often forget to use them when my toes don’t hurt. Always worth popping them on for longer runs if you are prone to bad toenails.
Wear Cushioned Running Socks
There are a fabulous make of socks called Injinji which are like gloves for feet. You know the ones that fit around your toes individually. These tend to stop your toes rubbing together and causing blisters but when I wear silicone toe covers, they are great for keeping the toe isolated and keeping the toe cover secure. A pair of decent cushioned running socks though will provide an extra layer of protection between your toe and the toe box of the shoe. Another brand that we have recently discovered is Red on Socks. These are cushioned socks designed specifically for running.
Protecting Your Toenails Post Trauma
The trouble with any kind of toenail trauma is once its bruised, you are going to keep running. Running with a bruised toe nail is not fun. The more you run, the more painful it gets. There’s nothing quite so daunting as the prospect of running 20 miles with a freshly bruised toenail. As mentioned above, silicone toe covers are great for protecting the toes once you have bruised them. You may also want to consider taping your toes.
Should You Remove Loose Toenails?
Running with a loose toenail can be uncomfortable. Once I lose a toenail, I usually wait a few weeks to see if it will detach. I also like to keep my pretty painted toenail for as long as possible. You can wear a plaster to keep it attached and detract from the ugly toenail. After a while though you will get a white wrinkly toe and it’s better to let the air get to it. If the bruise covers the whole nail, its highly likely you are going to lose it. If it’s a small bruise, you might be lucky. Unfortunately, it can take up to 18 months for a toenail to grow back fully. Not great if you want to paint your toenails and wear flip flops in the summer!
It is safe to remove loose toenails and you may want to just get it over with rather than trying to cling on to it. However, if it’s only partially detached be very careful. You risk detaching it from the nail bed and damaging the nail bed if you try and remove it too early and that really hurts! If it’s painful you can soak it in cold water or bandage it up to protect it. Also clip or file away any jagged edges. Clip off as much of the nail as you can. Don’t try and rip it off as you risk doing damage to the skin and the nail bed.
Caring For Runners Feet
When it comes to feet, running is not particularly kind to them. I am testament to this and long ago ditched the pretty flip flops and toeless sandals. However, I am making an effort to look after them as best I can. Trail running in the winter means invariably getting them muddy – trying to scrub this off in the shower with an exfoliating glove is a tall order – especially after a long run when you don’t want to bend down and you literally have to sit on the floor of the shower to clean your feet. I have tried everything to try and keep them looking nice.
Eventually I discovered Bodyshop Drops of Youth Skin Peel. It wasn’t cheap – not compared to a foot scrub but I would pay it again and again for it’s results. This magic stuff was sold to me at a Bodyshop party and I was skeptical but politely I ordered it and gave it a try once it arrived. Wow! Trust me and get yourselves a bottle – apply it over a towel and see for yourself how this magic stuff works. Follow it with the Peppermint foot cream and thank me later!
A friend recently said to me – you spend so much money looking after your face but you spend more time on your feet. They weren’t wrong. When you think about the amount of abuse they take, it’s important to take good care of them.
What are your top tips for preventing lost toenails when running? We’d love to hear from you. No feet photos though please!
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