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Runners’ toenails (or the lack of them) and how to avoid losing them!

It’s safe to click – there are no graphic images in this post, I promise! 😀

My recent marathon effort had a small casualty – the toenail of the big toe on my right foot. It was a minor spectacle amongst the kids in the family. Even the toddler exclaimed, “Cos Mummy go running so much, toenail gone already!”

Having been a reasonably avid hiker prior to running, I’ve had my share of blackened toenails, particularly after a 6-hour constant downhill pounding during my Kinabalu climb some years back (which also claimed a smaller toenail).

My nieces who saw my loosening toenail initially screwed up their faces in horror, asking, “Does it hurt?


Ouch! (I was tempted to get this manicure!)

Well, generally, no, it doesn’t hurt. The toe in question would feel sore and bruised, particularly if you’re wearing closed shoes. After a few weeks, the toenail may ‘turn black’ (see more below). You don’t need to do anything to a blackened toenail; the best is to let it be. (You may have heard advice on using a needle to drain the fluid build-up under the toe, but personally, I’d rather that a medical professional did that for me if the procedure was indeed necessary!) The toenail may shrivel up and drop off, in which case it will reveal a new, healthy, rosy-pink toenail growing underneath. This new toenail may look a little warped, but don’t worry too much about that (see below).

A blackened toenail (or one that is about to fall off) may look a little unpleasant to the eye, and inconvenient as it may have you wearing open-toed shoes if closed shoes are uncomfortable… but take heart! – Other than barefooters, it’s highly likely that endurance runners and seasoned hikers would have experienced black toenails and toenail loss before, and to many it’s almost part of (running) life; a rite of passage, and even a source of pride 😉

But how do black toenails form?

If a toe is under prolonged and repetitive pressure (from e.g. the toe hitting the top of the shoe, or sliding forward to hit the end of the shoe), a build-up of friction happens between the toenail and its surrounding tissue. The tissue is damaged, and fluid accumulates below the toenail. The ‘black’ (or reddish) patch you see on the toenail is due to the fluid having been coloured by blood from capillaries that may have broken in the process. The pressure from the fluid may eventually separate the toenail. When the blackened and dried-up nail falls off, the new nail growing underneath may initially look warped (mine sure did, and it wasn’t a pretty sight!) but rest assured it will smoothen out as it grows out, over the next few months.

References: Runner’s WorldJeff Galloway running

Are there ways in which (shod) runners (my barefoot friends will definitely be smirking at this blogpost, ha ha! :D) can avoid black toenails?

You may not be able to avoid black toenails completely, but here are some tips to hopefully minimise them:

  • Check that your shoes are of the correct size and have adequate toe room. Some recommend at least half an inch of toe room while standing in the shoes, or 1/2 a size larger than your regular street size. Bear in mind that, especially in hot weather, your feet will expand a fair bit during long-distance running. Do check with the staff at a running specialty store for advice. The chances are high that it may be trial and error before you find the right pair of shoes. Good luck!
  • Keep your toenails trimmed short.
  • With every step you take during your runs, your toes slide forward and face pressure against the end of the shoe. Over a long-distance, runs this multiplies pretty quickly. When training, it may be a good idea to increase your distance very gradually to allow your toes to adjust to the required maximum distance. Don’t up your distance too quickly. (In any event, increasing your distance gradually is also sound advice for runners looking to up their distances.)
  • Runners World recommends this lacing technique to pull the shoe material up and away from your big toe (which is the digit that is in most risk of being bruised and blackened). Whether this works may also depend on your make of shoe.
  • Here’s another lacing technique taken from the hiking context, (scroll down to the lacing technique for trail shoes) to secure the shoe at your ankles, in order to prevent the foot from slipping forward. (This worked for me!)

By the time my nail fell off, my nieces were curious enough about falling toenails to ask if they could keep it! (No, they couldn’t.)

And oh, ladies (and gents!) – here’s a final beauty tip – it may be tempting to have a blackened toenail disguised with a manicure, but it’s not actually a good idea as it doesn’t allow the nail to breathe and as such is more likely to result in the nail falling off!

Important note: If you feel that you have an injury that needs medical attention, or if you are in a fair bit of pain, do see a doctor as soon as possible.

References: Runner’s World, Jeff Galloway Running, Outdoor Herbivore Blog.

About speedshuffle (75 Articles)
Wen Li is a runner, blogger, mother, educator and artist. She is the Co-Founder and Cartoonist of Malaysia's first comic strip on running, Running Toons ( and is a Compressport Ambassador. Her running story was featured in Marie Claire Malaysia's April 2016 issue alongside several other notable women running bloggers. She runs wherever the road takes her, come scorching sunshine, stifling humidity or relentless rain (and preferably to a Nasi Lemak breakfast!). Apart from pounding the asphalt, she also enjoys hiking and pilates, and is now attempting CrossFit!

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