Runner’s Feet: The Bad & The Ugly (There is No Good)

I’ve seen a few posts here and there about the “taboo” topics in running and while I don’t feel compelled to touch on all of them I am finally ready to discuss the topic of runner’s feet. And it’s not so much that I want to ‘discuss’ as it is I want to lament, whine a little and make sure other runners know they’re not alone in this ‘badge’ of distance running. I will admit that I have a strange and sick fascination with what happens to my feet over the course of training but that doesn’t make it any better. The slightly consoling bit is that in researching on this topic I found I was not the only one looking to discover the mystery of runner’s feet, or more specifically, runner’s toes.

I distinctly recall my first “toe incident” as a result of running. It was my second Annapolis 10-miler which I was running with two friends and 10 miles was still the extent of my distance running with the race counting as the long run. There is a downhill slope around mile 8 and I commented to my friend that it felt like there was a wrinkle in my left sock. Something just didn’t feel right. She immediately asked what size shoes I normally wore and what size my running shoes were. I wear a size 9 and my running shoes were a size 9. Lesson number one. Always go up a size in running shoes to give your feet–namely your toes–room to breathe, wiggle and get pushed around on runs.

We finished the race, walked the expo, downed our bananas and bagels and as I sat in gridlock in the parking lot to get out I pulled off my shoes and socks to let my feet breathe. I was in shock and a combination of disbelief and fascination with the blood and busted up blister on my left toe. I happened to see my friend sitting a row over in the same gridlock and I left my car running while I hobbled over to show her my foot in sick excitement. To this day she does not really appreciate that moment. And I believe it was very shortly thereafter that I first got properly fitted for running shoes.

I would like to preface the following sections with the very important fact that I am not a doctor, podiatrist or any other sort of medical or foot expert. I merely run a lot and have read articles and blogs on the topic of runner’s feet.

Blisters and Calluses

The blister on the inside of my big toe is a typical result of adding milage and will soon callus up.

Blisters and calluses are the more likely ailments a runner will suffer before the dreaded black toenails appear. They aren’t even so much an ailment as they are an inconvenience. Both blisters and calluses are the result of feet being crammed inside of shoes that are pounding the pavement for mile after mile for days, weeks and race seasons on end. In my case, a blister will usually turn into a callus. Blisters are caused by the feet swelling inside of shoes that may be too small or poorly fit, rubbing of toes against each other and other common causes like wrinkled socks rubbing for too long. I have large big toes and abnormally long inside toes and for whatever reason I tend to get a blister on my big toe and first inside toe from rubbing against each other. The soft blisters will callus up in about a week and then they seem to stay forever.

On rare occasions I have popped blisters when the pressure from them or position of them have been painful. My process for this is to first clean the area and then sterilize a thin sewing needle in rubbing alcohol. I gently prick the blister with the needle until water oozes out and the pressure is relieved.

When popping a blister doesn’t seem to be the ideal solution but a blister or callus is still uncomfortable I often wrap it in a bandaid or two so I can get through a run. I also often find that whatever pain a blister or callus (or messed up toenail) has been causing me seems to disappear while running, but as soon as the run is over the discomfort or pain returns. It reminds me of high school volleyball practice where we would run suicides and while we were running we couldn’t feel the pain but as soon as we finished the pain in our hamstrings and quads was insufferable.

Black Toenails

More so than blisters and calluses, black toenails and the often inevitable loss of toenails, are a badge of distance running. Maybe not so much a badge as a result. Unlike my first real blister I don’t have as concrete a memory of my first black toenail. I do know it would have been while training for my first marathon and I do know that when I first realized something was amiss with my toes, like many runners who first experience black toenails, I was definitely concerned. The good news is that in most cases there is no reason to be concerned.

Like blisters, black toenails are the result of feet being perpetually pushed against the toe box of the shoe. When this happens repeatedly small blood blisters will break causing a pool of blood to form and settle under the nail. The medical term for this is subungual hematoma. So technically it is not your toenail that is black but rather the skin underneath. Unfortunately I think there is more to it than just a blood blister under the toenail.

The same action of the toes being jammed into the front of the shoe that causes blood blisters to break also messes with the nail itself. It is important to keep your toenails properly trimmed as long toenails will definitely cause pain and problems. But too short toenails can also be an agent of pain as blood blisters form around a toenail that is then trying to grow back out over the busted toe. It’s not pretty and it doesn’t feel good. In addition to the black toenails I often have an extra layer of toe problems in that my toenails die, fall off or layers of toenails seem to linger on any given toe while an old nail is dying and a new nail is growing underneath. When the toenails are dying and splitting they are uncomfortable and ragged edges get stuck on socks, sheets and are super sensitive in general. I take comfort in knowing it is a limited time experience as I have yet to go through more than a week or two of toenail pain.

My big toes blister, inside toenails turn black and my pinky toenails barely even exist.

I cope by wrapping my toenails in bandaids. I also try to keep them trimmed and to clean the dead skin and dead nail out from under the nail bed but this is sometimes just not possible. Perhaps going to get a pedicure would help but I have immediate guilt over the idea of someone else having to touch my feet. More often than not I just slab on a couple coats of nail polish so I can’t see the mess that are my runner’s feet.


So there you have it. The nasty and ugly topic that is so familiar to so many runners. Blisters and calluses and black toenails, oh my! Should you need to also lament, whine or share your runner’s foot story for the world to read, by all means feel free to comment.

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