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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22 thoughts on “Runner’s Feet: The Bad & The Ugly (There is No Good)

  1. Keith

    I read similar stories like this all the time, but I refuse to believe runners have to “settle” for bad feet. I log 25-40 miles a week and have for over a year, and my feet look the same as they did when I started. A friend of mine, runs 2-3 marathons a year, and her feet are similar. So to me, this is more an issue of having proper fitting shoes and good quality socks than it is just a “badge of distance running”.

    Reply
  2. Amelia T

    Overrated issue in my opinion. Ive run three half marathons since March and I log 50 aweek for the last few years and never anything like these pics. Maybe you should get fitted for better fitting shoes.

    Reply
  3. Natalie Post author

    Keith and Amelia, I’m glad you all haven’t experienced this! Just be glad I posted the ‘good’ photos and left the band-aids on. :) I definitely agree with you on the shoes and socks. In fact, knowing I am well fit to my shoes brings my socks into great question. Perhaps that is the follow-up post!

    Reply
  4. William

    I usually run into the blister problem with either very new or very old shoes. I try to go light after I buy a new pair of shoes and keep the distance down until I can break them in. Then depending on the mileage I log there’s the time period when they’re perfect. When I start getting blisters again, I know it’s time to get a new pair.

    Reply
  5. Michelle

    My feet look like yours and oddly enough I have to say I love my shoes that I got fitted for at one of the most reputable running shops in my area. I run about 45 mpw and these babies got me through training for and running Boston and all sorts of races.
    As wrong as it may seem my shoes (Brooks Adrenalines) are so comfy that the toe transformation doesn’t bother me. I guess it should but it doesn’t.

    Reply
  6. Wil

    Thanks for sharing. This year, I’ve started training for my third marathon after a loooong hiatus. I got my running shoes from a store in New England that specializes in running. They fit me for the shoes and I liked them, except that I started noticing a little pain in the second toe on the left of my foot. First, it was the result of a blister. The blister popped on its own and I figured that everything was fine. However, I’ve recently begun to experience a thickening and slight darkening of that toenail. I’m hoping it’s not a fungus but from what I’ve read, it probably is. I guess I’ll have to go get it treated. I’m sort of wondering if it’s just the precursor to black toe, though.

    Reply
  7. Natalie Post author

    Will, I’m no doctor but if you can hold out I bet that pain will slowly dissipate and turn into a dead black toenail. You obviously need to do what will make you most comfortable but it sure sounds like you have a case of runner’s toe rather than a fungus. Keep an eye on it…and keep training! :)

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  8. lindsay

    Thanks for this info . . . Compared to everyone else on here I feel like a wimp because I am still trying to work up to a half marathon . . . Just in the six mile range right now and I am very new to the distance thing . . . But I am already having toenail problems! I havent been fitted for running shoes professionally yet so I think that might be my next step in this process of becoming a “runner” . . . And might help with the knees a bit too! Glad to know Im not alone at least :-)

    Reply
  9. Kim

    I’m in the same boat as you, Lindsay. I am a new runner and just ran my first 10k. However, I had a blood blister develop under my toenail a few weeks ago. It drained on its own, and the toenail is now black and nasty. Now, after building up to a seven-mile run, my toe next to it is hurting pretty badly but has no signs of a blister – yet. I held off on getting fitted for running shoes since I didn’t experience any problems until I hit the six mile mark and I wanted to be sure I kept on running. I want to do a half-marathon in the spring, and I refuse to be sidelined by toe problems.

    Reply
  10. Natalie Post author

    Lindsay and Kim,

    Go get fitted! :) You will both do great and you’re not wimps. Every runner has to start somewhere. Distance is not necessarily what will mess with your toes and the fact that problems can in fact making running uncomfortable is not ideal.

    Kim–you can always layer up the bandaids for some immediate comfort on your runs. It does help.

    Thank you both for sharing your comments!

    Reply
  11. Alexandra

    I just ran my first marathon 2 days ago and started feeling some weird sensations in my toes around mile 22. I figured it was a blister that had popped. I didn’t assume I would find 4 more later, 2 of which are resting quite uncomfortably beneath each of my second toenails.
    I run a range of distances several times a week, ran a half marathon a few months ago, and never even remotely experienced any of these issues. I’ve never had a blister from anything but stilettos! My sneakers were fitted before the half marathon and I love them. But evidently they are not the best (or maybe my socks…) for anything above a half…
    I’m positive I’m going to lose both second toenails, and as excited as I am to run a mary again, I don’t want to go through this every single time! I read somewhere to get seamless socks and put body glide all over your toes that have the issues and it helps…?

    Reply
  12. jay

    Very helpful article. Training for my first HM and my second left toe is turning purple and callus is appearing on the front of it. Toe pain is the worst.

    Reply
  13. Katy

    Hi,
    I just wanted to suggest that foot issues could have something to do with genetics as well – I wear good socks and proper fitting shoes, but I still end up with pretty bad calluses. My boyfriend thinks it’s hilarious because he always has baby-soft feet while mine are kind of hard and unsightly. I do what I can to make them prettier, but no amount of pumicing or creams can make the calluses go away – my dad has pretty rough looking feet too and I think it’s a family thing!

    Reply
  14. Andrea

    I realize this is an old post, however, I needed to do an internet search to try and find pictures of feet that look worse than my own (which yours do not) and for those who imply that this is a result of poorly fitted shoes, I disagree.

    I have about 6.5 toenails right now – and some that I do have are a mess due to the swelling and bruising from under the nail, pushing new nails up and off.

    I too, will not get a pedicure, and I too live in dark purple or black nail polish, even painting where there are no toenails. Just wanted to share. Misery loves company…

    Reply
  15. Denise

    I”ve been running for 3 yrs and average about 2-3 half marathons a year and have done 2 RANAR’s my feet are really bad. Love my Mizuno running shoes get the wide size and a size larger than norm. Callus’s yah fine but the purple nails from 3 yrs ago never fell off my big toe’s or its long kissing cousin and now the nail’s are slowly growing out (dead) and i trim the nail as it lifts. I’m told by the podiatrist now fungus is growing under there (from the necrotic tissue) so have special nail polish for it and I still feel like I have a blood blister under my 2nd toe nails after 3 yrs… evil but I still run!

    Reply
  16. Katie

    I have been running for about 1 1/2 years…last year some runner friends were talking about black toe nails…I had no idea what they were talking about…I do now. The same happened to me. My nail eventually broke off and a new one is coming, but now I have huge blisters al around it… But, I too keep runnng.

    Reply
  17. Sarah

    I repeatedly get black toenails despite having been fitted several times for running shoes by a reputable running store and also trying a wide variety of socks. The last time I mentioned this at the running store, one of the employees, who is an avid runner, suggested that some people clench their toes while running and in turn cause additional pressure under the toenail which can result in black nails. This seems to make sense. Throwing my own two cents in, some people are more prone to bruising which results from leakage/damage to a blood vessel so I imagine some people are more prone to black tornails which is also leakage/damage to the blood vessels under the toenails. While black toenails can be unsightly and even painfull at times, it has yet to keep me free running or playing soccer (another where black toenails are not uncommon).

    Reply
  18. ryan

    It’s funny, people’s opinions. I run marathons and my feet are fine too BUT?? Do you people think everyone is built the same? You may be runners but you’re not road scholars. There are a MYRIAD of reasons why people get blisters and much of it is genetics and how your feet are shaped. LOL.

    Reply
  19. Wendy Pieper

    I am a fast walker, lol! Typically I walk 18-32 miles a week and I have this on both of my second toes. I have tried four pairs of shoes, Bandaids, running socks, etc with no avail. As soon as a new nail begins to form, a new blister appears. I am a nurse so I drain them myself but I still lose the nail. Typically the next walk will actually pull the entire nail off in a bloody mess. This injury is embarrassing and very painful! I am going to try one more fitted pair of shoes or go barefoot!

    Reply

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