Runner’s Toe

Posted: March 12, 2012 in Injuries and Owies
Tags: , ,

There are lots of unflattering and painful things that can happen to runners over the course of their training: leaky bladder, diarrhea, bloody nipples, ass rash (or worse), pulled muscles, plantar fasciitis, ITB issues; you name it I’ve dealt with it.  But, for whatever reason, up until today I’ve never had to deal with the granddaddy of freak out runner issues…toe nails suddenly falling off.  Gasp!

I have heard about this phenomenon before and even suffered from a few black toenails myself, but for whatever reason I’ve been pretty lucky about not actually losing any….up until recently, of course.  I’ve even heard about those crazy ultra-marathoners, like Marshall Ulrich who has willfully had all his toenails surgically removed in an effort to avoid this problem altogether; but this seemed a bit extreme to me.  This even happened to one of my friends not long ago (let’s call her…Mel), who is still rather new to the whole running thing.  I was alerted to the tragedy via a rather panicky email one afternoon informing me that one of her toe nails had fallen off mid-run.  At the time, I could only imagine the horrific shock she experienced upon discovering one of her toenails conspicuously upon removing her sock.  I remember thinking at the time that I’d probably freak the fuck out, myself.  Of course, she was desperate to find out what had happened but, in all honesty, it beats the living shit out of me.


My whole toe drama today played out this morning.  It started off like any other Sunday TryForce training day; an hour Masters Swim class, followed by a nice strength building spin session, followed by a 20 minute core class.  Except, that in the middle of downward dog, I noticed it…the middle toe nail on my right foot which has been blackened months ago was kind of askew.  Once I was able to reach it, I poked at it (as one does) and, to my horror, it just fell off.

Ho-lee sheep shit!!

Needless to say, as soon as my ass got home I was on Google quicker than shit through a goose.  Upon my initial frenzied search, I found a few helpful hints at what might have occurred to cause my poor decapitated piggy.  In medical terms, such condition is called ‘onychoptosis’.  No, this is not something that existed in the Jurassic Period or anything, but is the original Greek word which literally means ‘falling nail’.  Is there anything that those crazy Greeks didn’t have a name for?  More commonly now it’s called “Runner’s Toe” and, no, it has nothing in common with a Camel Toe.

Usually caused by stress or injury, the mechanism of losing toenails starts as one walks or runs…a lot. Whether walking or running, as walkers/runners do, our feet often slide forward – however minimally – banging the toes against the top, front, and sides with each step. The feet also have the greater tendency to swell as it is compressed by the presence of the socks and the shoes. Because of the pressure and impact present, it’s either the nail beds of the toe get damaged or blisters form under the toenails. When this happens, the extra blood and fluid cause the toenail to separate from the toenail bed, giving the toenail a black color due to the blood under it.  Runners who either run lots of downhill or in hot locations are particularly vulnerable.

Thankfully, it was not painful in the slightest.  Gross – yes; painful – no.

Now given that I don’t want to suffer anymore random lost toenails, what can I do about it?  Well, all the sites I references said the same thing:  buy fitted running shoes.  Ah, yeah, I did that.  Thanks.  I don’t believe that my foot moves around enough to cause any severe damage and I always tie my laces tight enough to prevent any slippage, and lord knows I haven’t been running as many hills as I should be so what else could be causing it?


One site I found, **coughcoughLIVESTRONGcoughcough**, suggested that wearing proper wicking socks might prevent blisters form forming in the first place and hence minimize lost toenails.  Now, here’s the kicker:  not all socks labeled as “athletic” or “running socks” have wicking properties.  Oops.  Lord knows that this rather conservatively fiscal triathlete is always looking for “bar-goons” I might have overlooked this little nugget of info on the discount racks at my local running store.  My bad!

Now for the all-important question:  will my toe ever be pretty again?  Thankfully, yes, but a full replacement of a toenail takes about 3 months, and the new toenail will often be a bit wavy, thin in some areas and perhaps thicker in others. After 4-5 months it should be restored back to all its former toe glory.

In the meantime, I’m buying better socks.

  1. Carolyn says:

    All I can say is… thank god I finished brekky before reading this. LOL

  2. Jan says:

    Sorry about your toe and thanks for all the info but personally, I liked your “freak the fuck out” expression best!

  3. vivian says:

    Interesting and entertaining as well. Thanks!

  4. Eleanor says:

    Yes thank you for the info and entertainment but i hate to tell you that I lost my 2nd toenail(of course right when it was time to wear sandals last Spring – i seriously asked my pedicure lady to paint over the skin but she didnt understand as there is a language barrier) it finally grew back over the course of the summer. Lost it again during the Winter and now it has replaced itself again. So happy it has grown for spring. Much to my dismay in yoga this morning I looked down at my shiny new pedicure and low and behold it was hanging by a thread again. Literally looks like a perfect press on nail. WTF? Maybe it’s not meant to survive b/c the only thing I can think if would be less or no running and no spin class. Oh well, guess I’ll take no toenail. Big toe next to it remains half black at all times which is why the nail ladies love me!

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