Last Updated on January 29, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
Feet. For whatever reason, some people are grossed out by the topic of feet. They don’t want to talk about them, and they definitely don’t want to look at them. But runner’s feet are one of the most important pieces of “equipment” if you will, that can make or break the success of a run or race.
Recent, I received this question from a reader, friend, and fellow endurance athlete:
“Could you do (or have you done) a piece on foot/toenail care? My feet are jacked up after this past week and I’m not sure how normal it is/how to recover/how to wear sandals in public ever again and things like that. There must be some considerations with mud/water/questionable gunk that we run through.”- John P.
Let me address this question in pieces.
First and foremost…a Death Racer just asked me if it’s a fashion faux pas to wear sandals in public with gross runner feet. Picture me with a blank stare on my face. No, no, not blank…condescending. Yes, that’s the look. Shaking my finger at you in the way only a mother could. I’m disappointed in you John P. Not really, but I will say this: if anyone, ANYONE, gives you a hard time for those gnarly toes, you tell them exactly how you earned them, then demand they drop and give you 30 burpees, and then walk away with your head held high. Gross runner feet are nothing to be ashamed of, they are badges of honor. Gross ones.
But if they really bother you, you could always paint them with some nail polish.
(WARNING: below you will encounter pictures of hard earned, gross, runner feet.)
Prevention of Gnarly Runner’s Feet:
Here are some steps to take to try and help avoid black toenails, blisters, trench foot, and other gnarly, painful feet issues while running.
Make sure your shoes fit.
When you run, especially longer distances or rough terrain, your feet begin to swell. Less room in the shoe means your toe begins to hit the end (and possibly top) of your shoe, putting excessive pressure on the toe and pooling blood under the toenail. Alternatively, a shoe that is too big will result in the foot sliding around in the shoe, and you guessed it, hit the end of the shoe, pooling blood under your toenails (especially while running downhill). Having a properly fitting shoe that is large enough to accommodate the swelling, but not so large that you are sliding around, will help prevent gross toes, and blisters.
Related post: 5 Running Shoe Mistakes you Could be Making Right Now.
Keep your toenails short.
Keeping your toenails short will help prevent excessive pressure on the toe from the impact of running. Longer toenails are more likely to become injured.
Use foot lubricant for longer distances.
For longer distances, consider using some sort of foot lubricant. This will help prevent blisters and hot spots from occurring over the repetitive movement of running really, really far. Brands I recommend include: Bodyglide, Trail Toes, or my favorite (by far), RunGoo. (affiliate links)
Say NO to cotton socks.
Socks designed for runners are not just another gimmick to take your money, they are necessary. Synthetic (or even wool) socks designed for running will wick away moisture, which will help prevent painful blisters and be less likely to harbor bacteria, gross funguses and things like that. Of course, when it comes to mud runs, you are pretty much out of luck in the “staying dry” department, but none the less, running specific socks are less likely to cause chafing, slipping, or become ill fitting when wet.
Change out of wet shoes ASAP.
Again, somewhat impossible when you are doing an obstacle course race, even more laughable when you are doing something like the Death Race (which would explain the numerous cases of trench foot, but I digress). As soon as possible, change out of your wet socks and shoes, and put on dry ones, or better yet, air those feet out.
Keep your gear dry.
When not in use, keep your shoes and other running gear dry. This will help prevent your gear from harboring bacteria and fungus like athletes foot, etc.
Related post: The Pros & Cons of Waterproof Running Shoes
Treatment of Common Runner’s Feet Issues:
Sometimes, even all of the preventative measures in the world will not spare you from scary runner’s feet. So here are a few things you can do:
Bruised or black toenails:
Do nothing. The damaged part of the nail is gradually pushed off, and a new nail will replace it. Don’t force the off, it will eventually fall off on it’s own. When? Well according to Runner’s World:
A bruised nail usually heals on its own within six months. If it’s really painful, see a podiatrist who can drain fluid from under the nail. Also, if it’s a chronic problem, a sports podiatrist could help you determine if toe-lifting and toegripping are to blame, in which case an orthotic may be a fix.
Really super gnarly dirty toenails:
All of my fellow trail, ultra, and obstacle course runner’s know what I’m talking about. Mud gets in every possible crevice and refuses to leave. My suggestion is to soak them in a warm, soapy foot bath, and scrub them really well with a nail brush. You don’t want to leave anything behind that could possibly cause some sort of mystery mud rash, like the one in Illinois (I know, that had nothing to do with toes. But you get what I’m saying. Who knows what we roll around in out there.)
Blisters are probably one of the most common runner’s feet issues. To pop or not pop the blisters? This is a much, much debated topic among athletes, podiatrists, dermatologists, you name it. So my professional suggestion is, when in doubt: ask your doctor. Popping a blister does indeed often relieve the pain of the blister, however, it opens the skin up to possible infection…and even more pain. Case in point: I popped a gnarly, quarter sized blister after the 2011 Spartan Super and couldn’t walk for days after that. It was a hard learned lesson. You don’t want to do that.
Yellow toenails? Gross things growing off of your toes? Itchy feet? Not quite sure what’s going on down there? It might be a fungus. Yes, it’s gross, but yes, it sometimes happens. The soles of your feet have a tremendous number of sweat glands, and are among the heaviest producers of sweat in the body. Further, you’ve got a lot of surface area, as well as non ventilated areas between the toes. Fungus and bacteria LOVE that. There are numerous anti-fungal creams available over the counter that will soothe the discomfort and help get rid of the fungus, but when in doubt, check with your doctor.
Leave them alone…maybe. Calluses are areas of thickened skin that are formed from repetitive pressure on one specific spot. Therefore, calluses help to prevent blisters. In this case, you want those calluses. However, if your calluses become a source of discomfort or interfere with your running, it may be time to talk to a doctor. But don’t get rid of the calluses just because they are ugly…you’ll regret it after your next run.
Maceration is the softening and breaking down of skin resulting from prolonged exposure to moisture. It can range from mild cracking to extreme cases of pitting and peeled skin (commonly referred to as “trench foot”). Typical treatments for maceration of the feet include warming the feet, moisture-absorbing powder, dry socks, allowing the feet exposure to air to dry, and time.
At the end of the day, do not worry about what other people think of your gross runner’s feet. As long as they are not physically hurting you or impeding your running, then I say, flaunt them with pride. OK, maybe you shouldn’t show your black toes to everyone you meet, or give someone a necklace made with the toenail you lost from an ultra (true story, I know this guy), but don’t worry about what a friend or passerby may think or say as they glance down at your toes.
And if they do say something…challenge them to a race. A real long one.
Tell us about your toes! Are you a chronic toe nail loss sufferer? Blisters no matter what? Have any home remedies or tips you’d like to share?