Ask a Salty: How Do I Know if I am Going to Lose a Toenail?

asksaltyWe runners may be known for our rock solid legs and sculpted backsides, but we don’t have the hottest rep when it comes to our feet.

In fact, some runners are downright embarrassed by the state of their tootsies.

Why?  Because it is not uncommon for distance runners to get black toenails and to, gulp, lose toenails entirely.  Yeah, yeah, I know, ewwwww.

But look, losing a toenail is not all that bad.  I’d actually argue that your black toenail is a badge of badassery.  You earned that bad boy – embrace it if and when it happens.  And don’t freak out.  It really is not a big deal.

This leads us to today’s Ask-A-Salty question, which is nice, short and sweet:

How do I know if I am going to lose a toenail?

Before we get to that answer though, let’s talk about why we might lose them in the first place.

Trauma.  Plain and simple.  Black toenails are usually caused by either bruising or blistering under the toenail.  When you run 180 steps per minute, that means you may slam your perfectly pedied toes over 13,000 times during a 1:45 half-marathon.  Add a hilly course and, well, the trauma is more inevitable.  Try a 100 miler in 24 hours and you are looking at roughly 129,600 opportunities to rough up each of your toes.  No doubt, that is why some ultramarathoners have taken the extreme measure of permanently removing their toenails.  This method involves pouring acid on your nail bed though, so we definitely don’t recommend it.

How you can prevent it.

Since we aren’t asking you to permanently remove your toenails, we can give some recommendations on how to prevent black toenails.  First, your shoes should have a wide enough toe box.  Generally speaking, running shoes should be a half size larger than your street shoes, and you should have a good half inch from your toes to the end of your shoe box.  But don’t wear shoes too big, or your feet will be banging around even more.  Get fitted at a good running store near you.  It is worth it.  Wearing good running socks helps and I am also a believer in generously applying BodyGlide to the toes (top, bottom and in between) before longer races.  Oh, and keep your toenails nicely trimmed.  This does not mean cut them super short just before race day, as that can cause another host of maladies, but keep them nice and short.  The longer they are, the more likely they are to cause problems.

Runners’ feet?  Maybe . . .

With that said, the truth is, no matter what you do, black toenails can and will happen despite your best efforts if you are a distance runner.

So how do I know when I am going to lose one?

The first tell-tale sign is pain.  If one of your toenails hurts post-race, there is a decent chance it may soon be a goner.  But if it doesn’t develop a bruise or blister and turn black, you may be home free after all.  So give it a few days and don’t panic.

If  you take off your sock post-race and your toenail is already black and blue, sorry sister, it’s a goner.  Same is true if it turns black, blue, purple or any shade in between a few days after your race.
Click on the link if your car needs one of these bad girls!

What do I do if I have a black toenail?

There are varying approaches to dealing with the black toenail.  Some just watch it progress in dismay.  After a few weeks, it will heal, but the toenail will separate and will come off.

I tend to be a bit more proactive about it if it hurts.  Usually when I get them, I have fluid building under the nail and it hurts.  So I sterilize a needle and drain it.  Yes, it is gross (but kind of cool too).  It also  provides INSTANT relief.  As soon as my toenail starts separating, I yank that puppy off.  Yes, again, gross, but I find it speeds the healing process and who needs that gross black thing anyway.

It also makes my kids go nuts and makes me feel like a bad ass.  That alone is worth it.

When can I show my feet again in public?

Now!  Trust me, no one pays as much attention to your feet than you.  Don’t be afraid to get a pedicure or wear the cute shoes you want after your race.  Nail polish was invented for a reason.  And if anyone gives you grief, you can share my favorite retort: my toenails might not be perfect, but they take one for the team and both me and my backside thank them immensely for it.

Do  you have any tips for dealing with or preventing black toenails?  We’d love to hear your  thoughts.  

(Aside –> don’t Google images for black toenails.  Trust me.  And thank me for not posting any of those images!)

Mindi is a serial marathoner. She is a private practice attorney, wife and mom of two awesome (and super fast) boys, ages 12 and 14. She coaches Girls on the Run and is a big advocate of youth running.

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  1. I got a black toenail after a 13.1 because my toes didn’t have enough room in the toe box. The next pair of shoes had a really wide one, so I never had a problem since. I prefer shoes with a looser fit so my toes have room to spread, and I think that’s key to preventing black toenails.

    1. That’s funny because I had problems with black toenails until I moved a half size down. I had problems when my feet slid to the front of the shoe. With a snugger fit, I’ve never had a problem since (last time was 2006!)

  2. After my first marathon, I started tying my shoes differently to prevent black toenails (basically so it is tight at the top and recents my feet from slamming forward). I still get black toenails though, just not as frequently.

    In fairness, though, I’m kind of proud of them. #proof

  3. Pedicures are key! Once I started doing this during marathon training I stopped losing toenails. I will torture myself on the foam roller instead of paying for a massage, but I won’t give up my Pedi’s! Bonus is the calf and foot massage that comes with it – my tight Achilles are much happier. My family knows that a gift certificate to NY Nails is all I ever want for a gift.

  4. Two things, you can get flasies for toenails if you are intent on showing them off in a posh frock etc, and you can always pain them all black latest Chanel vernis recommended. that is all.

  5. not going to lie this is the only part of running a half marathon I am scared of! Shoe fit is so personal and while I went to a running store to get my shoes I don’t know if they fit right! I just know she told me they should be loose, but what I think is loose and what they think is loose might be two different things. Learned that lesson with snowboard boots. Im a size 7 shoe, the guy said they should be roomy and squishy so that was a size 10…well I was in pain for three plus months my feet, toes, and ankles (like in tears pain), finally went into the burton store in burlington VT and they were like NO!!! you need a size 7 and they will feel tight and your toes with tingle but they will pack out….. no more foot pain. I guess like everything else I will learn as I go!

  6. I had a black toe nail because (pls don’t laugh at me) dropped a dinner plate on it 🙁 I know! And you know what I tried to prevent the plate to break using my foot… (Stupid reflex) anyways, I drained it… And now my toe nail is loose at the bottom end and looks yellow (no life) and perfectly strong and healthy on the top part 🙁 what do I do? What If I grow a new nail underneath the old one and it becomes ingrown.? :$ OMG, do I need to go to a doctor?