Why Do Your Toenails Hurt After Running?

runner sitting on a rock with toe pain

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If you've ever noticed that after a long run your toenail hurts when you press on it, you may have a sore toenail from running. When one or more toenails hurt, the throbbing sensation can make running and even walking pretty uncomfortable.

In many cases, a sore toenail is the first sign of developing runner's toenail, also known as black toenail. Fortunately, there are a few steps runners can take to avoid sore toenails and prevent black toenail from occurring. If already have a sore toenail, find out what you can do so you can get back to running without the pain.

Causes of Sore Toenails

Sore toenails may feel tender when you press on the nail or throb even when you don't touch them. In addition, you could experience foot problems such as ingrown toenails, blisters, or foot numbness.

Often, toenails may become sore and can start throbbing after a run because your toes are slammed into the tip of the toe box of your shoe with every step. This happens more often when you run downhill.

There are a couple of elements that can contribute to post-run toenail pain. For instance, stubbing the toe on a long trail run may cause trauma to the toe. But sore toenails are probably most often attributed to the shoes you're wearing. Here's why.

  • Your shoes are too big or worn too loose. If you have a sloppy fit, your foot may slide around more in the shoe with each step. This can contribute to more toenail trauma with each step.
  • Your shoes are too small. Your running shoes should be one-half to a full size bigger than your regular shoe size because your feet will swell when you run (especially on long runs) and you need plenty of room in the toebox.

Treatment for Sore Toenails

When you experience sore toenails, you will want to give them a chance to heal for a few days. You should only return to running if your toenail pain has subsided. You may want to wear open-toed shoes to help avoid any further trauma until they are no longer tender.

If redness develops or the pain worsens, you should see your doctor to make sure that you don't have an infection and to get treatment if you do.

If you start to notice that you're developing a black toenail (subungual hematoma), you will likely lose the toenail. While this can be distressing, it happens to many runners and the toenail should fully grow back usually within several months to a year, depending on which toenail fell off.

But you don't have to wait that long to start running again. Once the black toenail falls off, the nailbed is typically less tender and you can resume running as long as you aren't experiencing any pain. In some cases, a new nail may already be starting to grow underneath the black toenail, which may speed up your recovery time. Many runners will also keep running while they have black toenail if it isn't causing them too much pain.

Prevent Toenail Pain

There are several different ways that you can avoid painful toenails after running and prevent black toenails from developing. While inappropriate shoes are a common culprit, there are a few other less obvious factors to take into account.

Check Your Shoe Fit

The first step to prevent sore toenails is to check the fit of your shoes. If you're wondering if your current running shoes are the correct size, check the location of your big toe. If it's pushed right up against the front of the shoe, they're too small.

Another easy way to check the fit is to remove the shoe's insert and stand on it. If any part of your toes is hanging over the end of the insert, your running shoes are too small.

Invest in New Shoes

If you suspect that your shoes don't fit correctly, invest in a new pair. When shopping for running shoes, make sure you go to a specialty running store and have the salesperson measure your feet.

Even if you think you know your shoe size, your feet can get wider and longer (due to falling arches), even as an adult. Get your shoe size re-checked periodically.

When trying on shoes, try several different pairs. Most new shoes feel great when you first try them on. If any part of the shoe feels weird on your foot or rubs a strange way, think about how bad it could feel after 10 miles and try something else. Also, it's best to try on new running shoes after a long run or at the end of the day, when your feet are already swollen.

Lace Shoes Differently

You can also learn to lace your shoes to retain your heel in the heel cup and prevent your feet from sliding forward in the shoe with each step. Use a simple lacing technique to prevent heel slippage:

  1. Lace your shoe to the next-to-last eyelet.
  2. Lace over and down through the top eyelet on the same side to form a "bunny ear."
  3. Do the same for the other side.
  4. Pull the lace through the opposite "bunny ear."
  5. Tie your bow.

This lacing technique will pull the top of the lacing tight at the ankle while keeping the rest of the lacing properly tensioned.

Keeping your foot from sliding forward is especially important for running routes that include downhill sections. You should stop and ensure your shoes are laced correctly before any significant downhills.

Choose Thicker Socks

If your shoes have a sloppy fit, you can wear thicker running socks. Look for versions that have more padding. You can even wear two pairs of socks. Keep in mind that cushioning is generally a good idea only if there is room for it in your shoes. If thick socks make your shoes too snug, there’s still a risk of developing sore toenails.

In addition, if you wear orthotics or inserts, thicker socks may not be the right choice. A 2015 review noted that runners who wore orthotics or inserts were often more prone to running-related injuries.

Trim and File Toenails

Toenail length is a major factor as well. Properly trimming your toenails and filing the edges will make them less likely to hit the inside of your shoes, which can help prevent soreness and bruising. When your toenails are too long they can start to generate friction and cause irritation.

However, be sure you trim your toenails to the correct length. Trimming them too short can cause irritation, infection, or ingrown toenails.

A Word From Verywell

Sore toenails are a sign that you need to pay attention to the fit of your shoes. With the right fit and lacing techniques, you will reduce your risk of foot blisters and losing toenails. While toenail trauma is so common that it is a meme among marathoners, you don't have to join that club.

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Article Sources
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  1. van der Worp MP, ten Haaf DSM, van Cingel R, de Wijer A, Nijhuis-van der Sanden MWG, Staal JB. Injuries in runners; a systematic review on risk factors and sex differencesPLoS One. 2015;10(2):e0114937. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0114937

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Health Essentials. How to Prevent and Treat Ingrown Toenails. September 26, 2019.

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