5 Common Foot Problems for Runners

Running is great exercise, but it is sometimes hard on our feet.  Our feet are the part of our bodies that contact the ground first.  This can apply forces of an average 7 times our body weight focally on each foot strike.  So, a 150 pound person lands with about 1000 pounds of force on their foot. That is a lot of wear and tear.  But the good news is that our feet are designed to take it. And, running shoes are designed to absorb some of this impact. However, there are times when runners can experience foot problems.  Let’s explore five of the most common foot issues and what to do about them. 

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1. Black toenails

Also called subungual hematoma, black toenails are the result of trauma.  They are caused from your toes banging up against your shoe repeatedly.  This can be from shoes that are too small, feet slipping forward in the shoe, or nails that are too long. 

After a long, downhill or fast run, the tips of your toes may be tender. However, unless you are experiencing significant pain, this is not a cause for alarm.  It is also not an excuse not to run.  Sorry. 

There are some things you can do to prevent black toenails:

  • Go up a half size in running shoe
  • Find a shoe with a roomier toe box (that is the front part of the shoes where your toes go)
  • Wear a good pair of running socks that prevent your feet from slipping forward inside the shoe
  • Trim your toenails regularly
  • Use the runner’s loop lacing technique to help your foot move with the shoe and not slide forward. The runner’s loop is described below, so keep reading.
  • Protect toes that are prone to bruising with silicon toe caps

Black toenails can last a long time. You are likely to lose that toenail.  It could take weeks or months to fall off.  It took until after Christmas for one of my black toenails to fall off after running a half marathon in October.

runners toe
Black toenail from running

If it is too painful to run, you should see a doctor.  And, if you don’t lose your nail and the black doesn’t grow out as your nail grows, you should see a doctor.  Melanoma is a rare cancer in the nail bed, but it can form sometimes as a result of repeated trauma.  The darkness or discoloration may spread to the skin or form a nodule, but not always.  Your doctor will need to take a biopsy to make the diagnosis.  Again, nail bed melanoma is rare, so don’t worry too much about it.  Just get it checked if something doesn’t look right. 

Should you cover up black toenails?

You can cover up black nails with nail polish during sandal season.  A fashion forward runner and beauty consultant friend of mine tells me that red nail polish is the best color to cover up the blackness.  Red toenails are sexy too.  But a word of caution, nail polish doesn’t allow your nails to breath or dry properly.  It is more difficult to watch for problems, such as infections, in painted nails.  Use your judgement in maintaining pretty toes. 

2. Blisters

Blister from running (photo credit: Sherri Defoe)

A blister is an accumulation of fluid (serum) between layers of skin.  It is caused from friction or rubbing.  Wet feet can increase your chances of getting blisters.  So, be aware of this if your feet sweat a lot or if you are running in the rain. 

To lessen friction and prevent blisters, you can

  • Wear well-fitted running shoes and socks
  • Wear wicking socks that help keep your feet dry
  • Buy double socks that rub on themselves instead of your feet
  • Use lubricants, such as Body Glide or Vaseline
  • Protect areas prone to blisters with silicon sleeves, tape or pads
  • Lace your shoes with the runner’s loop (see below) to prevent your feet from sliding in your shoes.

If you get a blister, don’t pop it.  You could introduce infection under your skin. If the blister pops on its own, keep the area clean and dry to prevent infection.  If it is too painful to run, protect the area with padding or tape.  See a doctor if it is exceptionally large, painful or infected. 

BlisterPod Advanced Blister Kit for Runners

3. Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis)

Athlete’s foot is a type of fungal infection.  It usually appears as a dry, scaly rash.  It may itch, sting or burn, but not always.  Athlete’s foot usually starts between the toes and can be mistaken for dry skin or eczema.  It is contagious and can spread easily by contact or by picking at it.  Damp, sweaty skin is one of the factors in developing athlete’s foot. 

To prevent athlete’s foot

  • Dry your feet, socks and shoes immediately after each run.
  • Don’t keep your shoes in a bag or locker.  Let them air out to dry thoroughly
  • Alternate your running shoes to allow for a longer drying period between runs
  • Use wicking socks to keep sweat away from your skin.  Never use cotton socks while running.
  • Wash your socks after each use
  • Don’t walk around the public gym or pool area floor in bare feet
  • Don’t share unwashed socks, shoes, towels or clothes

If the infection is mild, over-the-counter medications are usually enough to treat it.  Keep your feet clean and dry between treatments.  See your doctor if it worsens or persists. 

What is onychomycosis?

Onychomycosis is a fungal infection of toenails.  It appears as a yellow, brittle, thick, or discolored nail.  It can take a long time and sometimes aggressive therapy to cure.  Stay on top of your feet and nails.  See your doctor if it is not clearing up. 

4. Foot Cramps

Foot cramps are common in runners and not usually a cause for concern unless they are persistent or intense.  They are primarily caused from dehydration, overuse or fatigue.  If you experience these frequently you may need more minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and potassium, in your diet.  Some medications can also make you more prone to cramps; such as tamoxifen, a hormonal drug for breast cancer.

If you get a cramp in your foot while running, try to walk it off. If it persists after you stop running, rest and elevate your leg.  Ice and anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, may help.  Massage and stretching can help in the days following but may make it worse during an active cramp. 

To prevent muscle cramps in your foot

  • Ensure adequate hydration
  • Wear shoes that have proper support, especially in the arch area
  • Eat nutritious foods high in potassium, calcium and magnesium, such as dark leafy greens and bananas
  • Consider shoe inserts or orthotics for more support and cushioning

Foot cramps can be quite painful, but they are no reason to not run.  They typically don’t last long afterwards.  If pain and cramping persist, be sure to see a medical health professional. 

Foot Roller Massage Ball Set

5. Numbness or Tingling

Numbness or a tingling sensation, like your foot fell asleep, is usually the result of nerve irritation or damage.  The primary causes are circulation problems (e.g. if your shoes are too tight) or repeated trauma from an unbalanced foot strike. 

This was a problem that my husband had.  He developed metatarsalgia, which is numbness and tingling in the metatarsal area or ball of his foot.  It was from repeated forefoot striking, particularly from running fast down hills. He now supports this area with a cushioning pad.  He doesn’t have the issue if he wears the metatarsal pad. 

ZenToes Metatarsal Pads

To prevent or help with nerve irritation in the foot, you can

  • Provide extra cushioning on your feet
  • Loosen the laces of your shoes
  • Ensure proper mid-foot strike by shortening your stride and increase your foot turnover, essentially running with baby-steps
  • Support your arches with inserts or orthotics if you are more flat-footed
  • Warm up before running and stretch after a run, as muscle tightness anywhere in your body can unbalance your foot strike.

Persistent numbness or tingling could be a sign of peripheral neuropathy.  This is a medical condition that affects the nerves in your arms and legs.  It can start in the feet.  Diabetes and cancer treatments are two common reasons for the development of peripheral neuropathy.  See your doctor if the tingling or numbness doesn’t go away with rest, keeps recurring or gets worse. 

Those are 5 common foot problems in runners.  I hope you don’t experience any of them, but if you run often and long distances, chances are you will.  At least now you have some things to try to prevent this. 

The Runner’s Loop Shoe Lacing Technique

The Runner’s Loop lacing technique helps lock the heel in place and prevents the foot from sliding forward inside the shoe. If you are prone to blisters, foot chafing or black toenails, give it a try.

Next, let me tell you a couple more tips that I discovered to keep my feet feeling fantastic after running. 

Listerine Foot Soaks 

If you have never tried a Listerine foot soak, you absolutely must!  This feels so wonderful on tired feet.  I first discovered these when my feet were sore from training for my first half marathon.  These are a real treat for me. 

Original Listerine (the yellow kind) contains methyl salicylate, a compound like aspirin.  This helps reduce pain and inflammation.  Listerine is also a disinfecting mouth wash, so will act as a disinfectant for your feet and kill bacteria and fungus that likes to thrive in the damp sweat feet of runners.  It can help treat and prevent the spread of athlete’s foot.  Listerine also has exfoliating properties and will leave your feet feeling smooth and soft. 

Don’t use a Listerine foot bath if you have sensitive feet or open sores.  It can sting or have a burning sensation in these cases.  Also, because it contains aspirin-like substances, don’t use it if you have an allergy.  Young children should also not use Listerine for this reason.   If you have any concerns regarding the use of Listerine and your health, consult your physician or pharmacist. 

But, for everyone else, these foot soaks can be wonderful. 

Instructions for Listerine Foot Bath:

Instructions for the foot soak are simple.  Pour equal parts of original (yellow) Listerine and warm water into a foot bath or basin.  You can use less Listerine if you feel that this is too strong.  However, the more you dilute it, the less effect it will have.  You can also add in Epsom salts for a more soothing soak. 

Soak your feet for 10 – 15 minutes, up to a maximum of 60 minutes.  Remove your feet, rinse and dry them well. 

Don’t use the colored Listerine, such as blue or green, as the pigments in the liquid may stain your feet.  Original Listerine has the right soothing ingredients: eucalyptus, menthol, thymol and methyl salicylate. 

HoMedics Bubble Mate Foot Spa

5 Simple & Easy Foot Exercises: 

To keep your feet in good running condition, try these five exercises.  Do them routinely for strong and flexible feet. 

  1. Toe raises – place your feet flat on the floor, then lift just your toes into the air.  Repeat 10 times.
  2. Toe curls – grab and scrunch up a towel with your toes.  You can also try to pick up a marble or other small smooth object.  Repeat 10 times.
  3. Foot massage – roll a tennis ball or golf ball under each foot for about 60 seconds.  One foot at a time, of course. 
  4. Write the alphabet with your big toe – this is great for feet and ankle strength and flexibility.  Repeat twice.
  5. Toe stretch – with your feet flat on floor, spread your toes apart.  Hold for a few seconds, then release.  Repeat 10 times.

I hope you find this information helpful.  Find other great articles in the running archives.


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