… And This Little Piggy Turned Black

One of the most common horror stories you hear about running a marathon is about runners’ toenails. For many distance runners, blackened toenails or losing toenails altogether is some sort of a badge of honor.

One of my 3 marathon buddies (we all trained for and ran the LA Marathon together) got some seriously nasty toenails. Black and purple and half-hanging on. She refused to let me take a picture of them for this blog, but they look pretty much like this.

My friend actually has four toes this color now.

I was so happy on marathon day (two weeks ago) to be the proud owner of 10 intact toenails. Not a bruised, blackened or missing one in the bunch. They say, with running, that keeping your toenails in place and nice and pink, is all about your shoes. Basically, if the toe box of your shoe is too small, your toes are going to have friction. You may not feel it, but it’s happening. Then one day, you notice your toenail looking bruised. 

The toe box on my Adidas Supernovas must have been just right for me. No rubbage, no friction, no missing toenails. Okay, I was a bit arrogant about it. Okay, I was bragging and gloating about it.

I had other toe issues to deal with. After 17 weeks and over 400 miles of running in preparation for the marathon, my middle toe was getting way too cozy with the big toe. Just before the marathon the inside of my big toe was getting pretty tender and I was feeling it during my runs. So off to the store I went.

Toe spacer lying on its side.

I bought a toe spacer – this is a funky hourglass-shaped gel thing that you stick between your toes. It seemed to work on a few of my training runs, so I used it on marathon day. Somewhere around mile 6, the little sucker wiggled its way out from between my toes and moved its way on top of the big toe and middle toe. I figured I’d stop around mile 10 and remove it, but it wasn’t causing any pain, so I just ran the whole race that way.

Not the smartest move. The next morning I had two discolored toes that were pretty tender as well. All that bragging went right out the window.

The next weekend I was playing in a soccer game, trying ever so hard to protect my two little bruised piggies, when the worst thing happened. A woman on the other team stepped on my foot – right on the big toe and middle toe. Then she pivoted with her cleats digging nicely into my toes. Oh!!!! The pain!!! I writhed on the ground in agony. I’m sure other players thought I had suffered some grave injury. Maybe a torn ACL, maybe a broken bone. No, just a sore couple of toes.

This little piggy turned purple, this little piggy is dark pink, and the foot is bruised too.

Now I’ve got a nasty bruise on my foot and the slight bruising under my toenails is making its way toward BLACK. But, through all of that, I did discover a better way to take care of my toes. Remember how they were getting all mashed together and I was having pain toward the inside of my big toe?

It doesn't do anything for the toenail but it does provide some cushion between the toes.

I ended buying these toe sleeves. They look like little tube tops for your toes. They have a gel pad inside them. I just slip that little sucker over my big toe, with the gel pad positioned toward the middle toe . . .  and OILA, no mashing of the toes, no friction, no pain.

This is what one looks like a nice, and clean, and new.

Dang! I wish I would have worn one of these during the marathon instead of that toe spacer. I could have skipped the whole black toenail thing and kept right on bragging.

So if you’re a distance runner or training for a distance running event, make sure your shoes have a big toe box. If you start to notice toe-mash (that’s my highly technical term for “tenderness between your toes because they’re getting too cozy”), say No to the toe spacer and go with the toe tube top. They aren’t called that, of course. I think the ones I bought said something about corns or bunions on the packaging. I just saw them and thought they would provide some cushioning between the toes. Or get yourself a top cap.

As far as my ever-blackening toenails goes, not much to do there. Sorry all you runners, soccer players, and those attacked by falling objects. Once the process has started, it seems you just get to wait it out. Some people yank the toenails. Some people just leave them. Some get infected. Some don’t. Read more about black toenails on Jeff Galloway’s site.


  1. Al Hundt says:

    Good data! I switched biking shoes and black big toe nails seemed to happen within a few days. I switched to another shoe with a larger toe box. The black is gradually moving away and the nails are becoming clear.

    • saukker says:

      It’s amazing what a little bit of friction can do to a toenail, isn’t it. I just hike Mount Baldy and the descent from 10,000 feet took its toll on my other big toe. Lot’s of rubbing on the inside of my boot. This one is actually worse than the one that got ugly after the LA Marathon. It took almost a week and a half for the pain to go away. It was super tender right up until the toenail went a gorgeous shade of gray then purplish-black. Now it’s ugly as all hell, but it doesn’t hurt.

  2. Sara says:

    how is ur toenail now? did it fall off or stay in tact and just grow out? mine looks exactly like your second picture and there isnt really any sign of lifting off. Only like half of the nail is bruised. im just concerned and trying to predict what will happen. Every remedy online says it will fall off. :(

    • saukker says:

      Sara -
      The toenail I blogged about with my marathon has completely recovered. I didn’t lose the whole thing. One part near the top stayed blackish, grey and then I clipped it off. But now it’s grown back and looks totally normal. The toenail of the big toe on my other foot was traumatized hiking Mt. Baldy (actually on the descent). That toenail turned a much deeper shade of black, grey and purple. After a few weeks it was just dangling by one little sinew so I pulled it off. That one has now grown out to about halfway. No pain, just a funky looking nail. Not every nail falls off, so don’t worry if it doesn’t. Toenails seem to progress slowly. It took forever for half-bruised toenail to really start to heal and it even took months for the totally black nail to come off. So hang in there.

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