What to Do When Your Workout Wrecks Your Toenails

by Well & Good
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What to Do When Your Workout Wrecks Your Toenails

Except for changing the color of your polish, you probably take your toenails for granted. Unless you’ve wounded or lost some nails running or in some other fitness mishap with, say, a free-weight. Then you become extremely aware of your toenails.

But many serious runners assume that black, loose, or missing toenails are just part of the deal.

“I see people for this all the time,” says Suzanne Levine, M.D., a Park Avenue podiatrist and author of My Feet Are Killing Me. “Long-distance running is the number one culprit, but I see it in skiers, tennis players, and ballroom dancers who wear high heels.” (She tended to the two I knocked off descending Kilimanjaro.)

What happens is that inflexible shoes rub off the toenail, making it separate from the nail bed. “It’s like a hammer repeatedly hitting the nail,” says Dr. Levine. Trauma is occurring to the nail matrix (the place the nail grows from). Eventually the nail plate pops off. (Sorry, TMI?)

Lost toenails grow back, of course, but it takes six months. (And if the injury has damaged the nail matrix, the new nail will be thicker.) Since injured nails often don’t come off immediately, walking around with bruised, loose nails that you know are going to fall off (hopefully not in yoga class) is not much fun. Neither is getting in infection, which you’re at risk of as well.

Here’s what Dr. Levine says to do about it.

1. Start with your shoes
 Make sure your shoes fit properly—you want a thumb’s width between the tip of the toe and the front of the shoe. Dr. Levine suggests wearing two pairs of socks when running.

2. Moisturize your toenails 
It’s for health, not vanity! Before you put your running shoes on, slather nails with a urea lotion. “It really moisturizes and penetrates more than anything else out there,” she says. Though it’s not natural. She also recommends coconut oil to moisturize the nail, and a dilution of tea tree oil to fight fungus. And make sure you’re eating right, as nutritional deficiencies can weaken nails.

3. Consider your pedicures
 Another way to keep your toes in top form is to maintain a square-shaped toenail. “People and pedicurists tend to penetrate too much into the edges when trying to achieve a round nail,” she says.

4. Treat injured nails immediately
 When you take off your socks and see black and blue, “it’s important to do something about your injured toes immediately.” Clean the injured little piggies and start using an antibiotic cream regularly. Then soak your feet in peppermint tea to reduce the hematoma (black deoxygenated blood) under the nail.

5. Don’t pull the nail off 
Don’t yank it off before it’s ready. Don’t cut it or dig underneath it with an orange stick. Definitely don’t take a Tanzanian mountain guide’s offer to drill a hole in it with his Swiss Army knife to drain the blood. Poking around induces bacteria and is likely to cause a painful infection. (The hole isn’t the worst idea, but should be made by a doctor in a sterile environment.) If it’s really flapping around, you can carefully snip it off, but Dr. Levine prefers to err on the side of caution, keeping it taped and antibiotic-ed up until it’s really ready to come off. Soaking with Epsom salts is also a good idea.

6. Act when it’s off
 Switch from the antibiotic to a topical antifungal. As the new nail grows in, try to thin it out by using a buffer and a urea cream or the coconut oil. A podiatrist can also use a laser to thin the new nail. Skip the nail polish, and wear sandals if you can.

7. See a doctor
 If you’re in a lot of pain, the black-and-blue doesn’t go away, the nail oozes, the new nail looks funky, or you’re tempted to self-treat with pedicure tools, do your feet a favor, and go to a professional. —Ann Abel for Well+Good

Have you ever lost a toenail? How did you treat it? Share in the comments below!


  • Felicious1908

    Thanks for this post. Wish I had seen before I lost my first toenail to runner’s toe and the second to being clumsy.

  • Lost two when I upped my running about a year ago. One just fell off, but the other required removal :(. It came back without a problem after a few months, but I definitely moisturize a lot more often as a result. The coconut oil works really well, so does a little shea butter.

  • JofJLTNCB6

    “Thought it’s not natural.”

    Interesting. I thought it was.

    • Alyssa

      I think you can get natural urea creams, but where it occurs naturally is in urine…which would probably be logistically difficult and expensive to harvest, isolate, and produce as lotion…also I imagine that piss cream can be hard to market. The chemical compound can be replicated artificially without the hassle of having to isolate it from actual distilled pee, and added to lotion to soften hyperkeratosis, calluses, thickened or brittle nails, and rejuvenate skin.

      It’s not as holistic as other emollient lotions and oils, but it’s effective!

      • Alyssa

        Also, everyone suggesting coconut oil as a replacement, be careful! Coconut and other food-derived oils can be full of sugars and carbohydrates, and when you slather on a handful inside hot, sweaty socks and shoes, it’s like showing up to the morning toenail fungus and bacterial infection meeting with catered breakfast and donuts.

        If you use coconut oil, make sure to remove your shoes and socks immediately after your run, gently but thoroughly clean your feet and toenails with warm (not hot) water and gentle soap, dry your feet completely, re-dress any bandaged wounds, re-moisturize with a lotion, and put on clean, breathable socks!

  • Nhoffman26

    I was instructed by my running group to pop the blisters under both my big toes, after they started turning running my first half. They went from looking slightly black to full black, and started leaking an awful mixture of blood and pus. After a week of taping my toes and them oozing I finally went to my dr. He sent me right to the podiatrist where he numbed me up and yanked them out. It’s been about 3 week’s, and 1 nail is starting to show but the other hasn’t shown yet. And I’m no wing wearing a bigger shoe.

  • Amber Tackett

    Lost the 2nd nail on both feet, and they grew back double and, of course, ugly. Occasionally I pull off the top nail when it gets really bad. Basically, I have troll toes.