Runners’ Toenail Problems: Do Triathletes Even Need Nails?

Shawn Smith

Quick summary: If you’ve spent a lot of time training for triathlons, you may have experienced problems like black, thickened, or ingrown toenails. You may have lost toenails now and then as well. These issues affect the big toe most of all. Some runners and triathletes avoid these problems by having them surgically removed. Is that a smart idea? Do you really need your toenails?

Causes of toenail problems for triathletes

  • Ingrown toenails are caused by repeated stress that drives the toenail into the soft flesh of the toe, combined with growth of either the toenail or the skin of the toe. This can cause a lot of pain and a few visits to the doctor.
  • Black toenails are caused by repeated contact between the toenail and the shoe. This causes bleeding, and it may turn the toenail black. The blood can cause the toenail to separate from the toe, opening you up to bacterial and fungal infections before another toenail grows in its place.
  • Permanent toenail thickening occurs when damage to the root, or “matrix”, of the nail causes it to become deformed. The nail will grow according to the new shape of the root. It will often grow thicker and look grey or yellow, like a fungal infection. This condition is permanent and can harm your triathlon performance.

What happens if you have your toenails surgically removed?

The flesh underneath your toenails is very sensitive. However, if you have your toenails removed, the flesh normally grows thicker, tougher, and far less sensitive. If you have cosmetic concerns, you can add nail polish to this area. People won’t be able to tell the difference unless they’re near you. The doctor will use either a laser or a chemical, and the procedure is painless.

On the other hand, there are some people whose toes won’t create that protective layer of skin. You could be one of them. The only way to find out is to have your nails removed.

The verdict: Whether you have toenails or not won’t affect your running ability. An ingrown toenail will until you have it treated. A permanently thickened nail will also affect your speed and endurance, and that’s not treatable.

Your two options are prevention and surgery. As a triathlete, you’re going to have cosmetic issues. That’s just a fact. If you’re not into the idea of surgical removal, there are some steps you can take to minimize damage to your toenails.

  • Wear the correct size shoes. A shoe that fits well will prevent all the microtrauma that can cause bleeding under the nails.
  • Keep the nails well trimmed. If they’re even a little bit too long, they can cause shoe-related trauma on the inclines and declines.
  • Use skin lubricant. This will prevent a lot of soreness, bruising, and other problems caused by accumulated trauma. This is a method Dr Christopher Seglar, a San Francisco sports medicine podiatrist and triathlete, uses on long runs of 30 kilometres or more. His toes are fine on shorter runs. However, if you train a lot, you may want to use skin lubricant for those, too.

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