Runners take perverse pride in their gross toe nails, wearing their grim injury as a badge of honour. Although toe nails falling off and then failing to grow back is common in the sport, there are some simple ways to prevent it or promote their healing.

Cut your nails

Snip your nails the night before the race and snip them square, not curved. Make sure you cut them the way you have done during your training – do not try something new, or cut them shorter than you ever have done. It might sound like a simple task you’ve completed a thousand times, but if you cut toe nails too short, then you risk developing ingrown toe nails.

If you are worried, treat yourself to a pedicure a few days before the race. Tell the professional why you are cutting your nails, and they will get it just right.

How runners can fix shin splints

Make sure your shoe fits

If your shoe is too small they can catch the nail. Even if the shoe feels right, the toe box might be too narrow for your running. Make sure your shoes are designed for running and not gym going. You should also wear appropriate socks to protect the toe nails.

If you head to a specialist running shop, the staff will be able to advise you on the correct shoes.

Running shoes that fit properly, with a wide enough toe box, will help protect your nails. Photo: Roy Issa

Although catching your toe nail on your shoe because it does not fit, or because the nails are too long, can cause nail loss, a common reason is microtraumas. Each time your toe pushes off the ground, a microtrauma is caused. Add all those little pushes up over the course of a marathon and it can become an issue. Blood begins to pool below the nail and it eventually comes off. This is the injury runners boast of the most: the blackened toe and the nail that refuses to return.

Proper fitting running shoes will help reduce these traumas. Replacing shoes regularly so the sole is not worn is also important.

Tie your laces properly

With the risk of sounding like your nursery teacher, make sure your shoes are done up properly. Not too tight, not too lose. If you are striding along, and your shoe feels loose, take a second to re-tie it, rather than ignoring it.

Ensure your shoes are tied the same way that they are during training. Race day is not the day to experiment.

Avoid polish

Painting your nails is a short term solution to the discolouring, but it will preventing healing. Photo: Associated Press

When your toe becomes discoloured, it can tempting to cover it with nail polish. But nail polish will just prolong the healing, as your nail needs the air to breath. You will find yourself in a cycle of the nail falling off for a long time after the initial denailing. 


If you are unlucky enough to damage your toe nail, despite doing all of the above, patience is key. The toe nail grows slower than the finger nail. It can take months of re-losing your toe nail before it finally returns to normal. Wear breathable shoes, and woollen, breathable, socks, as much as possible to get air and help promote healing.

But, if it does persist, you might have a fungal infection. Fungal infections can cause similar discolouring as running, so see a GP or podiatrist.

Help us understand what you are interested in so that we can improve SCMP and provide a better experience for you. We would like to invite you to take this five-minute survey on how you engage with SCMP and the news.