Black Toenails: A Runner's Rite of Passage

Ah, the joys of hanging out at your favorite beach joint in your most comfortable pair of flip flops and having people gag when their eyes happen across your gnarled black toenails hanging from your feet by a flap of skin. Many of you probably wanted to hurl after reading that last sentence. That is quite a normal reaction. But those of you who chuckled and shook your head in agreement know what I'm talking about. You are probably an endurance athlete who has experienced this very situation once or twice: good 'ol black toenails.

Black toe or black toenails are pretty common among marathoners, but especially common--and almost a rite of passage--for ultrarunners. There are many different causes. The most common cause is wearing a shoe that is too small. If this is the case, your toes jam into the front of the shoe while running and cause excessive pounding of the toes during long-distance runs. Other causes are repetitive trauma to the toes (something many soccer players might experience) or dropping a 100-pound tree stump on your big toe like I did when I was 10 years old.

While black toe can be quite unpleasant to the eye, it's generally nothing to worry about. In most cases the old nail will fall off when new growth underneath pushes it out of the way. (Note: Family and friends are seldom amused when you reach down and make your black, loose toenail wave at them like a toe puppet.) Having run the Badwater 135 a couple times and the Grand Slam of Ultra Running, I have honestly forgotten what normal toenails look like. After my first Badwater, my feet were so bad I named my toenails ROY G BIV. It comes with the territory I guess, as I'm sure many of you know. One of ultrarunning's most prolific figures, Marshall Ulrich, got so tired of his toenails turning black and falling off that he had them surgically removed. Hey, sure as heck saved him money on pedicures.

Rather than be embarrassed the next time you develop this sometimes unsightly occurrence, show your feet off with pride. Your fellow endurance athletes will greet you with a friendly smile and a nod, then ask what crazy event you did last weekend. If you do happen to come across haters who find your feet offensive and can't stop staring, wiggle and wave your black toe.

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Active Expert, Joe Decker is an ultra-endurance power athlete and renowned fitness trainer who has helped thousands of people get into shape. He has completed many of the world's toughest endurance events, including the Badwater 135, and the Grand Slam of UltraRunning. In 2000, Joe broke the Guinness World Records? Twenty-four-hour Physical Fitness Challenge to help inspire and motivate people to get fit. He is recognized as "The World's Fittest Man." Visit his website at You can also sign up for a customized strength training plan by Joe on Active Trainer.




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