How to Defeat Toe Pain While Running

April 21st, 2013 | Posted by Alison Spath in Fitness

The Flower City Half Marathon is one week from today.  Like most runners right now, I’m feeling pretty nostalgic about the sport of running in light of what’s happened in Boston over the past week here.  I’ve had this post in the works for a while, but my running woes and sore toes suddenly felt insignificant on April 15, 2013.

With that said, running can be a healthy way to deal with tragedy or stress –> and sore toes can keep you from running!  This post is for anyone who has struggled with sore toes so you can get out there and keep running.  This is where my riveting sore toes tale begins, to give you some ideas of what to try when toe pain strikes – or better yet, beat it to the punch.

The Story of Sore Toes

(sounds like a best seller already)

As my weekend long runs have grown longer over the past 5 weeks of half marathon training (9, 10, 9, 10 and 11 miles respectively) my toes were starting to go numb around the 7 or 8 mile mark, eventually leading to pain for last 2 – 3 miles of those runs.  Toe pain can be related to improper form, but in my experience, numb toes and/or sore toes usually has to do with my sneakers.  Toe pain typically means that your shoes are too small or are tied too tightly.

To back up for a moment, I bought a new pair of running sneakers in the fall of last year, shortly after my return to running from my hiatus during pregnancy #3.  I went with my usual Asics Gel Nimbus, version 14.  I came to find that I didn’t love this pair as much as I’ve loved my Asics Gel Nimbus’s (Nimbi?) of the past.  I like Asics because they usually have a nice, wide toe box – but this version didn’t seem quite as wide as usual.  They were fine in general, but not as comfortable as I’d come to expect based on my experience from running in my previous pairs of the same model.

Having run 3, 4, 5 and 6 miles in these sneakers all fall and winter without any significant toe issues, I wondered if my toe pain might resolve itself as my feet become more accustomed to running longer distances again.  But after my third sore-toed long run, I was thoroughly annoyed that this issue wasn’t going away.  Something had to give, and so I concluded that it was probably time for a new pair of shoes.  Given that your feet can grow a little bit with each pregnancy, I wondered if I might now need to go up another half size.  My Nimbus 14’s were only one half size up, as I’ve always done in the past – but maybe a full size up would help.

It’s recommended to go “one half to a full size up” from your regular shoe size for running sneakers.  You want to give your feet plenty of room to spread out thanks to the impact of your body weight on your feet while running.  Buying running shoes a half size up can save you from blisters and black toe nails if your feet are squashing into the front of your shoe.  If you’re having issues with your feet that you can’t figure out, I highly suggest a shoe fitting and stride evaluation at your local running store.  It’s almost always free and the proper shoe can make a big difference in the way you feel while running.

So with all this in mind, I bought a new pair of sneakers a few weeks ago.  Asics Gel Kayano 18, a full size up instead of a half size, to be sure my toes had PLENTY of room to do their thing.

Gel Kayano 18

The Kayano’s are the next model up from the Nimbus.  They are admittedly the most expensive pair of running shoes I have ever owned.  I would not usually spend so much on a pair of sneakers, but this time around I had birthday money to spend, plus two store coupons that saved me a good chunk of change as well.  It’s good to know that the most expensive shoe isn’t necessarily the best shoe, but these felt really, really good when I tried them on, so I went for it.

And while the proper size is important, proper fit is important too.  Figuring out how to adjust your laces can help you get that proper fit.  Thanks to the advice of many runners – from the running shoe store employees to running friends and family to the Good People of Internet, this is my approach to adjusting my laces to keep sore toes at bay.

Step 1: Loosen, Loosen, Loosen

Really Loose Laces

Starting with the laces closest to the toes, pull the laces waaaay out so you have a lot of slack at the toes.

With the laces still very loose, stick your feet in.

Stick Feet In

Row by row, pull the laces so you remove most of the slack, but not all of it.  You’ll want to leave a little extra shoe lace for your shoe settle in around your foot as you run.

Not Tight

Step 2: Lace Locking

With your laces relatively loose over the top of the foot, you’ll need to secure your shoes at the ankle to keep your foot from sliding around in the shoe, which has the potential to lead to blisters or chaffing.  This is where “lace locking” comes into play.

Shoe Lace Locks

Using the two lace holes at the top of your shoe, create a loop that will be your “lock” to help hold your shoes in place around your ankle.

Shoe Lace Tracking

Thread the opposite end of your lace through your lock –

Laces Through Loops

and then tighten comfortably, but still without OVER tightening.

Now Tighten

Finally, tie as usual.  (I’m going to go ahead and skip the pictures with arrows for this step.)

Tie As Usual

Step 3: Tweak During a Run As Needed

Assuming that you’re in the right size shoe, steps 1 and 2 should get you really close to being perfectly comfortable in your sneakers on a run.  Even with a bigger shoe, loose laces and plenty of room up front, I still had a little toe numbness during the first few runs in with these shoes!

If you notice toe numbness during your run (numb toes is what precedes sore toes), don’t be afraid to stop mid run to re-loosen, re-adjust and re-tie your sneakers until you find the sweet spot for your feet inside your shoes.  Eventually, your laces should settle into the perfect place and you’ll be in and out of your shoes without having to give it so much thought.

There are other approaches to lacing based on where you’re feeling pain.  This video had some great, easy to follow techniques that you might find helpful to try.

When Proper Shoe Fit Isn’t Helping

If you suspect that something is off with your form, you could seek the help of a running coach, or you could read about running form to get some ideas on how to improve and what to practice.  Chi Running by Danny Dreyer is one of my favorite books on running form.  Born to Run by Christopher McDougall is an incredible, inspiring read about overcoming pain and injury by learning proper form through barefoot running.  (Born to Run is a great read for runners and non-runners alike, really!)

I hope this might help if you’re dealing with toe issues like I was.  Have you dealt with sore toes in the past?  Do you have any tips to share on what’s worked (or what hasn’t worked) for you?

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25 Responses

  • Hmm…I like your shoe tying guide! I’m going to try this, as I usually find that mid-run, my foot feels squashed. Definitely need a little more wiggle room and over-tightening seems to be my issue.

    Also, have you ever run in Asics Gel 2160 or 2170’s? I’ve been on these for the past couple of years but I’m wondering if I should give another sneaker a try. 😀

    • I haven’t, but I did look them up just now. Until my new Kayano’s (and with the exception of the Vibrams) I’ve only run in the Asics “clouds” (Nimbus and Cumulus) since 2007. If they’re working for you, I don’t see any reason to switch… unless of course you’re just ready for something different and new!

  • jen says:

    I dont’ run, but thanks for explaining why the top two holes are always like that 😉

  • Sarah says:

    I bought the same pair about 2 months ago, and they have been wonderful. I describe them as a hug for my feet!

  • Big Daddy says:

    Dearest Number One and Only, sage advice and great photo instrux. As we have been discussing this, I’ll add one more thought…well maybe two. I pound through at least 2 pair of shoes a year. Since I’m a heel striker (supinator to boot) I find “ShooGoo” indispensible for adding life to heels. Just spread it out, let it dry a couple of days and get 2-3 days of free heel wear. ALSO, I do NOT run in “motion control” or “stability” shoes! I have, by expensive mistake, found that these styles cause foot pain…and they never break in. They become lawn mowing very chic green footies. Lotsa love, see you on the trail! Daddy-O

  • Heather says:

    have you looked into altra shoes?? i got my first pair (intuition model) a few months ago and they have been AMAZING. they have a huge toe box that allows your toes to space out freely and they’re zero drop but still have support (versus vibrams that do not) i have totally changed my running form and have not had any pain since transitioning

  • I wear Asics Gel Phoenix 3 (but I am not able to find them online or in stores anymore – I’ll have to find another style soon), they are sooo comfy and flexible.

    I’ve always wondered about those top shoe holes… I re-threaded those holes on my shoes to make the lock and loosed them up (although they weren’t that tight before)… but it did not remedy the soreness on my left index toe around the nail… I have plenty of room in my toe box, so I’m not sure what the cause is… but it was neat watching the lace video and learning new ways of lacing my shoes! :)

    By the way, when you go to tie your shoes, if you make the loop on the other side first, they should lay flat and stay tied. For years, I was always stopping and retying my shoes… then one day my husband suggested looping the left side first (I always looped right side first) and low and behold, my shoes stay tied and they lay flat! :)

    I looked into Chi Running on YouTube last night… then this morning I tried running that way. I am apparently a heel striker. I was amazed that I did NOT have shin splints today! :) Also I think with the addition of the metronome (free app on my cell phone) and different form I ran faster today. Wahoo!

    I just ordered Chi Running and Born to Run from Amazon, thanks for the suggestions. :)

  • Nick says:

    Hey Alison, I maybe a little late to reply but anyway. Nimbus come in 3 different width sizes and that explains why you felt your last pair was too narrow. Hope that helps.

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  • Sharon Cleary says:

    Thank you for the advice regarding the issue of sore toes while running. I did as you suggested and it worked a treat, I ran my first 1/2 marathon on Sunday and my toes were fine.

  • thankyou so much for our avice, think ive been lacing up too tight,bought a pair of Karrimoor trainers and have a half marathon in ocyober so ive got to get it right(first)

  • Katie says:

    The lace tying video link you supplied was perfect. I and my big toe thank you…from the bottom of my soles.

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