So I went to the foot doctor last summer to have him look at my poor toes. I was deep in another 16-week marathon training cycle and once again my feet were a wreck. As I’d learned in previous cycles, all them sixteen- and twenty-mile training runs had made a disaster of my poor appendages. I’m talking about blood blisters under nails, black-and-blue nails, nails falling off, callouses underneath blisters, old dried blood blisters covered by painful fresh ones.
How bad? Well, let’s just say I felt kinship with elite runner Kara Goucher, who once in a while seems to take perverse delight in posting intense little Insta vids of her run-damaged toenails (not for the faint of heart).
It’s partly my own fault for wearing the same size running shoe as my street shoes, instead of going up a half size or even more. I didn’t do that until recently. Stupid, stupid, stupid. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that your feet swell a smidge on long runs, and a bit more on longer ones, so you wanna give your little piggies some wiggle room.
But the truth is that this most runnerly of problems is viewed as simply inevitable for long-distance striders, no matter how roomy your footwear. The wear and tear of your toes bouncing against the inside of your shoes for three hours at a time as you are grinding out some mega-LSD (long, slow distance) just makes for unavoidable toenail damage. Trail runner Anton Krupicka famously has his toenails surgically removed so he wouldn’t have to deal with the problem. If you’re not willing to go that far, it’s something that happens to every long-distance runner, lonely or not. But does it have to?
My foot doctor didn’t seem at all surprised or concerned. He is a marathoner himself, and totally understands. He actually commended me on having cleaned up the affected nails so thoroughly and seemed a bit sad I hadn’t left him any tidying-up work to do with his scissors and knife. And then as an afterthought he reached into a drawer and gave me something to try. “They work for some of my runners,” he said. “See if they help.”
I was disturbed by what I was holding, but I shoved the package in my pocket, settled up with the nurse outside who told me where to find them at Walgreens, and hurried back to the office.
Later that day I tracked down my frequent training partner at the office (who has heard all about my toe issues) and blathered on about the visit. And then I revealed what the good doctor had given me.
“They are silicone gel toe caps,” I announced as I cupped them in my hand. “A bunch of his runner patients use them.”
My friend looked at them and then laughed out loud and was about to say something but then–out of consideration for the work environment which surrounded us–clamped up. Then came some furious tapping on the computer keyboard.
“I just sent you an email. You have to go now or I’m going to lose it.”
Back at my desk the email was waiting.
HE GAVE YOU TOE CONDOMS! was all it said.
They are indeed weird little cushy toe condoms, and they gave me the willies as I put them on for my next run, just covering my three middle toes on each foot, which get beat up the most.
They felt pretty great, though, as I headed out for a few miles. I thought I’d found the simple solution to my toe trouble! I figured I would have the last laugh.
But then I felt victory slipping away, literally. It was a hot sweaty day and one by one the silicone sheaths slipped off and eventually were all jammed up in my socks, and that just made for even more discomfort than before.
I came home dejected and resigned to not having found a solution to forestall future foot damage.
And then I had a thought, a somewhat troubling thought, all the more so for a fifty-something gentleman: What if I wore them underneath toe socks?
Wikipedia will tell you that toe socks were invented in 1969 by a woman named Ethel Russell. I can vouch that in the seventies they were a requisite fashion accessory for girls at my junior high school in Ohio, worn with clogs or Dr. Scholl’s sandals. Generally they were rainbow-striped and always struck me as somewhere on the spectrum between totally goofy and butt ugly.
Injinji has made toe socks for runners for years but I never partook. They offer plenty of crazy color options but also plenty of sedate choices, too.
After overthinking it for a couple days, parsing all the options on Amazon, I finally ordered a pair of demure ankle-covering toe socks in black. A day or two later they arrived at the office. As soon as I got home I slipped on my caps and then worked my feet into the socks. The sock fit is surprisingly snug and it took some doing. Then, without letting myself look too closely Injinji’d feet, I donned my shoes and took off for a run.
And it worked. Mile after mile the toe condoms cushioned my digits and stayed in place. My mangled toes were taking less of a beating.
I stuck to it, run after run. Short runs, long runs, trail runs, track runs. It added a few minutes of prep to every pre-run routine but it seemed worth it.
I doubled down on my commitment and ordered another pair of toe socks. And gradually, my blisters healed, my missing toenails grew back in. I ran a trail marathon and my toe sleeve arrangement held up better than the rest of me.
Once in a while on a run, a toe cap might slip out of position a little bit and need readjustment, but this is usually because I am hurrying when I put them on and haven’t seated them properly, or didn’t pull the toe sock down firmly enough on that particular toe.
My toes feel great now. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t need to wear the caps and toe socks on short runs. But on long runs it’s a godsend. In the midst of my latest marathon-training cycle, I have gotten one bruised toenail, but that was from a new pair of shoes I was foolishly breaking in on a 20-miler.
And now, a few things to consider if you are thinking about going down this road:
Sizing: They come in two sizes, one for your big toe and one for your others. I only need them on my three middle toes on each foot, which always take the worst of the abuse, so I get the smalls. They also are a bit too long so I cut off a quarter-inch or so.
Don’t let your NRSO (non-running significant other) catch you washing your sweaty toe caps in the kitchen sink. This will only make him or her be all the more despairing and disgusted by your weird, filthy running habit than ever.
You must be willing to endure scorn and ridicule. Your NRSO may tell you that handling your dirty toe socks when doing the laundry makes him or her want to throw up a little bit. Your training partner may poke fun at the sight of you standing around or stretching out in toe socks before a long run. Proprietary algorithms will ensure that your amazon home page will be embarrassingly splashed with photographs of toe socks and toe sleeves, betraying the intensity of your searches on the subjects.
Then there is the final problem. I have taken to storing my clean and air-dried toe sleeves in baggies of baby powder. I find a light dusting of the talc provides them an even firmer hold and also makes putting the toe socks on much easier. The problem is that when I travel, I travel with a baggie of white powder stuffed into a corner of my suitcase.
Sure, if I get red flagged and pulled into an interrogation room by a TSA officer, it will be easy enough to explain that the white powder is only baby powder. But when they ask why I’m carrying it and I have to say, “Well, it’s for my toe condoms,” I’m pretty sure that in most states that’s enough to get me put away for a long, long time.