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Ingrown Toenails: What Runners and Athletes Should Know

Ingrown toenails are a common and painful condition that can significantly impact runners and athletes. Characterized by the toenail growing into the skin, this condition can lead to discomfort, infection, and even the inability to participate in sports activities. Understanding the causes, symptoms, preventive measures, and treatments for ingrown toenails is essential for athletes looking to maintain peak performance and foot health. This comprehensive guide provides everything runners and athletes need to know about ingrown toenails.

Understanding Ingrown Toenails

An ingrown toenail, medically known as onychocryptosis, occurs when the edge of the toenail grows into the surrounding skin. This condition often affects the big toe but can occur on any toe. For athletes, the repetitive pressure and trauma associated with running and sports can exacerbate this issue.

Causes of Ingrown Toenails

Several factors contribute to the development of ingrown toenails, particularly among runners and athletes:

  1. Improper Footwear: Wearing shoes that are too tight or narrow can squeeze the toes and cause the nails to grow into the skin.
  2. Poor Nail Trimming: Cutting toenails too short or rounding the edges can encourage the nail to grow into the skin.
  3. Repetitive Trauma: Activities that involve repetitive pressure on the toes, such as running or jumping, can cause nails to become ingrown.
  4. Genetics: Some individuals have a natural predisposition to developing ingrown toenails due to the shape of their nails or toes.
  5. Sweaty Feet: Excessive moisture can soften the nail and skin, making it easier for the nail to penetrate the skin.

Symptoms of Ingrown Toenails

Recognizing the symptoms of an ingrown toenail is crucial for early intervention and treatment. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain and Tenderness: Pain or tenderness along the sides of the toenail, particularly when pressure is applied.
  • Redness and Swelling: The skin around the toenail may become red, swollen, and inflamed.
  • Infection: If left untreated, ingrown toenails can become infected, leading to pus, increased pain, and more severe swelling.
  • Difficulty Wearing Shoes: Athletes may find it uncomfortable or painful to wear shoes due to pressure on the affected toe.

Preventive Measures for Athletes

Prevention is key to avoiding the discomfort and potential complications of ingrown toenails. Here are several preventive measures athletes can take:

  1. Wear Proper Footwear: Choose shoes that fit well, providing enough room for your toes to move freely. Avoid shoes that are too tight or narrow, especially in the toe box.
  2. Trim Nails Correctly: Cut toenails straight across and avoid rounding the edges. Ensure nails are not trimmed too short, as this can encourage them to grow into the skin.
  3. Maintain Foot Hygiene: Keep your feet clean and dry. Change socks regularly, especially after workouts, to prevent excessive moisture.
  4. Use Protective Gear: Consider using toe protectors or cushioning pads during sports activities to reduce pressure and prevent trauma to the toes.
  5. Monitor Foot Health: Regularly check your feet for signs of ingrown toenails or other issues. Early detection can prevent more serious problems.

Treatment Options for Ingrown Toenails

If an ingrown toenail develops, prompt treatment is essential to alleviate pain and prevent infection. Here are some effective treatment options:

  1. Home Remedies:
    • Soak the Foot: Soak the affected foot in warm, soapy water or a saltwater solution for 15-20 minutes, several times a day. This can help reduce swelling and relieve pain.
    • Apply Antibiotic Ointment: Use an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment to prevent infection.
    • Elevate the Nail: Gently lift the edge of the ingrown nail and place a small piece of cotton or dental floss underneath to encourage proper growth. Change the cotton or floss daily.
  2. Medical Treatment:
    • Consult a Podiatrist: If home remedies do not provide relief, or if the toenail becomes infected, seek medical advice from a podiatrist. A healthcare professional can perform minor procedures to remove the ingrown portion of the nail.
    • Partial Nail Removal: In severe cases, a podiatrist may need to remove part of the nail. This procedure is typically done under local anesthesia and can provide immediate relief.
    • Nail Avulsion: For recurrent ingrown toenails, a more permanent solution involves removing the entire nail or destroying the nail matrix to prevent regrowth.

Impact on Athletic Performance

Ingrown toenails can significantly affect an athlete’s performance. Pain and discomfort can limit movement, reduce speed, and affect overall endurance. Moreover, if the condition becomes infected, it can lead to more severe complications, requiring extended recovery time and possibly affecting training schedules and competition readiness.

Tips for Athletes Dealing with Ingrown Toenails

For athletes who experience ingrown toenails, managing the condition effectively is crucial to maintaining performance and preventing further issues. Here are some tips:

  1. Early Intervention: Address the first signs of an ingrown toenail promptly to prevent worsening of the condition.
  2. Adjust Training: Modify your training regimen to reduce pressure on the affected toe. Consider low-impact activities until the condition improves.
  3. Use Orthotics: Custom orthotics can help distribute pressure evenly across your feet, reducing the likelihood of developing ingrown toenails.
  4. Consult Specialists: Regular visits to a podiatrist can help manage and prevent foot-related issues, ensuring that you remain at the top of your game.


Ingrown toenails are a common issue among runners and athletes, but with proper care and attention, they can be effectively managed and prevented. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and treatment options is essential for maintaining foot health and athletic performance. By wearing proper footwear, trimming nails correctly, and addressing any signs of ingrown toenails promptly, athletes can minimize the impact of this painful condition and continue to perform at their best.

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