How to Treat & Prevent Big Toe Joint Pain From Running

picture of running mistake

Experiencing pain under your big toe or ball of your feet while running? Then you’ve come to the right place.

Running is one of the most convenient exercise plans that everyone can do to improve their fitness and health. Research has reported that running no more than 10 minutes daily at a mild pace can lower the risk of stroke, heart attack, and other cardiovascular conditions.

Logging the miles can also build muscle, strengthen bones, burn fat, and improve overall mood.

I can go on and on, but you get it.

However, the sport is also high impact which can take a toll on your body, either resulting in injury or worsening pre-existing conditions. This is especially the case when it comes to your lower body.

Although the big toe is technically a small joint, it doesn’t make it less important for runners. What’s known as the MTP joint helps generate forward momentum while running, and because of this, the big toe is prone to many overuse injuries.

In this article, I’ll delve into some of the most common causes of pain in the big toe while running and explain some of their symptoms, treatment, and prevention.

Sounds great?

Let’s get started.

The Anatomy

The foot consists of an intricate network of bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons that work together to bear your weight and help you move around.

For this reason, a running-caused injury may involve one or more components of this complex network.

Found within the base of the big toe, the MTP joint connects the big toe to the rest of the foot. The joint allows the foot to roll forward, push off the ground, and bend every time you take a step.

Although it might seem small in the larger scheme of things, the big toe is a key limb. It’s, in fact, an extremely important toe as it carries much more weight than the others. According to research, it also accounts for roughly 5 percent of running injuries.

When this joint stiffens, weight-bearing—let alone running—can be especially painful.

Now that we got anatomy 101 out of the way let’s explain some of the most causes of toe pain in runners, as well as what to do and what about it.

Hallux Rigidus

Hallus rigidus, often called turf toe or stiff big toe, refers to big toe pain.

More specifically, it’s degenerative arthritis and the second most common big toe condition after bunions. This condition may result from an injury to the toe or overuse, making it hard to walk or even stand.

A turf toe can temporarily hinder training, but in some cases, it can bring a sudden and long-held to running.

It’s caused by straining the MTP joint or stubbing the toe while logging the miles. Running too far or too often—overuse of the joint—can also cause hallux rigidus.

The telling sign of the condition is pain while weight-bearing as well as swelling near the joint of the big toe and trouble moving the big toe.

Catching this condition before it worsens is key to getting proper treatment and a gradual return to the miles.

Treating

Proper treatment starts with using proper shoes.

Most experts recommend wearing footwear with a larger toe box to soothe friction and pressure on the base of the toe. You should also try stiff-soled shoes.

If the pain persists, you might consider nonsurgical options such as OTC drugs, orthotic inserts, physical therapy, and corticosteroid injections for swelling and pain.

But surgery might be the only way out of pain in severe cases. The type of intervention you’ll need depends on the damage in the joint. Only a physician, with the help of numerous x-rays and tests, will have the full picture of the severity of arthritis. Sometimes, you might need more than one surgery to fix everything.

Ingrown Toenail

If your toenail is tender and/or dark, you might be dealing with an ingrown toenail.

The condition stems from the toes rubbing up against the front of your footwear, often because the shoes are either too tight or too small.

It can occur when a small part of the toenail pierces the skin and begins to grow down into it. This is common if you cut your toenail too short or curve it in too far when cutting it.

An ingrown toenail can be painful and make your toe look swollen and red. Remember that some discharge and bleeding may likely come from the side of the nail. Don’t panic if it happens!

The telling signs of an ingrown toenail include a swollen, hard, or tender toe, dark skin around the injured nail, soreness, as well as, in the case of an infection, pus oozing from the area.

Treating

Already have a black toenail? It’s recommended to leave it alone as long as the pain is under control.

Keep in mind that pain will be the worse during the first few days of onset, but then it gradually fades as the injured part of the nail is steadily pushed off and a new nail grows in its spot.

Treating this condition starts with nonsurgical options such as taking an OTC pain reliever, wearing comfortable shoes, and soaking the foot in a warm bath a few times a day. If pain persists, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the nail.

Blisters

Though not a serious injury, blisters are certainly painful. The condition is caused by excessive friction by excess moisture from the heat, leaving blister-prone areas at risk.

Unlike other ailments on this list, you might not realize something’s wrong with your toe until a blister has formed. By then, it’s too late.

You should always pay attention to any toe tenderness or discomfort and act on it immediately. As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is better than a ton of cure.

Plantar Fasciitis

Experiencing stabbing pain in the bottom of your foot or heel post-run, after long periods of sitting, or first thing in the morning?

Plantar fasciitis could be the culprit.

Plantar fasciitis is an infamous overuse injury that causes inflammation of the plantar fascia. The plantar fascia is the tissue that attaches to the heel bone and extends across the bottom of your foot. This bundle of tissue functions as a shock absorber that also supports the foot’s arch during weight-bearing.

Plantar fasciitis is common among runners and one of the leading causes of heel pain. The condition is common among runners who have flat feet, but it can also offer those with high arches.

Treating

If you suspect you’re dealing with plantar fasciitis, take a few days off immediately. During your recovery days, ice, stretch, massage, and elevate the injured limb. You should also assess your running form once you’re back to the miles.

If pain refuses to dissipate, consult a foot specialist for a thorough diagnosis.

Stress Fractures

If you just took up running or started running more than usual and are dealing with localized, acute pain, you might have a stress fracture.

Stress fractures of the toes are common among runners. These consist of a small crack in the bone or a serious bruising within a bone. The condition is usually caused by repetitive activity and overuse.

Foot stress fractures typically impact the end of the long bones in the foot (the metatarsals), at the base of the pinky toe (the fifth metatarsals), and in the bones of the ankle joint.

Swelling and pain are the most common symptoms of a stress fracture, but you might also notice discoloration around the toe.

Left ignored, a stress fracture can turn into a complete fracture where the bones break through and dislocate.

Treating

Treating the condition will depend on the severity of the toe fracture. In most cases, you should avoid bearing weight on the toe while following the RICE method. If pain persists, consult your doctor for further treatment options.

Other Causes

Other probable causes of pain in the big toe include:

  • Raynaud’s disease
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Morton’s neuroma
  • And so many more.

Symptoms and treatment options can vary depending on the cause of the pain, so, at the end of the day, you’re better off consulting your doctor for a thorough examination.

Preventing Big Toe pain

You can take many steps to protect yourself against big toe pain while running.

Some of these include:

Strengthen Your Soles

Targeting your big toe and the region around it can help increase your strength and range of motion.

What’s more?

Stronger feet mean better propulsion, which can help you run faster and more efficiently.

I’d recommend big-toe raises.

Remember that depending on your pain tolerance and condition, you might be limited to shorter and less-strenuous exercises at first.

However, once your strength and range of motion are better, you’ll be able to train for longer.

Warm up & Stretch

Make it a rule to start all your runs—and other workouts as well—with a proper dynamic stretch as it forces your muscles and tendons to warm up in ways that static stretching—holding a stretch for 20 to 30 seconds—can’t.

Warming up your muscles will help prevent overuse injuries during running, such as tears, tendonitis, and sprains.

Then, once you’re done running, spend around 10 to 15 minutes performing static stretches, focusing on your quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes, and hip flexors.

Regular stretching activates the muscles and tendons by improving circulation in those areas and increasing heart rate.

Your Running Shoes

Running in proper footwear that fits right and feels comfortable is one of the most important steps to taking care of your feet.

In other words, find pair of shoes that fit your feet properly—or it’s a no-deal.

As a rule, choose your running shoes carefully according to your foot type, running dynamics, training goals, and terrain.

If you have a history of toe pain, pay extra attention to the stiffness of the soles. Avoid shoes that have soles as hard as a rock and those that are easy to twist, bend, or fold.

Massage Often

During the post-run period, gently massage your feet for at least 10 to 15 minutes to soothe discomfort and help prevent injury.

Regular massages also stimulate the Nevers within your feet, which increases your awareness of how your feet hit the ground.

Don’t have a special foot-massage tool?

Then grab a tennis or lacrosse ball. Next, while standing, or seated, if you want less pressure, roll the ball gradually along and through the toe, pausing when you find a hot spot and resting on it as you take slow and deep breaths.

For a more intense massage, I’d recommend freezing a water bottle and then rolling out your feet for five to ten minutes post-run. This can feel great, especially after a long run when your feet have been beaten the most.

Take Enough Rest

Just like any other structure in your body, the muscles, bones, and ligaments of your feet need time to recover.

As a rule, avoid running on two or more days to prevent overuse injuries.

Training for a race? Plan at least one day of complete rest and cross-train on alternate days.

On your cross-training days, feel free to strength taring, swim, bike, or do yoga—anything that’s low impact.

What’s more?

When trying to increase your weekly mileage, do it slowly and gradually by following the 10 percent rule.

When To See A Doctor

Running through pain is never a good idea, especially when it comes to foot pain.

The longer you wait, the more severe your condition becomes, making it more likely that you have to stop training for a long time. And you don’t want that.

For this reason, you should never wait to get your foot’s pain checked by your doctor.

Not only do they can help you find the right treatment course to help you in the short term, but they can also suggest a few training tips and methods to help protect yourself against future injuries and prevent great toe pain.

They might recommend at-home treatments and other medical steps that soothe the pain.