Runners are no strangers to injuries. They can have us sitting on the side for a few weeks.
But when you walk into a piece of furniture or the corner of the wall and break a toe, you may find yourself wondering about your running routine.
How does a broken toe affect your running? How serious is a broken toe? Can you run with a broken toe?
Read on as we explore running with a broken toe…
What are common causes of broken toes?
While we may not realize it, there are a few ways in which one can break a toe or toes!
Most times a broken toe happens when we stub it against something. The impact with the hard surface can cause the metatarsals and phalanges—bones in your toes—to fracture.
You may be carrying something heavy or hard and drop it on your foot, which can lead to a broken toe. When this happens, it could lead to microscopic fractures or it could be more severe, leading to a full break.
Excessive and repetitive pushing off—overuse—of the big toes from jumping or running can lead to broken big toes or even sprained toes. Sometimes you can break your toe during sporting activities like playing soccer, where your toes may roll when you kick the ball.
While we do our best to protect our toes and feet, going barefoot can increase the risk of one breaking their toes.
Why are toes important?
Our toes make contact with the ground and are responsible for providing support and balance when we walk or run.
While every toe is important and has a role to play, it’s the big toes that are the most important of all. Your big toe helps with propulsion—push-off—and shock absorption with each step that you take.
When we look at our gait cycle, we find that the big toes play a vital role in stabilizing the arch of the foot during the push-off and mid-stance of the gait cycle.
The big toe is responsible for up to 85% of the stability in your foot. Should something happen to your big toe, the foot will have limited shock absorption as well as reduced propulsive force.
Is it a sprain or a break?
We’ve all experienced that sharp, severe, and immediate pain when we stub our toe that can leave us wondering if we’ve broken the toe. While the pain may make it feel as if you’ve broken your toe, you may find that the ache goes away after a few minutes.
In most cases, the toe that you’ve just stubbed on the corner of the wall is likely to just be sprained—the bone is still intact. That being said, you may still notice that you have bruising and swelling around the toe that you stubbed. While it may be painful to move the toe, you’re able to move it.
Knowing the difference between a sprained toe and a broken toe is important. Not all broken toes are equal and while the break will heal, you don’t want the toe to heal in the wrong position. This can affect the way you run or walk and can lead to other painful foot conditions.
Symptoms of a broken toe
While the symptom of a broken toe can share similarities of a sprained toe, there will be noticeable differences.
Aside from swelling in and around the toe, there will be bruising—bluish-purple—under the skin and a broken toe will have little to no movement.
Even after a couple of days, you find putting weight on your foot—standing or walking—to be very painful and you may also experience a burning or tingling sensation in the toe.
When you look at the toe, you may see that it’s not in its normal position—visual deformity like a bump or lump. There are times when you may hear a cracking sound when the toe breaks.
That being said, just because you don’t hear the toe break, it doesn’t mean that it’s not broken.
Treating a broken toe
One of the first things you should do to treat a broken toe is to elevate your foot. To manage the pain, you can take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory.
Apply an ice pack—that’s wrapped in a towel—for 20 minutes every few hours, as this will also help to reduce the swelling and can help to limit the bruising.
Try to rest your foot as much as possible and avoid walking or standing. If you can get your foot into your normal shoes, then look for shoes that have a low heel or zero drop. This will help to keep the pressure off of the broken toe while it heals.
If, however, after 2 or 3 days the symptoms haven’t gotten better, you’re unable to wear your normal shoes or you’re struggling to walk due to the pressure on the toe, then you should have your toe looked at by your doctor.
While most broken toes will heal without incident, there are some rare cases where complications can arise.
Depending on the type of trauma sustained—if there’s an open wound that surrounds the broken toe—it could lead to a bone infection or to a specific joint trauma. This could affect the way in which you walk or run in the future and it can lead to other painful foot conditions.
It’s broken, what now?
So you know that you’ve broken your toe! It’s always best to go and have it looked at by a medical professional.
Your doctor would be able to identify if the toe has broken cleanly or if it’s misaligned and needs to be realigned. If your broken toe does need to be realigned, your doctor would be able to align it before it starts to heal in the wrong position.
Once your doctor has completed a manual examination of your toe, they may also send you to have x-rays—imaging scans—of your broken toe. The x-rays will be taken from different angles so that they can identify the type of fracture you have—non-displaced, displaced, or avulsion fracture.
A non-displaced fracture is when the bones are broken—fractured—but haven’t broken apart. If you have a displaced fracture, this means that the toe bone has separated either partially or completely from the rest of the bone.
An avulsion fracture is when a part of the bone chips off. This is most often caused when the tendon pulls off a small piece of the bone.
Your doctor will put a treatment plan together for you based on the type of fracture you have.
Immobilizing the toe
It can take a broken toe up to six weeks to heal and during this time you’ll need to make sure that you don’t over-exert the joint.
Unnecessary movement or pressure on the toe can make it worse or it can cause your toe to heal incorrectly—at an abnormal angle—which can lead to improper running mechanics that can affect your running performance.
You can tape your broken toe to the toe next to it—buddy taping—but you may find that while you do this, it hurts at first due to the increased pressure.
When buddy taping your toe, you’d want to place a small cotton ball or piece of gauze between the toes. This will prevent any blisters or sores from developing from the toes being taped together.
Then gently pull the toe next to the other toe and using kinesio or sports tape, wrap it around both toes.
Make sure that you protect your feet by wearing shoes that are designed for broken toes, like walker braces, casts, boots, or stiff-bottomed post-operative shoes. These will provide the support that your toe needs to heal.
If you’re unable to get any of these then make sure that the shoes that you wear have a wide, deep toe box. This will prevent any pressure from being placed on the toe by the upper or sides of the shoe.
You may have to try different shoe lacing techniques—diagonal or parallel lacing— to find which one would provide pain relief. Make sure that your heel doesn’t slip, as this could cause your foot to slide forward which could place pressure on your broken toe.
Make sure to keep your foot elevated, iced and take an anti-inflammatory to help reduce the swelling and inflammation.
But can you go running on a broken toe?
Most doctors would recommend that you stay off your foot for one to two weeks and avoid running altogether. Just like other bones in the body, a broken toe bone can shift if it’s placed under unnecessary pressure or it can cause long-term damage if it moves.
But with that being said, it would also depend on which toe you’ve broken. If you’ve broken your big toe, there’s no way you’re going to be able to run on it, as your big toe is responsible for push-off and 85% of the foot’s stability.
If you’ve broken one of the three middle toes, you could try buddy taping it and you would more than likely be able to run without any negative after-effects.
But before you attempt to tape your toes so that you can run, you may want to check if your foot will be able to get into your running shoe.
If you can’t get your foot into your running shoe then you should probably not run. If you can get your running shoe on, then do a short run as this will help you to evaluate if the broken toe is causing you to change your gait—stop running if you’re altering your gait.
If you’re able to run without any pain and your gait is normal, then evaluate your broken toe post-run. If you feel severe pain after your run, you may want to give your foot a bit more time to heal.
What runners should know
Depending on the severity of the break, it could take between two and six weeks for your toe to heal. You may be tempted to try running, tolerating the pain until a certain point, but this idea can put you at risk for further injuries.
During this time, you want to make resting your injured toe a priority and instead of running you may want to consider cross-training. Cycling or swimming are low-impact forms of exercise that will help you to maintain your fitness levels without hurting your feet further.
Evaluate your symptoms and how you feel each day. If the symptoms have started to subside and there’s no pain when you walk, then take a short run and evaluate your toe and symptoms post-run.
You can also chat to your doctor about the type of break you have and if the bones are stable, and how a run may affect the foot.
To help the toe repair and to combat inflammation make sure that your diet—good nutrition—contains plenty of calcium for the bones.
What’s the safest return to running routine after breaking a toe?
Slow and steady is the safest way to return to running! Start by running on flat ground, avoiding hills as this will place pressure on the forefoot. You may also want to avoid trails or rough and irregular trails.
Plan your run ahead of time and keep the run short. After each run, evaluate your feet and how they’re feeling. If you have no pain or bruising post-run, then you can look at gradually increasing your distance and your pace.