If you’ve been running for any length of time, you know that injuries are almost inevitable. You don’t even need an intense training schedule to get hurt.
And because you run on your feet, it’s not uncommon to have aches and pains in the different parts of your feet including the arch, toes, ankles, and achilles.
One way runners have tried to encourage better foot health is to wear toe separators. The idea is that your feet and toes are cramped after years of wearing traditional, narrow toebox shoes. Toe separators help reverse this, and in turn create stronger foot muscles.
But do toe separators work? Should you even be wearing toe separators? They’re designed to improve the alignment of your toes and reduce pain and discomfort. Will they help you avoid running injuries, too?
In this article, we’ll explore whether toe separators might be right for you.
What Are Toe Separators?
Toe separators are devices designed to fit between your toes and gently separate them, realigning your toes into their natural position. They’re often made from soft, comfortable materials like rubber, silicone, moleskin, cotton, foam, or gel.
This lets them conform to the shape of your foot while you’re wearing them. The individual “thongs” of the toe separators help spread your toes while gently stretching the muscles and preventing your toes from overlapping.
Fortunately, they come in various shapes, sizes, and thicknesses, so almost anyone can find a device they can wear comfortably.
Although most toe separators are designed to be worn while you’re barefoot and relaxing, there are toe spaces made of thinner material. This allows you to wear them all day, with and without shoes.
You need to make sure that you wear them with shoes with a natural foot shape or a wide-toe box. Narrow toe boxes will defeat the point and only make your toes and feet feel worse.
Toe separator socks can be a soft, plush alternative to toe separator devices. These open-toed socks come with built-in toe separators, which provide the same gentle pressure to spread your toes.
Some socks, like the Happy Feet Alignment Socks, are quarter socks—they cover your ankle bone—while others may cover just the forefoot and leave the heel and ankle open.
Should Runners Be Wearing Toe Separators?
Yes, runners can wear toe separators, since they offer several benefits that can help you recover faster and easier.
Your feet absorb enormous amounts of shock each time they come into contact with the ground. The repetitive motion of running also places the bones, ligaments, muscles, and tendons under excessive stress.
This causes repetitive microtrauma to the surrounding soft tissue in your foot, reducing the tissue’s capacity to heal properly.
Over time, the daily runs add up and can lead to overuse injuries, like stress fractures, metatarsalgia, Morton’s neuroma, sesamoiditis, and even tarsal tunnel syndrome.
Including toe separators in your post-run recovery routine, it can help to keep your toes and feet in a more natural position. This helps blood to flow to the area more easily and speeds up healing.
Can You Wear Toe Separators While You Run?
Yes, you can run with toe separators. That being said, not all brands of toe spacers are designed to be worn while you’re running. Many of them are created specifically as recovery devices.
However, if you can find a toe separator that’s unobtrusive and comfortable enough, you can try running with them on a short, easy run. It may help to improve your foot biomechanics and reduce strain on your joints and muscles.
Not only can this help reduce your risk of injury, but it could activate the foot’s intrinsic muscles while running, which will improve stability. It’s possible that toe separators can help to improve your overall running performance based on this.
However, it won’t be comfortable for everyone, and in some cases, having toe separators in your shoes can make things worse. This is especially true if your shoes have a narrow or normal-width toe box, as the toe space will reduce that space by a fair bit.
There’s also the change of the toe separators slipping or moving, which could put you at risk of friction and blisters. If you like having your toes separated while running, you can try running with toe socks instead.
Should You Wear Toe Socks When You Run?
If you like having your toes splayed while you run, we recommend choosing a pair of toe separator socks. You won’t have to worry about the separators moving out of position while you’re running, but keep in mind that your toes will be touching the inside of your shoes as the toes are open.
If you just want a layer of fabric between each toe to help reduce friction, then toe socks—without the built-in separators but with separate sections for each toe—could be the answer.
Pros and Cons of Toe Separators
Pros of Toe Separators
Can Speed Up Recovery
Keeping your toes separated helps stretch the surrounding tissues, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. But it also helps to open up the blood vessels, bringing blood to the area more easily with healing oxygen and nutrients.
This can significantly speed up healing and recovery, leaving your feet feeling noticeably better than days when you don’t use the toe separators.
Wearing toe separators can help your feet to redistribute weight correctly, reducing pressure on vulnerable areas and lowering pain. The ball of the foot especially is often affected by pressure as your weight gets unevenly distributed.
Toe separators reduce painful pressure, especially on the ball of the foot, separating the metatarsals so that nerves and tissues can be free to heal. This is handy whether you’re wearing them while running or simply walking around the house with them.
Can Improve Bunions
Bunions are caused by a misalignment of the big toe joint, which causes the toe to bend inwards towards the other toes while the joint juts outwards. This causes a muscle imbalance in your toes, where the tendons begin to pull the toe more and more out of place.
Wearing a toe separator can help to prevent this from happening by stretching out those ligaments that might otherwise be tight and pulling the toe out of alignment. In fact, scientific studies suggest that toe separators, together with shoe insoles, can reduce bunion pain better than a night splint can.
Better Balance & Stability
When your toes are splayed, your forefoot naturally becomes a wider, more stable platform, even if you don’t consciously realize it. This can make a big difference to your balance, as you’re more firmly planted on the ground.
Increased Blood Flow
If you suffer from cold feet or foot conditions, you’ll be happy to know that toe separators can help to bring more blood to the toes and forefoot area, warming your feet and helping to heal foot pain.
As part of a recovery routine, this makes a huge difference. Where your foot would have been squished into narrow shoes, hampering the blood flow, the toe spacers help to encourage blood flow, so the feet can recover after their ordeal.
Encourage Natural Foot Alignment
Toe separators help your feet to stay properly aligned. Once the metatarsals are properly in place, the rest of the bones in the toes and the foot become aligned.
When your foot is properly aligned, there’s less chance of injury as you go about your daily tasks. If you’re only wearing them during recovery, it still makes a difference as it’s a way of training your feet into better alignment.
Can Strengthen Arches
Technically, toe separators help to strengthen the forefoot and the toes. However, with stronger toes and forefeet come stronger arches. When your foot is planted with wide toes, you’re better able to activate the muscles in the arch, causing them to strengthen.
Not only does this give you a boost with your push-off—even when you aren’t wearing the toe spacers—but it can also help to alleviate the pain and discomfort of foot conditions like plantar fasciitis.
More Range of Motion
As toe separators stretch the muscles in and around the toes, it forces them to move into a position that may feel unnatural at first. However, the more time the toes spend in this position, the more flexible they become as they get used to the new range of motion.
This helps to reduce your chance of being injured in this particular part of the foot, as well as helping to activate the plantar fascia more, increasing your foot’s ability to absorb shock when you take a step.
May Ease Morton’s Neuroma Pain
Morton’s neuroma is a painful condition characterized by an inflamed nerve in the ball of the foot, which grows more swollen and painful as pressure is placed on it by the surrounding tissues and bones.
A toe spreader can significantly reduce the pain associated with this condition, as it spreads the metatarsals, relieving pressure on the painful nerve.
Cons of Toe Separators
Not Safe for Everyone
Those with peripheral neuropathy or struggle with poor circulation in their feet may want to skip toe spacers. They may add extra pressure to certain areas of the foot, and if that can’t be felt, they may lead to larger problems.
It’s best to simply avoid them so there’s no chance of being hurt in a manner that could have been avoided. Instead, a good pair of running shoes for neuropathy will help.
Tricky to Wear With Shoes
If your shoes have a narrow-to-normal-sized toe box, your toe spacers may not fit into the shoe when on your feet. Even if they do, they take up valuable space in the shoe, and could lead to discomfort or friction.
When your toes are already squeezed into a smaller space, separating them could worsen, especially for your big toe and little toe.
Some People May Be Sensitive to Silicone
Many toe separators are made from medical-grade silicone. However, some people have a sensitivity or allergy to silicone, which could cause itching and even pain. They do come in other materials, but they’re less common.
Can Cause Your Feet to Sweat More
Some toe spacers can increase how much you sweat, putting you at risk of odor-causing bacteria, discomfort, and friction leading to blisters. The skin can also break down, leading to painful peeling.
Tips for Wearing Toe Separators
Considering trying a pair of toe separators? Follow these tips to get the best results.
It’s a good idea not to use toe separators every day, at least in the beginning. You also shouldn’t use them for too long at a time, as your toes aren’t going to be used to them when you first start.
Aim for 3 to 4 days a week to begin, for about 10 to 20 minutes at a time. This will ease you into using them and give your toes and feet some time to adapt. It’s best to wear them in the evening when you’re relaxing with your feet up.
As you start to feel more and more comfortable, you can extend the amount of time you wear them, as well as the number of days per week you use them.
Clean Them Often
You wouldn’t wear your socks for weeks without cleaning them, would you? The same goes for your toe separators. They need to be cleaned regularly to ensure they aren’t dirty or bad for your feet.
You’ll need to ensure you know how to clean it based on the type of material your toe separator is made of. For silicone toe spreaders—the most common type—simply run lukewarm water over them to rinse them.
Add a small amount of soap to your hands and rub the toe separators so they get cleaned. Rinse them off again with lukewarm water, before drying them off with the cloth.
Some people suggest putting them in the dishwasher, but we don’t recommend that. It’s unnecessary, but it also might feel odd considering they’ve been between your toes!
Keeping them clean will help to not only make sure your feet aren’t being exposed to unnecessary germs but it will also lengthen the lifespan of the toe separators.
Choose the Right Material
It’s a good idea to test whether or not you’re sensitive to silicone before using a silicone toe spreader. If you are, it’s likely to cause itching, a rash, and a high level of discomfort.
If you’re worried, try to find one made of moleskin, cotton, or foam instead. Keep in mind that different materials will need to be cleaned differently!