In the past few months I have been astonished by the number of people who have found my blog while searching on some variation of the question “can/should I run with a broken toe?” They’ve flipped through various posts on my blog and then…. what? I’m guessing that they’ve gone out and run. Because runners, we’re a predictable bunch…
So I’m dedicating this blog to providing an answer to the question above. Here in one convenient place. With all kinds of caveats: I am not a doctor. I have no special training, other than my running coach certification. I speak only from experience. And even then your injury may be different from mine.
My story: Last September I fractured my middle toe by jamming it into the bed leg. I was 95% sure it was broken at the time. An x-ray later revealed that the toe bone closest to my foot was broken diagonally from corner to corner, more or less. The toe swelled and part of my foot and toe turned black and blue. I elevated and iced. And I took ibuprofen and aspirin and ran/walked the Chicago Half Marathon on it two days later after, yes, googling for the answer to the question “can I run with a broken toe?” I buddy taped the toe to the one next to it for the race. Yes, it hurt to run, but by halfway point it was fairly numb and I was able to pick up speed. Running was actually less painful than walking. I iced after the finish. I did not seem any worse for the wear after the race, and so took the better part of two months off to recover. I saw a doctor, who confirmed that it was broken. I did some walking and ellipticizing during that time to maintain my fitness, probably too much. And in December I started back to running gradually, but not gradually enough. Soon a calf injury followed, and I returned to the doctor, who decided it had never fully healed and was termed a “nonunion.” After a failed experiment with a bone stimulator, I wound up having toe surgery in March to create a fresh break and screw the bone together. With doctor’s permission, I started running again in May while doing physical therapy and am now back to being able to run/walk 3-4 miles slowly as of the end of June. I still have some pain when I run and some stiffness in the joint, which is likely from the screw and so the doctor is debating a second surgery to remove the screw. So 10 months later, I am still a long way from where I was last September, but finally beginning to feel like a runner again.
So, can you run with a broken toe? Yes, of course you can, especially if you have a high tolerance for pain. But should you run? I would say no. You are better off taking 6-8 weeks off and letting the fracture heal and staying off your feet as much as possible. I know, I know it’s only a toe! I know, I know, you’ll lose your fitness. You can’t possibly… Blah, blah, blah. But you’d be surprised how important toes are for walking, balance, driving and so much more. In my case, the doctor thinks I damaged the fractured bone ends by too much physical activity, which resulted in the nonunion. So it seems that the less activity and motion to which your toe is subjected, the more quickly it is likely to heal. You’ll also minimize the possibility that you’ll suffer other injuries from favoring your injured toe. In my case, I know I had significant calf pain in the injured leg from a shortened gait — even when walking.
So what DO you do when you’re injured. I was not able to bicycle without pain, but I could use the elliptical for 30-45 minutes. It’s a good time to do core work and upper body exercises. And don’t forget to reduce your calorie intake, while making sure that you’re getting a healthy diet with plenty of vitamin D and calcium. See a doctor and take his/her advice. Wear stiff soled shoes to help support your toe.
Oh yes, and did I say “see a doctor and take his/her advice….” Do that — before you run again.