Welcome to the AMR Aid Station, a new feature on the Another Mother Runner. At the AMR Aid Station, we will answer and explain your burning + interesting #motherrunner questions, so if you have any, feel free to tweet us @themotherrunner with your question and use #AMRAidstation; you can also comment in below or email us.
Why do I get holes in the toes of my running shoes?
“Every pair of running shoes I’ve ever owned end up looking like this. Any suggestions to either fix the problem or reinforce the toe? They feel great, never had a black toenail, no problems with toe box. I try to not heel strike. Yes, I keep my toenails cut short.” Colette asked on Another Mother Runner’s Facebook page.
As it happens, I asked this very same question two years ago in van at Ragnar Relay Cape Cod with a bunch of (former) colleagues from That Running Magazine Where I Used to Work, including long-time running-shoe wrangler Warren Greene and gear editor Jeff Dengate.
Jeff made quick work of the problem, telling me my shoes were too short and my toenails too long. Jeff also brought a folding chair along for the 24-hour-plus relay, which you probably know involves long stints of waiting for your turn to run.
Jeff said: “Holes in the toe box of running shoes is a quite common problem."
Jeff: "It has to do with a number of factors, including the thin, breezy mesh that manufacturers use in the area to allow heat to escape. If you have long toenails or inflexible toe joints, you can rub against the inside of that mesh and wear a hole quickly. One solution: Keep those nails trimmed. Another is to visit your local running shop to be sure the shoes you're wearing actually fit you properly, and to ensure you have enough volume (space all around your foot) for a comfortable fit.”
(Jeff speaks like the shoe geek that he is in real life. True story.)
Okay, but Colette SPECIFICALLY said she keeps her toenails trims and does NOT have problems with the toe box.
Turns out Colette’s problem may be with lack of ankle dorsiflexion. Ohhhhhhhhh. Wait. Huh?
Christine Diller was one of the mother runner physical therapists who weighed in on the AMR Facebook post with that diagnosis.
Christine was a track star in high school and college in Fort Recovery, Ohio, where she still lives. In addition to her physical therapy practice, she coaches middle and high school runners, runs half-marathons and marathons, including the Boston marathon with her sister last year, and has four kids ranging in age from 7 to 14.
Christine explains: Ankle dorsiflexion means being able to bend your foot up toward your shin, which is important in the transfer of weight while running, when you land on your heel to push off from your toes.
If your motion is limited in this direction, you may try to “help” the motion by extending the toes, in an (futile) effort to get your the ankle to bend more!
This could cause the big toe to rub on the top of the shoe. Ah ha!
And because our runner’s bodies are one big connected kinetic change, other issues could result too.
“If you are lacking range of motion, you may compensate in other ways, in the hip and knee, to try to get your body weight forward as you’re swinging your leg forward,” says Curtis Wu, a physical therapist with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and a runner himself. “People might turn their hip out, instead of tracking straight forward, of their knee might collapse in. [Holes in the toes of your shoes] is a predictor of runner’s knee.”
Here’s a neat test you can do to text your ankle dorsiflexion, or range of motion:
Position yourself facing a wall one foot four inches from the wall. Lower yourself into a squat, trying to touch the wall with your forward knee, keeping the heel of your bent knee still flat on the ground.
Can you do it? Yay! You probably have enough range of motion—and the tops of your shoes are in tact.
If your heel comes up or your knee doesn’t meet the wall, Christine says, your motion is limited.
One potential cause: Your calf muscles are too tight.
Solution: Christine recommends two common stretches to get the two main calf muscles that contribute to ankle stiffness. She says do this AFTER exercise, when your muscles are warm, and to hold the each stretch for 3-4 minutes—an eternity in stretching time, btw—four to five times weekly.
Another important solution for tight calves: Foam Rolling! Break out the TriggerPoint! It's especially imoportant to target your calves, but your entire leg needs some love too. Christine is a huge fan of Coach MK's Foam Rolling Video (Yes, it hurts, but yes, it's worth it! Promise!).
Second potential cause: Lack of mobility.
If you feel tightness or stiffness in the front of the ankle during your dorsiflexion test, Christine says you need to work on mobilization.
Third Potential Cause: Weak Glutes.
Of course, back to Colette and her toe holes, the problem may not be in her ankles at all. They may originate higher up the kinetic chain, with weak glutes causing the calf muscles to work overtime. (In running, everything always comes back to weak glutes.)
"I usually have runners perform this for one minute at a time on each leg," she says, "So you squeeze the glute, lift the knee. Return to start, and repeat for up to one minute. This way you can concentrate on getting a good glute squeeze and not on counting!"
Do your running shoes have holes in the toes of them? How is your ankle dorsiflexion? We want to know!