Do you really need toenails?

This week I lost my left big toenail. After the Surrey Hills Ultra last September it went a deathly black (37 miles in trainers that have seen better days will do that, apparently). It then went a peculiar jaundice yellow, cracked and would catch on my socks every morning as I got dressed. The kids used to cry when they saw it. So, good riddance. But it’s left me contemplating a serious question.

Do you really need toenails?

Do you really need toenails?

I’ve saved you the horror of seeing the offending nail (no, the above aren’t mine; they’re far lovelier) or the disgusting, flaky bed where it used to be. Although it’s a relief not having to put on my socks with the same caution I did a few days ago, I’m slightly worried that my left big toe’s loss could have ramifications later on down the line in my training for June’s Marathon des Cote [MdC]. So I’ve done some research (okay, I Googled it).

I’d assumed our nails were vestigial traits – leftovers from our evolutionary past like the coccyx (a hangover from when we had tails) or appendix (though there is some debate now about whether this is truly a vestige). Not that I’d ever given it a great deal of thought, but because they look like a bit like claws or talons, it seemed logical that they were relics from man’s prehistoric cousins, with little practical application for modern humans.

Then I read a few science forums. Of course, fingernails still have plenty of practical applications, like popping zits, nose picking, peeling fruit (do not perform these tasks in that order) and much more besides. But us humans lost the ability to grasp with our toes millennia ago, so you’d think it’s a safe bet that you can do without the odd toenail.

That’s certainly what I was thinking, until I read one particular feed on a forum. One contributor points out that when you grip something tightly “you feel pressure reciprocated in the tip of your fingers around and behind your nails. If your nails weren’t there, the back your finger tips, after repeated grasping and clenching, would eventually start to split and rip open from that pressure.” Ouch.

If this person is right (and it makes sense), I’d guess the same would apply to your toes – that if the tips of your toes are under sustained pressure for a prolonged period, the nails will act to displace some of that pressure. Given that I’m running 186 miles in three days this June, and upping my weekly mileage to 100 plus in the build up to the MdC, I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to miss that toenail, even if the kids aren’t.

Should I be worried? Do you have any foot related running horror stories? Do share!


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