Have you ever been shopping for running socks and noticed the toe socks with individual sleeves for each toe? Running toe socks are a version of toe spreaders or toe spacers for runners.
Toe spacers keep your toes separated and increase your foot splay. To visualize toe spreaders, picture the toe separators that might be used after a pedicure to keep your toes apart while the nail polish dries.
Toe spreaders for runners are a little more technical than anything you’d probably find at a nail salon, and though they might look a little funny or unconventional, there are several benefits of wearing toe spreaders for runners.
To learn more about why you should start wearing toe spreaders for running, we spoke to two podiatrists about the purpose and benefits of toe separators for runners.
We will look at:
- What Is the Purpose of Toe Spacers or Toe Spreaders?
- What Are the Benefits of Toe Spreaders for Runners?
- What Conditions Can Toe Spacers Help Prevent or Improve?
- How Should Runners Start Wearing Toe Spacers?
- Should You Run In Toe Socks?
- What Are the Risks of Running In Toe Separators?
- Best Toe Spreaders for Runners
- The Takeaway: Foot Spacers for Runners
Let’s get started!
What Is the Purpose of Toe Spacers or Toe Spreaders?
Dr. Shannon Thompson, DPM, a renowned podiatrist and owner of Ace Feet in Boston, MA, says there are many types and styles of toe separators, and each has a different purpose. “In general though, toe separators are used to correct a contracted or malaligned digit, with the goal of reducing pain, and restoring normal foot function,” she explains.
Zahava Robinson, a podiatrist at Bondi Podiatry in Sydney, Australia, says the purpose of toe separators and spreaders is to ensure that toes do not overlap and to realign them to optimize foot function.
“Splaying toes may improve foot function by mimicking the way feet function without shoes (as we did historically as hunter-gatherers) by maximizing contact with the ground, improving stability, and activating the intrinsic muscles of the foot,” Robinson explains.
What Are the Benefits of Toe Spreaders for Runners?
“Runners’ feet withstand a great deal of wear and tear,” notes Dr. Thompson. “Toe separators are one of the tools that runners can use to ward off pathologies like blisters, bunion pain, and arthritis of the digits.”
Robinson agrees that there are definite benefits to running in toe spacers. “Toe separators may be useful in runners who develop blisters, corns, or calluses between toes or nail damage from running,” she explains.
According to Robinson, “Toe separators may be used to optimize forefoot weight-bearing by widening the area of force and ensuring even weight distribution when forefoot running.”
Essentially, wearing toe separators running can also help disperse loads on your feet, which can reduce pain with injuries in the ball of the foot or toes—like metatarsalgia or Morton’s neuroma—and reduce the stress on the forefoot by widening the base of support when you push off.
What Conditions Can Toe Spacers Help Prevent or Improve?
Toe separators are particularly helpful for runners with bunions, also called hallux valgus. Bunions can make it difficult to find running shoes that fit well, because the ball of your foot becomes extremely wide due to the outward migration of the big toe joint.
“When you have a bunion, the first metatarsophalangeal joint is not in alignment and the great toe is bent towards the second toe,” explains Dr. Thompson. “This essentially creates a muscle imbalance. With every step, the short flexor tendons pull more effectively on the lateral side of the joint, and the long flexor tendon will also tend to pull the toe laterally.”
Dr. Thompson says this muscle imbalance creates a vicious cycle that exacerbates the bunion over time.
“Outside of the joint, there will be contracted ligaments on one side and thin attenuated ligaments on the other,” she notes. “The abductor hallucis muscle (which pulls the big toe down and inward) becomes totally disadvantaged.”
Here’s where toe separators come into play. A toe separator or toe spacer essentially pushes the toe to an aligned position,” explains Dr. Thompson. “Initially, this can relieve any immediate joint pain. Over time, tightened ligaments will stretch and more normal muscle function can return.”
A randomized, controlled trial, published in Prosthetics and Orthotics International, found that wearing toe separators with custom shoe insoles decreased pain caused by bunions more than night splints.
Morton’s neuroma is a fairly common condition in runners that can cause pain in the ball of the foot near the base of the toes. Morton’s neuroma pain is often accompanied by some burning, numbness, shooting pains, and tingling.
Like metatarsalgia, Morton’s neuroma can develop from wearing shoes that are too tight because they compress the nerves that run between the bones in your forefoot. This can lead to irritation, inflammation, and scar tissue formation.
Robinson says toe spreaders can decrease Morton’s neuroma pain by increasing the space between digits and reducing the strain on the neuroma.
Robinson says toe spreaders can also reduce the pain caused by arthritis by separating joints with degenerative cartilage loss that may otherwise rub against each other painfully.
Blisters, Corns, and Calluses
Another condition Dr. Thompson says can be improved by wearing toe spreaders is blistering or skin irritation on the side of the third or fourth toe.
“The fourth and fifth toes tend to curl downward and inward in many people,” says Dr. Thompson. “Some runners will develop severely painful blisters from the toes rubbing together. The right toe separator can relieve this issue.”
According to Robinson, “Toe separators can help prevent or reduce the frequency of blisters, corns, and calluses by reducing pressure and friction between toes.”
Should You Run In Toe Spacers?
In most cases, toe spacers and toe separators are intended to be worn before or after running but not while you are running.
The exception to this general rule of thumb is running toe socks, which act in many ways like a more mild version of toe spacers for running.
Dr. Thompson says that there are some toe spacers that can be worn while running, but you have to be careful because some should never be worn when weight bearing.
“The only single piece, multi-toe separator that I’d recommend to runners is Correct Toes,” says Dr. Thompson. “The knock-offs are dangerous.”
On the other hand, she says single toe separators can be safely worn when running although there is always a risk of skin irritation, dislodging of the toe spacer, and foot swelling with secondary constriction from the toe spacer.
“When searching for toe spacers, look for one that is adjustable/customizable, as every foot is different,” says Dr. Thompson.
Although it might be common sense, Dr. Thompson says to never run in a toe spacer if it causes pain, and it’s possible to get blisters or pain even when running in the best-quality toe spreaders.
Robinson encourages wearing toe spacers before a run (not on or after a run) while doing barefoot warm-ups to strengthen the intrinsic muscles of the foot.
Finally, Dr. Thompson says gel toe spacers are great to wear when resting, noting, “These are used to stretch the toes and should never be worn when walking or running.”
How Should Runners Start Wearing Toe Spacers?
Just as it’s not recommended to try a brand new type of running shoe on a long run or jump from never doing plyometrics or strength training into numerous high-intensity workouts per week, you should ease your way into using toes spacers or toe separators, particularly if you are using them while running,
Dr. Thompson recommends that runners start by wearing toe separators while walking or going about usual daily activities.
“You may have certain toes or areas that are uncomfortable,” she warns. “Adjust your toe separators as needed (snip a piece off or add bulk) or try a different style of separator. Go for a test run once you can wear them all day comfortably.”
Robinson is also a proponent of the gradual approach to changing anything about your footwear when running. “When starting anything new on your feet such as shoes, orthotics, or toe separators you want to do this gradually and under the guidance of health professionals. Start with 20 minutes and build up use over time,” she advises.
Should You Run In Toe Socks?
If you’re not sure where to start with toe spacers for running, toe separator socks like Injinji toe socks are a great option if you’re never worn toe separators before or if your toes are very contracted.
Not only do running toe socks separate the toes in a gentle but fairly effective way, but they can also be therapeutic for runners with athlete’s foot (interdigital tinea) between the toes.
According to Dr. Thompson, running toe socks “allow the interdigital area to dry and provide a thin, soft buffer between the toes.”
What Are the Risks of Running In Toe Separators?
There are a few risks associated with running in toe spacers, including skin irritation if the toe separators don’t fit properly or if your feet sweat a lot, creating moisture and slippage of the toe spacers relative to your skin.
Robinson says that running in toe separators can cause sweating between toes, which may lead to unhealthy breakdown in the skin called maceration.
“They can introduce new pressure in between digits, potentially leading to pain and even corns, callus, and ulceration,” warns Robinson.
Dr. Thompson also raises concerns with injuring your feet if you wear Yoga Toe-style separators while walking or running. These are not intended to be worn during physical activity.
When running with toe separators between all of the toes, you need to wear a shoe with a wide toe box.
“Certain shoes, like Topos and Altra, best,” advises Dr. Thompson. “Squeezing your toe-separated foot into a tight shoe can be uncomfortable and cause toenail pain and bruising.”
Toe spacers may not be safe for runners with peripheral neuropathy or circulation issues in their feet.
“It is also important you have adequate blood flow and sensation in your feet prior to use to prevent ulceration,” says Robinson, who explains that you can have this assessed by a podiatrist. “It is also important to dry between your toes before and after use and wash the device regularly to prevent infection.”
Robinson also notes that toe spacers may not even work at all. “There is limited evidence that toe separators help at all,” she says. “But, if you think it will help, it may be worth a trial.”
Best Toe Spreaders for Runners
Here are some of the best toe separators for runners:
Correct Toes are great because they are customizable. “These are the only full-foot toe spacers comfortable enough to run in,” says Dr. Thompson.
Visco Gel Stay-Put Toe Spacers
Dr. Thompson says these are great for bunions because they are thick enough for most average bunions. “The collar keeps the spacer in place and is soft and comfortable,” she shares.
Although these should never be worn when running, they provide a great stretch to the foot at the end of the day.
Injiji Ultra Run Mini-Crew
These toe running socks eliminate all skin-on-skin contact between the toes, which can prevent blisters, especially when trail running and on long runs where moisture can be problematic.
The Takeaway: Foot Spacers for Runners
Robinson leaves runners with wise advice when it comes to running in toe spacers: “Although there is limited evidence for their efficacy, toe separators can work to reduce friction (which cause blisters, corns, and callus) and potentially improve foot function and intrinsic muscle strength. It is worth experimenting to learn what works for you and your feet.”
Looking to improve your foot care in general? Take a look at our preventative foot care tips for runners.