Common Skin Conditions Seen In Runners

Whether you are a long distance runner or beginner, your skin can take a beating from the trauma of running and the elements. Here is a list of the more common skin conditions that runners are more prone to.


In areas where skin rubs against skin, or clothing rubs on skin, chafing can occur. The most common areas are the inner thighs and the axillary or arm pit areas. The rubbing from chafing removes the top layer of skin exposing sensory nerves making it a very painful condition. Treatment of chafing is to simply take a few days off to allow the area to heal.   Preventing chafing is the key. Wearing compression style undergarments hug the skin and help to prevent the chafing. There are also commercially available anti-chafing products available at running stores.


Blisters are fluid filled bubbles on the skin that form in response to the friction caused by rubbing. While anyone can get a blister from running at any time, most blisters occur in novice runners or when wearing new shoes. Blisters can be painful and need to be protected from further injury, however, most areas that form a blister will eventually heal and the skin will naturally toughen in the area so that blisters will not keep occurring in the same area. To treat the blister, keep it clean with soap and water. Cover it with antibiotic ointment and a bandage to prevent further damage, especially if continued running is anticipated. It is important to leave the skin of the blister intact. Cleaning the blister and cleaning a needle with alcohol, then piercing the blister on the side to drain the fluid is desirable to prevent it from rupturing on its own. However, leave the top of the blister intact to act as a natural dressing and to prevent infection. If the area around the blister begins to get red, swell and drain, then an infection may have occurred and medical attention should be sought.


In 2012, there were an estimated 850 U.S. marathons, a record high, compared to approximately 300 marathons in 2000.


Runners Toe

Some long distance runners will develop a condition called “runner’s toe” sometimes also called “black toe”. This condition is also seen in skiers and tennis players. Runner’s toe is thought to occur due to repeated rubbing or slamming of the toes into the front of the shoe causing bleeding to occur under the toenail. Most of the time it is not painful and no treatment is necessary. If there is pain or swelling then medical attention needs to be sought. To prevent runner’s toe, it is important to get running shoes that have at least a thumb’s width between the end of the shoe and the longest toe. That usually means getting running shoes that are at least one half size larger than our regular street shoes.


Many people who run regularly will develop calluses. Calluses are thickenings on the feet where continual rubbing or pressure occurs on the feet. Usually this is at the end of the longest toe and on the ball of the foot just behind the second toe. While rarely painful, some runners present for care due to the appearance and feel of the calluses as sometimes they may look like warts. Treatment of the calluses is not necessary and ill-advised as the calluses have developed as a response to all the running. Removing them would result in blisters or pain in the area during or after running. If calluses are painful to begin with, it may be an indication that your shoes are not fitting correctly or that it is time for new shoes.

Environmental Injuries

Running is an outdoor sport, so exposure to the elements can cause skin problems as well. When running in the sun, proper sun protection needs to be worn. A gel or spray-on sunscreen that is sweat resistant for over an hour is advisable, especially for longer runs. Creamy sunscreens tend to run into the eyes causing stinging and burning. In the winter months in temperate climates, caution needs to be heeded to prevent frostbite from occurring. Fingers, toes, ears and the nose are all areas that are susceptible to frost bite. Preventing frost bite by wearing proper clothing is very important when running in subfreezing temperatures. If an area of the skin appears white in color and has little sensation it could be frostbite. If frostbite is suspected, it is important to seek warm shelter immediately. The initial treatment of frostbite is to re-warm the area with lukewarm (not hot) water or another body part. Cupping the hands and breathing on the affected part is also a good initial treatment. Avoid applying heat or exposing the area to hot radiators, heaters or fires as this may cause more damage to the area. Frostbite is a serious medical condition and immediate medical care should be sought if frostbite is suspected.

Due to the nature of running, runners are subject to several skin conditions. Most of the conditions are due to the constant rubbing of clothing or shoes against the skin, but environmental injuries such as sunburn and frostbite can occur as well.  Understanding how the injuries occur, how to treat them and when to contact a physician is important to prevent further injury from occurring.