If there is anything I hear more from people when I say I’m a runner, it’s something along the lines of “You’re going to destroy your knees!” I would like to be the first (really not) person to say this is a myth and totally untrue. It will not cause arthritis – if you get arthritis in your knees you can thank your grandparents for that, it’s genetic. If anything, some studies have shown that the loading and unloading on the knee joint can actually make it stronger and that runners have no higher incidence of arthritis than non-runners (source). Most likely, if you are experiencing pain in your knees when you run, it’s HOW you run that’s the likely culprit, not the running itself.
That being said, there are those of us (myself included from time to time) who experience pain in their knees when they run. WebMD tells us Runner’s Knee (AKA Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome) is common among runners as well as those who also repeatedly bend and straighten the knee. It is often described as pain behind or around the kneecap and can be associated with swelling and a popping sound. The pain is often worse when bending the knee and going down inclines or stairs. This knee pain may be caused by repeated movements associated with running, walking or jumping, but can also be brought on by misalignment in other parts of the body, weakness and muscle imbalances particularly in the quads and hips, or abnormal movements in the feet and ankles.
Can anything be done to prevent knee pain? Of course! (Keep in mind, if you ever experience pain that comes on quickly, does not go away with rest, or is accompanied by swelling or a “hot” joint, seek medical attention.) Besides common sense strategies such as maintaining a healthy weight, wearing proper running shoes, and running on softer surfaces, there are a number of things you can do to protect and strengthen your knees.
3 Tips for Happy Knees
1. Learn to run using the proper technique for YOUR BODY. For most people, you should learn to run without overstriding (getting your feet way out in front of your body) and landing with your heels first. This puts extra pressure on your joints (hips, knees and ankles) because you’ve eliminated your body’s best shock absorbers – the big muscles in your thighs and butt – from doing their jobs. This form is also like putting on the brakes with every footstrike. Learn to run with your feet below your body, landing on the midfoot, and with a higher cadence and shorter stride. I highly recommend seeing if your local running store offers sessions in Good Form Running or Chi Running. This is not easy and takes a lot of practice, but since improving my form, my injuries have gone way down.
2. Keep your entire leg pointed in the direction you want to go. Running with your feet or knees pointed outward puts additional stress on the illiotibial band and this can also cause pain in the knees. Pain on the outside of the knee is most likely and IT Band issue and not an injury to the knee.
3. As mentioned above, many knee issues are actually a result of weaknesses and imbalances in the hips and quads. Strengthening your muscles through these moves may result in less knee pain.
- Forward lunge. This exercise will strengthen your hips, quads, and even your abs as well as work on your balance. Here is a very short video showing proper technique.
- Clam exercise. This is great for working the Glute Medius, an often overlooked muscle that we spend way too much time sitting on all day. Here‘s a description.
- Bridge. A very simple but very challenging exercise for your glutes. Lay on your back with your arms at your sides. Place your feet flat and directly below your knees. Tighten your abs and butt muscles and press your hips up to the ceiling. Hold for several seconds, lower and do it again. A more challenging version is a single leg bridge. Start in the same position but raise one foot straight up to the ceiling. Bridge with the other foot and try to imagine your straight leg is reaching for the sky.
- Planks. Side planks are great for strengthening not only your core but also your glutes. Start with the basic side plank – lay on your side with your knees bent. Lift your top hip to the sky while you squeeze your obliques (side abs). As you progress, do the move with your legs straight so you are lifting your entire body. Even more advanced? Lift the top leg even higher as you hold the plank position.
Completing these basic hip and quad strengthening exercises as well as some common sense may help keep your knees happy and healthy. With proper form, footwear and a strong, balance body, you should be able to experience the joy of running for years.