Does running damage your knees?
Running is a great cardio exercise. Lots of people run to stay fit and healthy and as a form of stress management. If you’re a regular runner, you have probably learned you should be careful because running is bad for your knees. This is a misconception.
It’s true that you can be injured while running and that runners sometimes have sore knees or knee conditions. These can include:
- Iliotibial band syndrome
- Runner’s knee
- Jumper’s knee
- Anterior cruciate ligament injury
But running likely doesn’t cause osteoarthritis, and the other conditions usually happen from running a certain way, not from running itself. When running is done correctly, the exercise itself is not harmful to your knees. In fact, several recent studies suggest that running protects your knees.
One study compared runners with non-runners and found that the runners had less frequent knee pain and lower rates of osteoarthritis than non-runners. The study suggests a possible reason could be that the runners had a lower body mass index and therefore placed less stress on their knees.
Another study found that recreational runners who ran for fewer than 15 years had lower rates of osteoarthritis than non-runners.
Why do you get sore knees after running?
So if running doesn’t cause knee problems, why does your knee hurt? Or why do you have knee problems?
Your muscles need to be strong and flexible in order to handle and resist stress. If you continually run with strained or tight muscles, you create problems in your knees like an overuse injury. Additionally, if your thighs and hips aren’t strong, this can also affect your knees.
Common reasons for getting sore knees or overuse injuries include:
- Poor foot support
- Weak thigh muscles
- Tight hamstrings
- Tight Achilles tendons
- Intense or excessive training
- Not stretching properly
Should you stop running if your knees hurt?
Sudden pain is a signal from your body that something isn’t right. This can happen if you’re a new runner and your muscles aren’t used to exercise yet. If you have pain after an accident or suddenly wrench your knee, this can be a sign of an injury.
Knee pain can also be a sign that you need to strengthen thigh muscles and stretch more completely before and after your run.
You can run through some knee pain or achy muscles, but it’s important to look for signs of injury. These include:
- Sharp pain inside the knee
- A locked knee with pain that doesn’t go away after 3 days of rest
- Pain that lasts longer than 2 weeks
If you have any of these, stop running and rest. Put your leg up and treat your knee with ice packs and compression. If pain persists, see your doctor.
How to protect your knees while running
There are ways to make sure you run properly.
Strong thigh muscles, called quadriceps and hamstrings, help your knees absorb shock. This reduces irritation and pain. Add strength training to your weekly exercise routine to build these muscles. Try squats, lunges, and light weight lifting.
The iliotibial band is a tendon along the outside of your thigh that attaches your hip to your outer knee. When this tendon gets too tight, it can irritate your knee, which leads to pain.
Your hamstrings can also get tight from running. These are the muscles on the back of your thighs. Tightness in these areas can happen when you don’t stretch or when you add miles to your run.
Proper stretching before and after your run can help avoid injuries. A simple way to stretch is to walk briskly for five minutes before you run.
Vary your exercise
Cross-training is a type of fitness program that includes different types of exercise. This gives you variety and allows you to work and stretch many muscles in many different ways.
Working out in the same way over and over again can put repetitive strain on your muscles and lead to injuries. Add other low-impact exercises to your program like swimming, weight training, and yoga.
Wear good shoes
Worn-out shoes don’t absorb shock. If you’re a regular runner, this can stress your knees and lead to an overuse injury. Keep two pairs of shoes and rotate between them on your runs. Replace your shoes after 300 to 400 miles.
Recreational running is a great exercise to help maintain a healthy weight and stay fit. While running is a high-impact exercise, it doesn’t mean it will damage your knees. If you have ongoing pain, talk to your doctor about treatment.
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Cedars Sinai: "Runner’s Knee."
Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy: "The Association of Recreational and Competitive Running With Hip and Knee Osteoarthritis: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis."
La Trobe University Sports and Exercise Medicine Research Centre: "Running Myth #4 Running is bad for your knees."
Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic exercise: How to warm up and cool down."
NHS: "Knee pain and other running injuries."
OrthoInfo: "Cross Training."
Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: "Runners: How to tell knee pain from an injury."
Temple Health: "What Are Common Knee Injuries from Running?"
The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association: Does long-distance running cause osteoarthritis?"
University of California Davis Health: "Acute pain versus chronic pain."
Yale Medicine: "How To Stretch Before a Run—Properly."
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