Running in and of itself is not bad for your knees, no. That doesn’t stop people from telling you (usually non-runners) that you’re going to ruin them though!
Some folks are of the opinion that running can cause you to develop osteoarthritis in the knee.
Although this might sound like you need to worry, osteoarthritis simply refers to the wearing away of the cartilage - a soft and protective tissue - either side of your knee joint, sometimes referred to as ‘degeneration.’
Though it is fair to say that running might have something to do with developing osteoarthritis, many people develop the condition despite having never run (as a sport) before! Plenty of other factors could contribute to the development of it.
For instance, age is definitely a cause: the older you get, the more likely you are to develop OA, just because your body has been moving for longer. Previous injuries in the knee are also a key risk factor for ending up with more pain in the future.
Running is no worse for your knees than any other sport, though there are definitely things you can do to take some of the strain off of them if you’re feeling pain after a run! Don’t listen to anybody who tells you to stop running, though.
Should I stop running if my knees hurt?
Yes. If you are experiencing knee pain then you should not consider running - it is actually advised that you take at least a week’s rest before you try going for a run again. Even if you’re already running and it happens suddenly - stop and go home.
Sure, it could be nothing and you might miss out on a couple of days of exercise, but that’s nothing compared to the lifetime of pain you’ll experience if you keep running when you really should have stopped and taken a break.
If after a week of no running (or exercise of any kind, really - a rest means a rest!) you’re still experiencing that knee pain, you should head to your family doctor or a physiotherapist to have it checked out.
The amount of time you’ll need to wait before taking up running again will be determined by whatever is causing your knee pain. It could be another week, it could be a month, you may need to stop altogether: let a professional tell you for certain!
It could be that you can get yourself a protective knee sleeve and try to run through the recovery with the aid of compression, but you should always consult the opinion of a medical professional and have your knees checked out before doing so.
How do I protect my knees when running?
There are several protective measures that you can take!
First things first, get yourself decent knee support: even if you only have pain in one side, it’s good to keep both protected. Essentially, they hold the knee in place while you run, so you don’t accidentally throw it out of alignment or overexert it.
One major tip? Don’t lift your knees when you run. Completely disregard anybody who tells you to reach further and lift higher to get a longer stride, ‘cause that’s advice for short-distance sprinters, not runners!
All lifting your knees does is force your feet to hit the ground in front of you, which actually slows you down! Instead, keep them nice and low, bending them as you go. Try and tell yourself “heels up, knees down” as you run, if you struggle with this.
Good running posture means that your entire body should be leaning forward, with the knees kept loose and bent - you don’t want them to be straight as your feet hit the ground, as this puts a huge amount of pressure on them AND your heels.
Ensure your feet aren’t splayed out and facing in random directions - they should be aimed in the direction that you’re running towards; otherwise, you can give yourself unnecessary knee pain, by twisting it uncomfortably every time your feet hit the floor.
Of course, a decent pair of cushioned running shoes are going to be beneficial for your knees, as it will minimize the level of impact they are exposed to whenever you make an impact against the ground. Low-profile shoes with a thinner sole are better!
How do you strengthen your knees for running?
By conducting regular stretches, of course! Not only will these improve your overall running technique, ability and performance, but they also help to strengthen the muscles that protect your knee, as well as prevent unnecessary pain.
Sticking to a schedule and exercising your knees at home with the assistance of a good stretching guide works to strengthen your ITB or iliotibial band, the muscle running downwards on the outside of your thigh - this is crucial for runners.
This is a very good guide put together specifically for runners to follow, with images and instructions for you to follow, so you can ensure you’re doing things correctly. Exercises listed include knee bends, thigh contractions, leg raises, and more.
Put together by NHS UK, it has been produced by a team of medical professionals who know what they’re talking about. They also offer ways to challenge yourself and make things a little tougher when you’re training harder.
It’s important to conduct the exercises exactly as demonstrated or described - if you’re having trouble check out Youtube, where there are plenty of video guides to help you figure it out. Sometimes you need to watch something in order to copy it!
Performed as a part of a pre-run warm-up, cool-down and even when you’re not running, you can do them in the house or outside, wherever you’re most comfortable. Don’t expect miracles! It’ll be a few weeks before you start to see any benefit.
One thing to bear in mind? You should not experience any pain whilst doing the knee exercises recommended, or perform them when you have an existing injury to the knee. At the first sign of pain, stop what you’re doing and get medical advice.