As a runner, I often hear “your knees will never last” if you keep running marathons. Is this fact or fiction? Getting tired of hearing this repeatedly from non-runners, I decided to find out. After all, people walked and ran for tens of thousands of years as their only form of transportation and without cushioned running shoes.
Key factors that affect knee health include the weight of the runner, correct footwear and the frequency and intensity of use. Research shows that runner’s knees absorb up to four times the impact of their body weight with each foot strike. While this may seem tremendous, using correct form, gradually increasing mileage, wearing the proper footwear for your stride and building in recovery days can add longevity to your running career.
While a common belief prevails that running is not good for the knees, research supports the possibility to continue running as you age. David Felson, a researcher and epidemiologist at Boston University School of Medicine says that past concerns about running were centered on the continuous impact of foot to ground causing degeneration of the knee and the onset of osteoarthritis. That’s not what researchers found.
“We know from many long-term studies that running doesn’t appear to cause much damage to the knees,” Felson says. “When we look at people with knee arthritis, we don’t find much of a previous history of running, and when we look at runners and follow the over time, we don’t find that their risk of osteoarthritis is any more than expected.”
Dr. Tyler Childs Cymet states that “existing evidence on whether long-term, long-distance running causes osteoarthritis is currently insufficient to draw unequivocal conclusions. However, “the preponderance of data seems to indicate that moderate levels of running do not increase the risk of osteoarthritis of the knees and hips for healthy people and that this activity might even have a protective effect.”
Running today has achieved a bit of a renaissance with the popularity of ultra-running races from 50-200 miles in length as captured in the classic book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougal. What was once considered a long distance run, the marathon is merely a training run for many runners today. Here are some knee-saving tips runners of any distance can use to improve their chances of enjoying their sport for many years.
The hardness of the surface you run on makes a difference on the amount of impact to the knees and hips. Whenever possible, enjoy some runs on soft trails or rubber tracks.
Make sure you are wearing the proper shoes. Visit your local running store and have them analyze your stride and determine the best shoe for you. If you over pronate, you should look for a stability shoe and not a neutral shoe. While cushioned shoes are good for everyone, they have more impact on larger runners.
Add more cross-training cardio activities to your training routine such as cycling, rowing or swimming. I found that swimming a couple days a week was therapeutic on my legs and the rhythmic breathing actually helped improve my running.
Run your longer distance training runs more slowly and save your harder speed workouts for your shorter runs. This will save some impact and stress on your joints.
Increase your distances slowly, adding no more than 10% each week. When adding distance, adopt an ice regimen to your knees immediately after running to limit any swelling from increased use.
One of the things I have most helpful is stretching the major muscle groups to include the hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, IT bands, calves and glutes. Stretching warm muscles is much more effective.
A runner’s mindset is hard to break but rest your body as needed. Recovery is important as that is where repair and growth comes from. Resting a day a week may help add years to your running pleasure. If you are injured, be sure to recover fully before easing back into your running routine.
Here is to being fit for a lifetime!
Chris is a Certified Personal Trainer, exercise and endurance enthusiast. He competes yearly in numerous running races, marathons, ultra marathons, triathlons and other endurance events.