Is Running Bad for Your Knees?

7 min read

Living in The Woodlands area we have miles and miles of beautiful trails to explore and enjoy. And running is a great way to do it! Running is also one of the easiest ways to exercise and almost anybody can do it. All you need is a good pair of running shoes and an open space to run. 

But as we age or gain weight, running can cause injury, which results in pain and downtime. While running isn’t necessarily bad for your knees, you can develop pain if you’re using poor running form, wearing unsupportive shoes, or overdoing it.

Understanding Knee Anatomy 

The knee is your body’s biggest joint, connecting the thigh to the lower leg. Your knees carry all the weight of your upper body and keep you balanced as you move. Your knee joint includes:

  • Bones that create the knee joint include the femur, tibia, and patella. In one area of the knee joint, the patella, also called the kneecap, meets the femur (thigh bone). There is another connection in this joint where the femur meets the tibia. 
  • Cartilage lines the ends of the femur and tibia as well as the patella, making it easy for the joint to move and absorbs impact so that the bones don’t rub together.  There is also a fibrocartilage area of the knee called meniscus. This is located at the “back of the knee” cushioning between the femur and tibia. 
  • Muscles are made of strong flexible fibers that, along with tendons, connect muscles to bones. Bones move when muscles contract and pull the tendon, which pulls the bone to move it. 
  • Ligaments are bands of connective tissue that attach the thigh to the shin, and surround the knee joint, keeping it stable. You have three different ligaments in the knee area that make it possible to move forward, backward and side to side. These are the 
    • ACL - anterior cruciate ligament
    • LCL - lateral collateral ligament
    • MCL - medial collateral ligament
    • PCL - posterior cruciate ligament
  • Nerves carry electrical impulses from the brain to move muscles and allow you to feel sensations (cold or pain).

What Does Running Do to Your Knees?

There are a lot of moving pieces in your knee which could start to hurt when used a lot in activities like running. However, numerous studies have compared runners’ and non-runners’ knee damage. The studies overwhelmingly conclude that running does not hurt knees, but can actually strengthen them. One study tracked long-distance runners for 18 years. Regular x-rays determined that runners had fewer signs of osteoarthritis compared to non-runners. 

Even though running has more impact on the knees than walking, the bones and cartilage of a runner’s knee adapt and condition themselves through running to produce stronger knee joints. Running helps cartilage improve in both strength and by bulking up to better cushion the joint. Whenever you bend your knee, fluids that provide lubrication and nourishment in the form of blood flow circulate throughout knee tissues.

What Leads to Knee Pain in Runners?

Any repetitive motion can result in injury if you don’t take special precautions. And even then, there is simply the fact that as we get older things start to hurt more than they used to. Several factors can set you up for knee pain from running, including:

  • Overuse. Running a lot without time to recover can result in sore muscles and joints. Try to give yourself adequate rest time between runs. If you’re preparing for a race such as an Ironman or a marathon, try to find a schedule that works in rest days as well as some short runs rather than only long runs. 
  • Using bad or incorrect running form. You should not be able to hear your feet hitting the ground when you take a step. If you can, try to reduce the impact with softer steps.
  • Wearing worn-out, unsupportive shoes. Get fitted for a good pair of shoes. In fact, it’s a good idea to have a couple pairs so that you can trade off and keep the inserts as cushioned as possible. 
  • Running on hard surfaces. Concrete is harder on the body over time compared to a dirt or gravel path. 
  • Running with a pre-existing condition, such as an old injury. If your body is trying to favor any other area of the body such as a hip flexor or hip joint, your knees may try to accommodate for that. Over time that can start to hurt your knees.
  • Running too soon after an injury. If you get back to your running schedule before your muscles, bones, and cartilage are ready for more exercise you may start to feel pain in the knee again, or it may start hurting as you try to accommodate for other areas of the body that are experiencing pain.

Your weight also plays a role in how your knees feel after running. If you have a few extra pounds on your frame, your body has to work harder, including your knees, to support the weight. Running can obviously help you with losing weight. If you’re overweight at the start of your running program, consider some shorter runs and a clean, healthy diet to lose some pounds before you start longer runs.

Strategies Runners Use to Protect Their Knees

There’s a lot you can do to keep running, even into older age, including:

  • Wear supportive running shoes that are a good fit. If you’re a long-distance runner or run a lot, have your foot fitted correctly at a running supplies store. Your gait and feet are unique to you. The size, width, cushion level, arch support, and tread of a shoe should fit your feet and activity level. Replace running shoes regularly.
  • Learn proper running form. Just because you’ve been running since you were a kid doesn’t mean you’re doing it right. Your foot should strike the running surface midfoot. If your heel hits the pavement first, your chance of developing knee pain is much greater. A running coach or a sports medicine professional can evaluate your gait for other problems and offer safety tips. Always maintain good posture while running, look ahead, and keep your arms at a 90-degree angle to the pavement.
  • Most runners report less knee stress when they run on grass or a treadmill, compared to hard surfaces like concrete or asphalt.
  • Do strength and stability exercises to build strong knees. This might include squats and lunges to build up your leg muscles.
  • Stretch before and after running. Flexible muscles are stronger, faster, and more agileTight muscles can make you run with bad form. Stretching is essential to avoid injuries and increase blood flow to muscles, which shortens their recovery time. Before you run, move your joints and muscles through a full range of motion to warm up. After running, focus on holding those stretches to loosen muscles, making them more flexible and providing a greater range of motion. Never stretch to the point of discomfort or pain.
  • Gradually progress to your distance and time goals. This gives your body time to adjust and avoid setbacks from injuries. Long-distance runners shouldn’t increase weekly miles by more than 10% per week. If you run 20 miles the first week, don’t run more than 22 miles the second week. Join a local running club to get help with a safe training schedule.
  • Maintain overall good health, which includes maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Always listen to your body. Contact a healthcare professional if you develop acute pain. 

You might also like to read our blog: Tips for Keeping Your Knees Healthy

Managing Runners’ Knee Pain

Some of the most common knee injuries among runners include:

  • Runner’s knee which causes pain in front of the knee and/or around the kneecap during a run. It’s usually caused by irritated cartilage.
  • IT band syndrome is caused by a too-tight tendon that runs from your hip to the outer knee.
  • Jumper’s knee is a pain in the front of the knee caused by inflammation in the tendon (tendonitis) that connects the kneecap to the shin bone.
  • Bursitis is inflammation and swelling in one of the fluid-filled sacs (bursa), causing swelling on the front of your knee. 

Before you head out for a run, consider wearing compression clothing such as a knee sleeve, which provides extra support to an unstable knee joint. 

If you have knee pain after a run, use RICE, which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. 

Can a Chiropractor Help with Knee Pain from Running?

There is a lot a chiropractor can do to help you with knee pain. First they’ll need to understand specifically which areas of the knee are bothersome. The treatment for cartilage that’s starting to wear away will be different from tendonitis.

Once there is a diagnosis of the problem, a treatment plan can be put into place. This can include several different treatments. Usually it takes several sessions for the treatment to give the best results.

Knee pain chiropractic treatments include:

  • Knee traction - Using a special machine called Knee on Trac, the Village Chiropractic team can gently stretch the knee joint. This process, over the course of several sessions, makes the knee more flexible, reduces pain and increases the volume of fluid in and around the knee.
  • Cold laser therapy - Using a low-intensity cold laser over the affected area for 10-15 minutes a time causes blood to rush to the treatment area. This promotes healing in this area and reduces inflammation. Learn more about knee pain and cold laser therapy.
  • Cryotherapy -  Spot treatment using liquid nitrogen on the affected area for short periods of time reduces knee pain and helps you get back to feeling better sooner.

If you experience a torn meniscus or ligament that doesn’t require surgical repair you can use cold laser therapy to speed up the healing process.

In some case, ligaments need to be repaired surgically. If that’s the case we will let you know that it’s a good idea to schedule an appointment with an orthopedic specialist for an evaluation.

When to Start Chiropractic Knee Pain Treatment

The sooner the better is always a good rule of thumb when it comes to pain. Don’t keep running on a painful knee for weeks or months. If it doesn’t stop hurting on its own after a week or two of rest, schedule an appointment with the Village Chiropractic team in The Woodlands. 

Our chiropractors will help you understand what’s causing your discomfort and work with you to provide treatments that will get you feeling better as soon as possible. Request an appointment today

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