Running is bad for the knees: Myth or truth?

The impact of your foot as it first hits pavement is a feeling many are familiar with, as well the future consequences that inevitably come with the activity…or do they?

Muscle and Joint

Owen Wiseman

02 September 2017

The traditional belief is that running can damage the tissues in the knee over time due to the high impact nature of the exercise…

This was thought to lead to conditions such as osteoarthritis, as the extra impact can cause the shock-absorbing cartilage of the knee to wear down, leaving the bones more vulnerable to friction, and patellofemoral pain syndrome, commonly known as Runner’s Knee. With rates estimated at one in 10 by The Arthritis Society of Canada or just over three million, research into potential aggravating factors, like running, could have huge implications.

Contrary to popular belief though, more evidence is beginning to show that unless you are genetically predisposed to osteoarthritis, an individual of healthy weight with healthy knees should have minimal issues and casual running may actually strengthen the knees. Current rates suggest only 3.5% of recreational runners develop knee or hip arthritis compared to those leading a sedentary lifestyle where rates are estimated to be 10.2%.

Of note, competitive runners, those running more than 92 km per week, had rates at 13.3%. In the study, the higher rates in competitive runners was not attributed to a higher intensity or frequency of the activity, as occupation, obesity, and previous running-related falls or injuries were not accounted for. Through further research, we are learning that it is not running which could be aggravating to your tissues, but rather how you run.

If you practice any form of exercise, you’ve probably heard from a friend about how your form could be better if you tuck your butt in more, get your shoulders back, or keep your back straight. Running is no different, and seeing your local registered physiotherapist to refine your form could prevent future injury.

Some further tips to avoid damaging your knees include :

  • This is one of the easiest changes to make to protect your joints. Having properly fitted running shoes can lighten the impact on the knee, but the research is still inconclusive on whether minimalist or highly cushioned is the way to go. We often adjust our form to match how we typically run no matter the footwear. Listening to your body is the best way to find your running shoe soulmate.
  • Start slow. Just as you wouldn’t start a bench press at 150lbs on your first day exercising in years, you should hold off on running 10k every single day for weeks. Set small, achievable goals and work your way up to that half marathon.
  • Symptomatic relief. When knee inflammation does flare up, applying a topical lotion like Absolüt Arnica Gel can be the first step to reducing the pain.
  • Stay fed. Nutrition can be used for a restorative effect when pain due to running occurs, but we should also use it for its protective effect. Care should be taken to avoid pro-inflammatory foods such as refined carbohydrates (white bread; pastries), sweetened beverages, and margarine. Instead, try adding some foods with anti-inflammatory effects such as olive oil, tomatoes, leafy greens, and fatty fish such as salmon and tuna…come to think of it, that already sounds like a meal!
  • Be aware. If you experience persistent knee pain, it is important to work with your primary healthcare provider to ensure your pain is not due to a more serious underlying condition.


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