2021 Runners’ Guide to Healthy Knees

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Running knee pain support

Running and knees, knees and running – mention one and inevitably the other will come up in conversation and often associated with knee pain. If you’re wondering if starting a running program will hurt or help your knees, or if you’re curious to know if your current running routine is affecting the health of your knees, and the best knee compression sleeve reviews, we’ve gathered some of the most commonly asked questions along with well-researched answers so you feel as informed as possible as you begin or continue a running habit that is easy on those knees. 

Running and Your Knees

For starters, the simplest question we often hear is ‘do runners have knee problems?’ Simply put, some do, some don’t. Anyone can have knee problems and then participate in a number of activities. A runner could have knee problems, but they could have started long before the individual began running. And honestly, if all runners have knee problems, the likelihood that it would be such a popular sport would be rather low. So the question really should be does running cause knee problems? Directly, no, running doesn’t cause knee problems. Research has shown that the act of running itself doesn’t damage knees. There is no correlation between regular running and injury or pain to the knees when the running technique is proper and other muscles and joints are working properly without injury or over-compensation. That’s where it gets trickier to answer the question – because runners can develop injuries, pain, swelling and inflammation in their knees, it can be easy to assume the trigger was the running itself. In reality, knee pain while running isn’t caused by the activity itself but by other issues, such as existing arthritis, poor running form, improper shoe choice, weak hips/quads/hamstring or running too much too fast are all issues that can cause poor body mechanics while running that can then lead to knee pain. Preventing these issues in the first place will then, logically, prevent you from developing knee problems. 

Want to start running? 

First, have a running gait analysis done. Many cities have specialty running stores where they will take a recording of you running on a treadmill. Experts will watch your gait (your running stride) and can recommend different shoe choices to best match how you run. A large majority of individuals pronate when they run, which means their feet roll out a bit while running (which can lead to knee strain since the legs aren’t operating at the proper angle). Shoes that provide a little extra support along the outer edge prevents pronating, and eliminates the possibility of knee issues from that pronation.

Next, improper body mechanics is often a result when certain muscle groups are imbalanced and imbalanced muscles need to be strengthened. Runners often ask how do I keep my knees healthy while running? For example, complementary muscle groups (such as the quads and hamstrings – two muscles that support opposite sides of the upper leg) should both be exercised equally so that they can work together to best support leg movement and knee flexion. When one muscle group is overworked (which can sometimes happen with weightlifters and having too much focus on the quads and spending too little time working the hamstrings) the joints may not be supported as well as they should be, leading to injury. Exercises like squats and lunges are great for working the front of the upper leg, but make sure to focus on the hamstrings too with exercises like step back lunges, deadlifts, and hamstring curls. And yes, running itself can help the knees get stronger too! As you work on strengthening the muscles that support your knees, you’ll be not only improving your overall health because the more muscle tissue you have, the more fat you burn but also helping improve the mobility of your joints. Stronger muscles can help avoid issues like runner’s knee.

What exactly is runner’s knee? 

While technically it’s not an actual diagnosable condition, runner’s knee is the name commonly given to the technical injury known as patellofemoral pain syndrome.  Runner’s knee can develop from running too much without properly building up to longer distances, from running with muscle imbalances, and from repetitive movements with muscles too weak to withstand the level of repetition (all reasons why strengthening and conditioning yourself to running is important!) And while non-runners can also develop this knee issue, it can affect approximately 15% of all runners at some point during their lifetime. The injury, which comes on gradually and isn’t generally triggered by a traumatic incident, presents with pain behind the kneecap during the activity, and generally is relieved by rest. There is no actual joint damage, but it’s the liquid filled bubble in the joint that is inflamed. Runner’s knee can heal itself with rest or with physical therapy. Avoiding runner’s knee is simple – work your way up slowly to running long distances. When you properly adjust your body to more and more exercise and longer distances, your joints adapt and are prepared to take on the additional stress. Jumping into running long distances without conditioning or practice is a surefire way to get runner’s knee but taking it slowly will help you avoid unnecessary pain and discomfort. 

Existing issues like arthritis can also cause pain while running, but you may be wondering if running increases the chance of developing arthritis? Experts say resoundingly, NO, running does not increase the likelihood of arthritis in your joints, so running can be done without the worry of it causing arthritis. However, there is conflicting evidence regarding whether or not running makes existing arthritis worse. On one hand, we know arthritis is caused by repetitive movements, which wear down the cartilage that helps cushion the knees. When the cartilage wears down, joints become bone and bone which causes painful inflammation and swelling and once it gets bad enough, joint replacement can become necessary. On the other hand, research also shows that the more lubricated a joint is, the healthier it is, and a joint becomes better lubricated with synovial fluid as it is moved through activities. With that in mind, running can actually help alleviate some of the symptoms of arthritis (although not cure it unfortunately). As mentioned previously, gradually easing into a running program, starting with short distances and working your way up to longer runs, can help prevent overuse injuries and inflammation. 

Preventing Knee Pain

Need help figuring out the best way to prevent knee pain with running? How do you slowly and safely integrate running into your fitness plan to both improve your level of health and keep your knees safe? Now that you know you shouldn’t just jump in with a 10-mile run on day one, what is a safe distance to run when you’re just starting out? Runner’s World can be a great resource. They have a well-researched plan that can help you walk and run your way to doing long distances safely while keeping your knees feeling great. Their beginner running plan starts with walking, integrating running intervals up through running for 14 minutes straight. The running schedule helps you gradually build up strength so you can safely run without damaging your knees. 

Recovering from Knee Pain

Are you already a runner but having some mild discomfort in your knees? Maybe training for a big race and while you’re appropriately building up to longer distances, your knees are taking a bit of a beating – what then? You obviously don’t want to stop training unless you’ve got a serious injury, but you don’t want the mild discomfort turning into something more. Often, a compression knee sleeve or kinesiology tape (K-tape) can help. Braces and sleeves aren’t just for injuries – they can help prevent pain and injury too! The compression that is provided by a knee sleeve does a few things to aid in your running journey. First, it helps promote blood flow. As blood circulates through our body, it can pool in our extremities or cause our bodies to work harder to get it back to the heart where it picks up more oxygen. Compression gives a little boost to our circulatory system, aiding in helping that blood get back to where it needs to go to help continually oxygenate our muscles so they can work optimally. Second, compression helps reduce pain too by helping alleviate inflammation and swelling. Finally, a compression sleeve, like this one from CopperJoint.com can provide a little external support for muscles that are still developing from strength training. These options from www.power.lix.com or www.dickssportinggoods.com are also high quality to help provide your knees some much-needed support.

And if compression sleeves don’t alleviate the issue, visiting with a medical professional is always a good idea. A physician or physical therapist will be able to give you advice to make sure you don’t have permanent joint damage and to give you a treatment course to get you back on the trails.

It’s important to note, as with all exercise, you should definitely listen to your body. If something feels off, if you’re feeling discomfort or pain, that’s alerting you to the possibility that something is wrong. It’s never a bad idea to get it checked out by a medical professional. But by following these tips and finding a good training program, and being careful to not go ‘all out’ when you first start a running training program, you can help keep your knees and other joints feeling great so you can keep up with your passion for running. 

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