Whether you run for fun, exercise, or just to clear your head, a brisk jog can go a long way towards your physical and mental health. It’s the oldest form of travel, always free, and great for your cardiovascular health.
Unfortunately, your body doesn’t always cooperate which can make running lose some of its appeal. With about 1 in 4 active exercisers experiencing discomfort in their knee, it’s proven to be a serious problem for all kinds of people. Fortunately, with proper preparations and the right gear you can minimize the effects of runner’s knee or avoid getting it altogether.
When you run, you take turns putting weight & pressure on each of your legs from hip to toe as you move up and down. Each step recruits just about every major muscle in your leg, making it a relatively strenuous exercise. However, your knees take the brunt of it as they allow you to land before you start bouncing again.
Depending on a variety of factors like your fitness level, weight, running gear, and even where you’re running, the amount of strain on your knee will vary. If you put too much strain on the knee, over time you can wear down the cartilage or cause inflammation that makes it hard to bend your knee or run – affectionately known as runner’s knee.
Tips for Preventing Runner’s Knee
There’s no need for you to give up on your exercise routine due to runner’s knee. Below are four ways you can fight off runner’s knee so that you can exercise more comfortably, for longer, and without feeling sore afterwards.
1. Wear Compression Knee Sleeves
If you’ve ever seen a marathon or watched just about any professional sport, you have likely seen a knee sleeve being used. These characteristically black sleeves can have a hole at the knee itself, be completely covering half of the leg, or simply be restricted to the knee. They are used to reduce swelling & inflammation during and after exercise that regularly puts strain on the knee through jumping or running.
By compressing the knee and the surrounding joints, a compression knee sleeve increases the blood flow that reaches the knee by compressing the veins so that blood flows through more quickly.
With more blood flowing through, the transfer of lactic acid (produced by muscles burning energy) quickens so that it can be processed more quickly, reducing fatigue and soreness. Greater blood flow also means better performance, so you may see a change in your mile time as well!
Compression sleeves also help to stabilize your muscles so that the impacts of running are less likely to cause a strain or pull around the knee. For those recovering from knee injuries, avoiding reinjury is crucial and a great benefit of a compression sleeve.
2. Stretching & Conditioning
Your knee is surrounded by joints and muscles that it needs to work, so it’s no surprise that a little bit of conditioning can go a long way towards preventing injury.
As we said earlier it takes the whole lower body to make running possible, as it recruits all the major muscles & joints in the legs to propel yourself forwards. This means that you need your lower body to be in shape and ready to perform if you want to run safely.
Your hamstrings, quadriceps, and hips provide most of the torque for your stride, so you’ll want to ensure that they are warmed up before you run. If not, their weakness or tightness could create a chain reaction that leads to you taking heavier steps or changing your stride, resulting in more impact on your knees.
To ensure your lower half is in working order, consider walking before you start running. This will allow your muscles to get warmed up before you start shocking them with a springy step. You’ll also want to strength train your lower half for the best results, with squats, lunges, and presses recruiting many of the muscle groups required to run effectively.
Stretching is just as important as conditioning, and with the wide array of yoga & other stretching exercises available, you should be able to find something that gets you nice and limbered up before you go. Again, aim to stretch the quads, hip flexors, and hamstrings as much as possible.
3. Pick the Right Shoes
Your shoes are the last line of defense between the ground and your knee, making them an incredibly important part of your running gear & runner’s knee prevention. If you’ve ever run in bare feet, you probably felt like you moved more heavily and less effectively. While you can run with just about any shoe (or lack thereof), those that are specially designed for running can make a world of difference over time.
The support that shoes offer helps to make each step – or “strike” in the running world – safer on your knee. Depending on your foot type, it’s shape, and the size of your arches, you’ll need a certain style of shoe to ensure you get proper support.
For example, people with flatter feet often land more flat-footed, meaning that rather than shifting the weight to the outside of your foot you overpronate (lean inwards and downwards) your ankle. This lessens the shock absorption that the outside of your foot’s arch provides on impact, leading to more shock.
A great running shoe (or orthotic) will keep your ankle properly pronated (aka straight ahead) so that each step is safer.
As you bounce up and down while you run, you’re essentially shocking your lower body with each impact. In the same way that cars have shock absorbers to reduce impacts over bumps, running shoes can offer a similar effect for your knees.
By adding a level of cushioning and shock absorption though a shoe with gel, foam, or other flexible materials at the sole you can reduce the harsh impacts of hard roads. Insoles are also available that provide a similar cushioning so if you love your current shoes, you can always upgrade with an insole!
4. Use Proper Running Form
Just about everyone runs differently, but some people aren’t helping themselves with their form. When you take away all the running gear and other things that contribute to how safe and effective your running is, your form is the one thing left – which is why it plays perhaps the largest role in your knee pain.
While other things may help make up for bad form, good form can eliminate the need for some additional precautions to avoid knee pain (or prevent runner’s knee from happening at all). This is because you can naturally absorb or disperse some of the impact with proper footing and positioning.
If you’re an inexperienced runner, finding your form can be difficult at first. After all, we walk or run most of our lives, but we don’t often think about it – we just do it. However, there are some rules to keep in mind while you run that could save your knees over the years.
Heel striking is when your stride is too long, causing your foot to go past your knee level as you step. This long stride causes you to land on your heel – which is bad for your ankle – and also applies extra force on your knee at each step.
Rather than impacting perpendicularly to the ground, overextending your step creates an impact angle that pushes back on your knee when you land because you can’t shift your weight effectively. This effectively doubles the impact your knee is feeling each step, and is a leading cause of runner’s knee.
To combat this, keep your knees low to the ground for longer distances (high knees are for sprinters, primarily), lean forwards (so that it is harder to overstride), and keep your knees bent at all times.
You’ll also want to keep your feet pointing straight ahead to avoid overpronation or supination of your knee joints and tendons.
Say Goodbye to Runner’s Knee
Running is a fun, relaxing, and healthy exercise for just about anyone to try as part of their routine. It gets you outside, let’s you explore streets & trails, and keeps you healthy. Unfortunately, many people have written it off because their knees hurt after a little while without considering why they get runner’s knee.
While running is not for everyone – particularly people who are sedentary or a higher weight that would make it dangerous – just about anyone can make it work for them if they try.
Whether you start walking first, practice yoga to stay lose & flexible, equip yourself with the gear & knowledge for success, or all of the above, you’ll be able to protect your knees for a safer run.