The world loves running and it’s easy to see why. It benefits your cardiovascular health, helps you to maintain a healthy weight, boosts your mental health, builds muscle, improves bone density, and increases your stamina. As if that weren’t enough, it’s free and you can do it anywhere and anytime! From the streets of Singapore to the treadmill in your bedroom, this is one of the most accessible forms of exercise there is. But there is one question that haunts every would-be fitness enthusiast: is running bad for your knees?
To separate knee health myths from facts, let’s take an in-depth look and get tips from the expert. Here is your complete guide to running risks and how you can prevent them.
Is Running Safe?
Absolutely! Running is a safe workout option for most people. Still, like any sport, it has some level of risk that you should know about before you start running. Although it’s a high-impact exercise with serious cardiovascular perks, you should be aware of the basic prevention measures that can help you avoid sports injuries.
While running is a great workout option for many people, it’s not right for everyone. Before getting started, you will want to keep in mind your personal risk factors. Even for healthy active people who are fit for running, it is important to work within a smart training plan and proceed with caution.
Like most workouts such as HIIT or deadlifts, consulting with a healthcare professional before starting a running regimen is always a good idea, and that is especially true if you have any health concerns. Even if you’re in great shape, it’s important to inform yourself about running before you get started.
The Anatomy of a Knee Joint
Before we dive into the potential drawbacks of running, it is important to understand your knee joint and how it works. The structure of your knee joint is way more complicated than you might think, and having a general sense of anatomy will help you prevent injuries.
Connecting your femur (thigh bone) to your tibia (shin bone), your knee is supported by a complicated web of ligaments, tendons, and cartilage. Each part is essential to your stability and movement so it’s good to see how they work.
The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), lateral collateral ligament (LCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) form the four principal ligamentous stabilizers. Your ACL prevents your shin bone from sliding forward and helps retain stability during any rotational movements. Your PCL works alongside your ACL to keep your tibia in place in relation to the femur. Meanwhile, your MCL provides stability to the inner part of your knee by limiting sideways movement and your LCL stabilises the outer side of your knee by also restricting too much side-to-side movement.
Your meniscus is a crucial cushioning cartilage that gives your knee support and provides a level of shock absorption. Finally, your patella (kneecap) protects the joint and allows for a range of movements.
What Are the Most Common Knee Injuries in Runners?
Because of the complicated nature of your knee anatomy, there is always some level of risk to running. Let’s look at some of the common knee injuries so you know how to spot symptoms early and prevent them:
- Runner’s Knee: Officially known as Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS), this condition can be caused by overuse, running in a certain way, or genetic factors. One of the key symptoms of runner’s knee is pain behind or around the kneecap.
- Iliotibial Band Syndrome: Your (Iliotibial) IT band is a thick band of tissue that runs from your hip to your knee. If you overuse it or run with bad form, your IT ban can become inflamed and cause pain along the exterior of your knee.
- Meniscus Tears: Your menisci are pieces of cartilage that work like shock absorbers for your knee. If you run on uneven ground, you can end up tearing your meniscus. This is painful and immediately obvious because of the swelling and limited range of motion that come with it.
- Jumper’s Knee: Formally known as Patellar Tendinitis, having runner’s knee means that you’ve got inflammation of your patellar tendon (which is the tissue connecting your kneecap to the shin bone). Regular intense workouts can cause this strain.
- Anterior Cruciate Ligament Tears: While less common, Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tears can happen if you stop or change direction suddenly.
Can Running Be Bad for Some People?
While running has a wide range of health benefits, it’s important to keep in mind individual risk factors. Each person is affected differently by running so it’s certainly not a one-size-fits-all workout. Your age, weight, any pre-existing knee conditions, running technique, and overall fitness level all affect the side effects of running. To gauge your risk factor and help you decide if running is the right sport for you, let’s look at the key considerations.
How Age and Weight Affect Running Risk
People often ask: Should I run if I’m overweight? While working out seems like a good idea to shed extra weight, it is an important question because weight is a risk factor. Your chance of injury is increased if you have excess body weight because it puts more strain on your knees. While each case is different and running may be a healthy option for an overweight person, it is often better to start with low-impact exercises like yoga or pilates and then gradually move on to running after talking to your doctor.
Am I too old to run? You might not be! Running can be a great way to stay fit as you get older (and you can successfully run faster than you might think well into your 90s). In fact, one of the biggest benefits of running is actually your bone health. A weight-bearing exercise like running pushes your bones to become stronger and denser. This is hugely beneficial for older people at risk of osteoporosis or knee arthritis, on top of the wider benefits. Nonetheless, there are factors to consider before you get started. If you have an underlying condition, especially a previous knee injury or arthritis, proceed with caution. Before getting started, you’ll want to talk to your doctor about the safety of running.
Running Injury Risk Factors
Is running bad for your knees if you’re healthy? In most cases, no. If you follow a few basic guidelines, you can run trouble-free. Here are a few risk factors to keep in mind.
- Running Technique: Having the right technique is everything. This means considering your stride and the way that your foot hits the ground. Learning how to perfect your running form is a crucial step in staying healthy and safe.
- Footwear and Running Path: Good quality running shoes are essential. Always opt for function over form and take your time shopping for the best option. If possible, opt for softer running surfaces like grass or a running path to reduce the impact on your knees.
- Mix It Up and Have Rest Days: For the best fitness plan, it’s important to mix things up. Since running is a high-impact workout, look to other options like spinning and swimming to give your knees a break. Incorporate strength training strategically and, just as importantly, give yourself days of rest. It is also recommended to take frequent breaks in between runs in sheltered areas to prevent heat injuries.
- Warm-Up and Cool-Down: Always start with a warm-up and end with a cool-down. Take your time to fully stretch your lower body.
- Progress Slowly: Get used to your running routine before you make it longer or harder. You want to gradually increase the difficulty and distance. While it should be hard, it shouldn’t be so hard that you can’t keep a consistent routine.
What Are the Benefits of Running?
People mistakenly think that running is inherently bad for the knees. It’s a widespread misconception that puts a lot of people off running. While running does put significant force on the knee joint, the story is far more complicated. In reality, experts have found that running can have positive effects on your knee joint when done correctly. Let’s look at a few of the other major benefits:
- Improved cardiovascular health: Running strengthens your heart and improves your blood circulation, which reduces your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
- Weight control: Running burns calories, which is great for weight loss and maintenance.
- Improved mental health: Running releases endorphins. That so-called runner’s high works to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression while boosting your mood.
- Increased bone density: Regular running can strengthen your bones and reduce your risk of osteoporosis and breaks in the foot or pain in the hips.
- Better lung function: Running improves your lung capacity.
- Boosted immune system: Regular workouts benefit your immune system and reduce your risk of illness.
- Improved sleep: Running can help you get better quality and more restful sleep.
- Affordable exercise: Running requires minimal equipment so you can do it anytime, anywhere without breaking the bank.
Is Running Safe for Me?
The most important thing to keep in mind is that running is not inherently bad for your knees. In fact, when done correctly, it is a workout that can offer you a wide range of health benefits, including improved bone density, stronger cartilage, and enhanced muscle strength. Nonetheless, you have to keep in mind that individual factors play a major role in how running affects your knees. That is why it is crucial to start running with caution, especially if you have pre-existing knee conditions.
By understanding the impact of running on your knees and taking those essential preventive measures, you can reduce the risks while enjoying the rewards. Not sure how to get started? Dealing with knee pain? Not sure if running is right for you? The orthopaedic doctors at Ray of Health specialise in knee pain management and shoulder pain treatment plans.
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About the Author
Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.
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