Many of us have heard the common perception that running is hard on your knees and that runners will eventually “ruin” theirs if they keep it up. Or, when a runner suffers an injury, the simplistic solution of just stop running is provided as the best remedy. As the coordinator of the DMU Running and Cycling Clinic, I have heard these beliefs and recommendations many times in one version or another. But, as a clinician-scientist, I also appreciate that many commonly held ideas are often based on traditional thinking.
Is running bad for your knees?
It’s time for an evidence update on the notion that running is bad for knees. Unfortunately, these lingering beliefs on the harm of running can result in a shortened “running life” of runners, or would be runners, and contribute to the growing burden of conditions—like obesity, high blood pressure, stroke, heart disease, depression, anxiety, osteoarthritis, etc.—related to decreased physical activity. With that said, I hope to clear the air on the belief that running is bad for your knees.
Fun FactThe total cumulative force per mile during running is similar to walking. Although the instantaneous forces during running are 2-3 times body weight greater than walking, the forces occur for a shorter length of time than walking resulting in similar cumulative force per mile.
The belief that running is bad for the knees has some basis. The knee is the most common location for a running-related injury, and running imparts forces 6-8 times your body weight for brief periods and around 500-700 times on each leg for every mile you run. But, higher forces are not always a bad thing because the body requires physical stress to maintain the health of tissues. Think of an astronaut; their muscles, bones, and organs deteriorate without the forces of gravity and a resistive exercise device is used in space to impart forces on the body to preserve health. Therefore, appropriate and controlled forces are necessary for human tissues to thrive. Appropriate is an important consideration because there is evidence that runners who compete at a high level and operate under pressure to continue running despite an injury or don’t go through a sufficient recovery period may have more problems with their knees in the long term. But, these runners are a small percentage of the total number of runners, and most individuals can improve their knee health and overall health by running. Yes, that is right, in most cases running will improve overall health without harming the knees.
How does running increase your overall health?
Recent evidence has demonstrated that recreational levels of running do not increase knee symptoms or progression of osteoarthritis in persons who already have knee osteoarthritis. Also, in a study spanning 21 years of persons 50 years or older, runners had less disability and lived longer than those who did not run. In addition, persons who are more physically active (such as running) between the ages of 6-23 develop more cartilage (the stuff that wears down when osteoarthritis occurs) than those who are less active. After maturity, articular cartilage is conditioned through moderate levels of physical active (such as running) and can atrophy if activity levels are insufficient (think of the astronaut) or excessive.
In conclusion, recent evidence supports positive effects of running on knee health. Although running as proven to be healthy, consult a healthcare provider with expertise in running if you have any concerns before you begin a training program. They can help you determine if, and how much running may be appropriate considering your unique circumstances including running mechanics and the health of your tissues to tolerate the demands of physical activity. The next time you hear someone say running is bad for your knees, you can tell them not so fast…
Want to get more into running, or need help recovering from an injury? Our exceptional physical therapists at the Des Moines University Clinic can help. We are currently offering in-clinic and virtual appointments for patients, and have a Running and Cycling Clinic for all of your specific needs. Visit the DMU Clinic website or call 515-271-1717 to learn more.