It’s not a myth: Running is tough on your knees. Whether you’re a newbie starting a couch-to-5K program or you’re a veteran ultra-marathoner, it’s likely that at some point in your running journey you’ve experienced knee pain that has brought you to a halt.
And it’s no surprise; running is a high-impact activity that involves repeated, intense stress on your joints—particularly your kneecap, or patella. The knee injury patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) got its common moniker “runner’s knee” because it arises in runners of all ages, shapes, and sizes.
Does running have to be painful? Is there anything you can do to avoid runner’s knee? If you run with proper form, stretch after running, and listen to your body when you experience knee pain, you can maintain your sport and reap the many benefits of running for years to come.
Is running really the culprit of my knee pain?
Yes and no. Some experts say running incorrectly is what causes knee pain. In fact, a 2013 study published in “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise” found running does not increase the likelihood of developing osteoarthritis, and runners are actually less likely to develop arthritis than non-runners.
If, however, you have improper running form, extra weight, foot pronation issues, flat feet, kneecap trauma, weak surrounding muscles (ie, thigh, gluteal, or calf muscles), or one leg longer than another, knee pain may be more likely when you run. Even non-runners can experience “runner’s knee” if they are putting too much stress on their knee. The key is to listen to your body and take the time to evaluate the root cause of your knee pain.
What are the symptoms of runner’s knee?
Every body is different, but some of the more common signs of runner’s knee include:
- Dull, aching pain around the kneecap
- Swelling in the knee
- Popping or grinding in the knee
If your knee pain is caused by illiotibial band syndrome (IT-band syndrome), the pain is more likely to show up on the outer sides of your knees, where the IT band connects from the hip to the lower leg.
You will likely feel knee pain when you are:
- Sitting down or standing up, especially if sitting for an extended period of time
What can I do to treat my knee pain?
The first rule is: Don’t continue to run if your knee is hurting. This may be a challenge, particularly if you are in the middle of training for a race or if you are highly competitive. However, continuing to run through your knee pain is likely to do more damage to your knees in the long run. It may exacerbate the problem and make it more difficult to treat down the road.
If you’re worried that knee pain will land you in knee surgery, don’t be. Most knee pain can be treated with noninvasive methods, including:
- Icing the knee area
- Physical therapy to strengthen thighs, glutes, and calves
- Pain-relieving medications including NSAIDs
You can also make an appointment with an orthopedic specialist or physical therapist who can analyze your biomechanical movements and running form. They will be able to identify where the knee pain is originating, and partner with you to create a recovery plan.
Often, runners are able to treat their knee pain with physical therapy exercises, foam-rolling, and stretching without losing too much momentum in their training program.
Again, the key is to identify the knee pain and treat it before it becomes an irreparable problem. If you are experiencing knee pain, set up an appointment with an orthopedic specialist to get yourself back on track.