How to Avoid Knee Pain When You Run

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How to Avoid Knee Pain When You Run

Wednesday, 31 October 2018 | Mike Leano

Running doesn't cause knee pain; running the wrong way does. In fact, various research supports this. According to WebMD, a multi-year study of nearly 75,000 runners found that running doesn't increase the risk of having osteoarthritis.

The runners actually had lower risk of arthritis compared to their non-active counterparts.

So what's the right way to go about it? How do you avoid knee pain when you run? Here are a few suggestions that should help.

Strengthen the muscles that stabilise your knees

Running coach and former Olympian John Henwood says knee pain is typically caused by a tight iliotibial band (ITB) and weak knee-stabilising muscles. To avoid pain, you need to:

  • Strengthen the muscles on the inside of the knee. Doing this keeps the muscles outside the ITB loose.
  • Stretch your hips, piriformis (muscle behind the gluteus maximus), buttocks and hamstrings. Keeping these muscles loose will keep your knee joint in place.

Do cross- and strength training between running

Henwood recommends strength and cross training to avoid knee pain. Some activities you can combine for great results include:

  • Swimming stretches you through your stomach, keeps your spine straight, and develops your lower abs.
  • Cycling or spin classes (i.e. indoor cycling) work your hamstrings, buttocks, calf muscles, quadriceps, abdomen, back and arm muscles, and chest and shoulders.

If you're in a running program in preparation for a marathon, Henwood advises running three to four days a week, strength and cross-training two days a week, and taking a rest day at least once.

Correct your form

The right form when running is tilting forward with your chest is out. According to a study in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, leaning a bit forward while you run minimises the impact on your knee joint.

This means your knees won't absorb as much shock from all that running. Leaning forward essentially transfers the weight from your knees to your hips. Here are a few other tips to correct your form:

  • Relax your shoulders, unclench your fists, and keep your body loose.
  • Look straight ahead and point your chin slightly ahead of your chest.
  • Let your feet land under your hips to align your entire body.
  • For each stride, raise your knees to below the height of your hips.

Stretch before and after running

Make sure you stretch before and after running to avoid injury and reduce your body's stiffness. For best results, loosen up your muscles with dynamic stretches such as:

After running, cool down with some stretches to minimise swelling and improve your flexibility. Some suitable exercises include:

Run on rough terrain

Here's an interesting fact: runners say they experience more comfortable runs on grass and even trails when they train on rough terrain. Why? Because off-road terrain increases the variety of movement in your legs and joints.

Rough outdoor terrain (like the beach) forces your muscles to contract and keep your body steady, resulting in smaller and more measured steps. In the end, you develop strength and stability.

Make it a habit to run on rough terrain at least once a week.

Increase your stride rate

Two factors affect running speed: stride rate and stride length. Stride rate is the number of times your feet touch the ground per minute, while stride length is the distance you cover on each step. To minimise the impact of forces absorbed by the knees and hips, increase your stride rate.

According to researcher Elizabeth Chumanov from the University of Wisconsin, aiming for a higher stride rate forces you to make smaller strides, causing you to land in the middle of your foot instead of your heel. This reduces the time the foot stays in the air and changes the foot's landing angle.

The longer your foot stays in the air, the harder the impact on the ground.

Chumanov is one of the co-authors in a study that investigated the effects of increasing stride length and how it reduces knee pain. To measure your stride rate:

The magic stride rate number is said to be 180 per minute, which is based on research conducted during the 1984 Olympics. However, you don't have to aim for it; what's important is that you focus on increasing the rate that you already have.

Take shorter steps downhill

When running downhill, take shorter steps. Why? Because gravity is pulling you downwards and you don't need to exert as much effort from each stride.

At the same time, make sure you keep your feet under your body and avoid overstriding (i.e. reaching forward, causing your foot to land too far in front of your centre of mass) to shorten your steps and reduce the impact on your knees.

Furthermore, running downhill too quickly may risk injuring your quad muscles.

Use the right running shoes

Whenever you run, you apply stress on different parts of your body. If handled properly, this stress can be helpful but it can also be damaging if you don't. To minimise the impact, you'll need running shoes that supports:

  • Your feet's arches
  • The natural movement of your feet while running/walking.
  • The outward roll of your feet during its natural motion.

The right shoes will absorb and diffuse the shock from your feet every time it meets the ground. The more you use your shoes, the more their shock absorption declines.

How quickly this happens is determined by several factors including your weight, the distance you run, and the type of terrain you travel. The sweet spot for running shoes is typically 450 to 550 miles.

Here are several other indications that it's time to get a new pair of running shoes:

  • Creases in the midsoles.
  • The outer sole is worn out and you can see the midsole.
  • The midsole feels too soft and gives easily when you press into it.
  • One of the soles is more worn out than the other.

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