Does Running Damage Your Knees?

From the WebMD Archives

By Tom DiChiara

The Rumor: Running is bad for your knees

Whether you're a neophyte runner trying to get in shape for your first 5K or a seasoned veteran who regularly cranks out 10-milers before breakfast, chances are you've heard that running is -- to put it mildly -- a tad rough on the knees. The notion is so widely accepted that the knee ailment patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) is commonly called "runner's knee." And that would seem to make sense.

Running is a high-impact sport that puts loads of trauma on the joints, so the risk of injury and even arthritis would have to be high, right?

The Verdict: Running incorrectly is what hurts your knees, not running itself

"Running doesn't hurt your knees... if you do it correctly," says Mindy Solkin, an ACE-certified personal trainer and the founder, owner and head coach of The Running Center in New York City.

That may sound like a bold statement, but research backs it up. A multi-year study of almost 75,000 runners published in July 2013 found that, contrary to popular belief, running does not increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis. In fact, runners in the study were found to be in lessjeopardy of arthritis than their non-active counterparts. Another study, published in September 2013, netted similar findings, showing that while the impact from running is high, runners' feet strike the ground less frequently and more briefly than if they were walking -- so, in essence, running and walking put the same stress on the knees.

Why then is there such a high incidence of runners with knee problems? "I really believe that most injuries happen because of poor running form," Solkin says. Some of these form issues can be remedied with conditioning, while others may be linked to your physical makeup. "Certainly, it's true that if you're carrying extra weight, or have one leg shorter than the other -- some sort of significant leg-length discrepancy -- or if your pelvis is tilted, then, yes, you're going to have a tougher time," explains Solkin. "You can run without injury; you just have to know your limits."

The first thing Solkin recommends for new runners or those experiencing pain is to get a biomechanical analysis of their running form. "If you don't get somebody who knows what they're doing and knows what to look for... that's where the problem comes in," she says. "Once you know what the issue is, you can work on fixing it."

Poor form isn't the only thing that can lead to knee injury, however. According to Solkin, running too much too soon can strain muscles, joints and ligaments that aren't yet strong enough to handle the workload. "Unless you're highly competitive, no one should be running more than three or four days a week," she insists. "Work up to a higher mileage and frequency."

Another fast track to injury is hitting the trails or roads in the wrong shoes -- or no shoes at all. Solkin warns runners against jumping on the "barefoot running" bandwagon or going gaga for the ultra-light minimalist running shoes that often dominate store shelves. "Ten years ago, those kinds of shoes were worn by competitive runners for competition only," she says. "I recommend starting with something sturdier, with more cushioning."

The final item on Solkin's to-avoid list is a bit more surprising: listening to music while you run. "Runners should tune in to their body, not out," Solkin says. "When you're listening to music, you're not listening to your body, and you're not able to make adjustments to your form as readily."

Of course, you can do everything right and still experience knee pain, so the key is to take action immediately. "If something hurts, go home and ice it," Solkin advises. "The first time it happens, you can write it off as just a little soreness. But the second or third time, you have to do something."