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Running: It's Good for Your Knees

It's that age-old question: "Is running good for your knees." Someone recently asked me to write about how running affects your joints. January is a great time to think about this because if you have spent some time with relatives over the holidays, you’ve had some version of the following conversation:

Aunt Gladys: “So, you’re a runner.”

You: “Uh, yeah.”

Uncle Joe: “I only run when someone is chasing me.”

You: “Well…”

Aunt Gladys “You know…running will destroy your knees.”

You’ll destroy your knees…

Let me reassure you of two things: 1) it is a waste of time to argue with Aunt Gladys and 2) it is a myth that running will wear out your joints. Actually, the news on running and joint health is quite good. Running does not contribute to osteoarthritis, a degenerative joint disease caused when the cartilage between joints breaks down. In fact, recent studies show that runners are at a lesser risk of developing arthritis than their less active peers.

In addition, walking (an activity that many people assume is better for one’s knees because there is less force moving through the joint) is no more protective of knee health than running. Because one spends less time contacting the ground and one covers more distance per stride as a runner, the forces on the knee are equivalent regardless of whether you walk or run a certain distance. (New York Times, Why Runners Don't Get Knee Arthritis)

The Knee

I’m going to say this louder for people in the back: current research suggests that running is good for the knees. Cartilage responds well when force is applied to the joint, removed, and applied again. This cyclical loading encourages cells to divide and replenish the cartilage tissue, even stimulating the cartilage to repair minor damage. It also increases, according to orthopedic surgeon Jonathan Chang, “production of certain proteins in the cartilage that make it stronger.” So, for most people, running will not damage your knee cartilage, but will keep your cartilage in a more healthy state.

As with all things running, however, there are some caveats. If you have a preexisting knee injury, for instance, you might be more predisposed towards arthritis due to instability in the joint. If you are overweight, extra stress can inflame the joint and contribute to cartilage loss. Therefore, if you’re running to lose a little weight, be sure to eat things that will help combat inflammation. Include natural anti-inflammatories in your diet such as berries and berry juices, soy products, and foods rich in omega-three fatty acids, such as cold-water fish (wild salmon!), walnuts, and flax seed. The name of the game here is to reduce inflammation to keep your joints healthy.

In addition to reducing inflammation, you can take pressure off of your joints by improving your strength and balance. Strength training, of course, is useful in myriad ways and is now considered a critical component of a well-balanced (see what I did there?) running program. Be sure to check out this Saturday's (1/25) upcoming strength training clinic at Fleet Feet Malta with Matthew Goodenote: Fleet Feet Malta Strength Training for Runners

These can help

So when Aunt Gladys corners you, you can tell her that you are preventing future osteoarthritis through cyclical loading of the knee joint and lifting like a boss. Or, you can merely explain that you “really like running” and change the subject to something more pleasant…like politics.

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