Will running ruin my knees when I’m older?

Running makes us feel great now, but will we feel the same when we’re older? A writer asks the experts, will running now ruin our knees when we’re older? 

During a recent YouTube HIIT session, my knees made a sound during squats that could only be described by my adjacent housemate as “hideous” – as though I’d stepped onto a semi-eaten packet of crisps.

Because we’re both in our 30s, we quickly agreed the sound was because I run regularly. Nothing to do with aging. Not me. Not yet.

“I believe walking is the only exercise necessary,” a friend told me recently. “I’ve always felt jogging and running would take a toll on my joints when I get old.”

I’d always accepted sore knees as being part of being a runner – but to avoid running altogether? It made me wonder if I was naive to the damage I was potentially doing on my joints.

Osteoarthritis (OA) – known as ‘wear and tear arthritis’ – is the most common joint condition, affected by factors such as age, injury and family history. While past research has suggested that running is also a culprit, recent studies have dispelled this rumour, concluding that habitual running may actually protect against knee osteoarthritis.

All that being said, runner’s knee is undeniably a very real complaint for many a runner, with Google Searches related to sore knees and running peaking during the first lockdown. So, will or won’t running ruin my knees when I’m older?

I spoke to Homa Arshad, Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon specialising in Hip and Knee Surgery at hospitals including The London Clinic, and Tamara Tarr, qualified Sports Therapist and Flexpert at Flexology Studio, to find out.

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Is running bad for my knees?

Forget about running your way to osteoarthritis, because it’s a resounding “no” from our experts – phew! 

“Running is good, safe and healthy,” Homa confirms. “It isn’t bad for the knees, per se. It has huge benefits for the whole body, and can actually be very good for the knees.”

“Many studies have shown that running helps to keep your joints lubricated and stimulates cartilage production,” Tamara adds. “These studies have also shown that running helps the cartilage to become more resilient as it adapts to the intensity of running.” 

So why do so many of us think running will destroy our knees? “I think running gets a bad name because people can injure and do damage to their knees,” Homa says, “but running and injuring knees are almost a separate entity.

“It’s really important to address the myth that running causes arthritis, because the vast majority of people who run do not develop it. Even for runners who do develop knee problems, those problems will get better. A few may require surgery, but not many.” 

How can running incorrectly damage my knees?

Correct running technique is a crucial part of protecting your knees. “If you’re doing a repetitive movement and loading the knee each time in a way that isn’t ideal,” Homa explains, “there can be an excessive twisting of the knee that can do damage to cartilage.”

It can therefore be helpful to understand your running style and where your foot strikes the ground. “Studies show that heel strike runners are more likely to develop injuries such as runner’s knee and shin splints,” says Tamara. This is due to the amount of impact that goes through their leg when running.

If you think you might need advice on your technique, Homa recommends searching for guidance online or speaking to a physiotherapist. With shops open again, you can also pop into a sports store with a treadmill to have your gait analysed and ensure you’re wearing the right footwear for your running style.

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What causes knee problems?

“When we run uphill,” Homa explains, “eight times our bodyweight passes through the front part of the knee.” With that in mind, your body composition – having the correct muscle balance, for example – is something to be aware of.

My running friends have also blamed their sore knees and shin splints on running on hard pavements. “There is a theory that impact is bad for cartilage,” says Homa, “but I don’t know of any study that has demonstrated that conclusively.”

“A lot of people find that the harder terrain gives them symptoms, so I encourage patients to be guided by their experience.”

“The key really is to listen to your body,” adds Tamara. “It’ll tell you what type of running is best for you – whether that’s trail, track or road, etc – and how much running you can do.”

Homa echoes the importance of listening to your body: “Endurance runners can run into problems if their goals take precedence over symptoms they may be experiencing,” she says. “Running through pain and injury can obviously be very detrimental to the knees.”

While it might sound obvious, rest days really are important. If you’re someone who can’t sit still, don’t assume this means you have to put your feet up all day. “Have an active rest day,” says Tamara, “by going for a long walk or taking part in a stretch or yoga or pilates class.”

How can I lower the risk of knee injury when I’m older?

If good running technique, correct footwear and not running through injury sound like a given, here’s what you can do to protect your knees for the future:

Warm ups and cool downs: Many of us are guilty of running straight out of the house without warming up properly. Tamara recommends warming up with a few dynamic stretches to prepare the muscles, then cooling down with static stretching to help the muscles relax and return to their normal range of motion.

Supplements: Many runners swear by the likes of glucosamine, ginger, turmeric and cod liver oil. While Homa tells me the majority of supplements have no proven benefits, “if people take them and feel better, that’s fine.” She did, however, recommend that every single person – runner or not – takes Vitamin D, which has been proven to improve bone health.

Strength training: To prevent knee injuries, Tamara recommends focusing on strengthening the surrounding muscles. “This doesn’t mean you have to lift heavy weights,” she says, “but simple bodyweight exercises such as reverse lunges, split squats and squats are all great.”

Homa notes that the link between physical and mental health is becoming increasingly strong in orthopaedic surgery. She regularly treats patients who have suffered catastrophic injuries from major accidents, and said that when it comes to recovery, the single biggest factor has nothing to do with age, weight or physical health.

“It’s actually their approach to life,” she says, “and whether or not they feel in control of their life and what is happening to their body. In terms of running, I think that’s very similar. The human mind is very powerful.”

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