Running and Your Knees

Recently my wife organised a nice island vacation for the family to celebrate our anniversary. We were looking forward to some quality family time together, just the four of us, away from immediate family and friends. We arrived, checked in and promptly made our way to check out the pool and beach when whoa… I bumped into my ex-boss!

I have not seen him for years since I left that job. Still it was quite nice to meet him again and to catch up where we left off. We spoke about business, family and other necessary pleasantries when you meet an old acquaintance. He noticed that I am much leaner now and I explained that I owe it to running, and more specifically, my love of running the trails.

His response was one of caution. He warned that too much running will ruin my knees. According to him, our knees’ cartilage has a certain life span and running is a sure bet to wear it off per-maturely. He even has a battle scar to show, having just recently undergone a knee cartilage replacement surgery on his left leg.

This is not the first time I hear from others that running will ruin the knees. There is some pervasive myths about running injuries, the biggest of which is that repetitive pounding of many strides will cause wear and tear, eroding the cartilage in our knees and resulting in osteoarthritis (a degenerative joint disease that leads to damage and loss of cartilage in the knees and hips).

After the vacation, I got home and decided to do some digging in order to get to the bottom of this once and for all.

Will Running Ruin your Knees?

The answer is NO. Running will not ruin your knees. It will not wear off your cartilage and cause you knee pain. In fact, contrary to sedentary people’s belief, running is actually good for your knees.

The following are some findings published by various authorities in this subject:

Running and Osteoarthritis

According to a Stanford University’s 2008 study that tracked more than 500 older runners for more than 20 years, regular runners were seven times less likely to require knee replacement. In fact elderly runners have fewer disabilities, a longer span of active life and are half as likely as non-runners to die early deaths, the research found.

Another study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2008 titled Long Distance Running and Knee Osteoarthritis – A Prospective Study, found that long-distance running among healthy older individuals was not associated with accelerated osteoarthritis. The researched showed that severe osteoarthritis may not be more common among runners.

In 2017, the Journal of Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy published a study titled Running and Osteoarthritis: Does Recreational or Competitive Running Increase the Risk? The conclusion to the research was that joint loading in runners does not initiate knee osteoarthritis.   

Between Running and Walking

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, a monthly peer review journal of American College of Sports Medicine, published a study in 2013 comparing the incidence of osteoarthritis in runners and walkers. Of the nearly 75,000 runners in the study, 2.6 percent developed osteoarthritis during the seven-year study. Of the almost 15,000 walkers, 4.7 percent were diagnosed with osteoarthritis. Other non-running exercise was determined to increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis by 2.4 percent over running.

In other words, running reduced the incidence of osteoarthritis when compared to less strenuous exercise. The authors speculate that running’s beneficial association with weight loss was behind the study’s results.

Another 2013 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise had 14 study participants monitored during periods of both walking and running. The study found that while running results in more impact force per step, walking an equal distance requires so many more steps that the accumulation of impact force was the same. It turns out that your knees get the same overall pounding whether you’re running or walking.

Concluded. Now you can Run

I will conclude with the answer published by Harvard Medical School to a  question posted by a 68 years old who asked whether running will make his knees wear out faster. 

I think the explanation provided by Harvard Medical School very much summarised the whole debate. Key takeaways are:

  • Running probably did not create the knee arthritis problem in the first place
  • Medical research shows that running has a protective effect against arthritis.
  • This effect can explained by, 1 – Runners have lower body weight and hence put less pressure on their knees. 2 – Running may actually stimulate cartilage to grow, and not wear it out.
  • Once knee arthritis appears, you should keep physically active and maintain quadriceps (thigh) muscle strength. Running can help you with both. 

Therein lies the paradox. Running will not ruin your knees. Instead it will reduce osteoarthritis. It will actually improve your knees, instead of damaging them.

So the next time someone sedentary ask about your knees, don’t get annoyed. Have compassion. After all, their knees are more likely to wear out, and chances are their bodies aren’t doing so great, either.

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