For anyone who has ever caught the running bug, you know the joy that an outdoor jog can bring. This is especially true in northeast Ohio, where we’re stuck hibernating inside for nearly a quarter of a year. That first sunny, spring day is an exciting time to lace up the running shoes and hit the track, road or trail.
Not only can running feel good, but the health benefits are well known. It improves cardiovascular function, lowers body mass index (BMI), increases bone density, and decreases risk of stroke and high blood pressure. It also has positive effects on our mental health and mood.
However, if you run long enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone, usually a non-runner, reminds you that “running is bad for your knees.”
Logically, it makes sense the more you pound on your knee cartilage, the shiny white material at the ends of joints (think of the end of a chicken bone), the more you’re going to wear away that cartilage and result in arthritis.
Additionally, as most new runners find out, knee pain is extremely common. Many runners quit running because every time they develop knee pain, they fear they’re doing long-term damage to their knees.
This conclusion is false in several ways. Cartilage is actually meant to withstand repetitive stress. Just as muscles enlarge with stress (i.e., weightlifting), cartilage also can improve and strengthen with stress (i.e., running).
Running can protect knee cartilage
The authors found that when comparing the MRIs of the runners to the MRIs of sedentary individuals, the runners’ cartilage showed increased quality when compared to the sedentary group’s cartilage.
Another MRI study that looked at marathoners’ knees found the marathon group had increased thickness of the cartilage when compared to sedentary controls.
These studies suggest that running has a possible protective effect on cartilage even in a high-mileage, long-distance running group. Multitudes of other studies also support the notion that running does not cause arthritis in runners.
Understanding knee pain in runners
So, why is it so common for runners to experience knee pain?
Most runners’ knee pain, especially in young runners, is not a dangerous, cartilage-damaging injury. In fact, it would be very unusual for a runner to experience a sudden, traumatic joint injury like we see too commonly in most other sports.
By far the most common reasons for knee pain in a runner are patellofemoral pain (a.k.a., runner’s knee) and iliotibial band syndrome. Both of these conditions are caused by muscular imbalances that can effectively be treated with some relative rest and a focused rehabilitation program.
Occasionally, a running gait analysis, which is performed on a treadmill with multiple video cameras, can be used to identify mechanical problems with a runner’s gait.
Now that you’re armed with this knowledge, I encourage you or your young athlete to go outside and enjoy a solid run without fear of causing long-term damage. We’re very lucky to have such a robust collection of running trails in northeast Ohio that continues to expand.
Additionally, throughout the spring, summer and autumn months there are organized races nearly every weekend with distances for everyone ranging from 1 mile to 100 miles.
So with the earth thawing, days growing longer, and the fragrant smells of spring near, get outside and enjoy all the wonderful things running has to offer.