Why Running Can Actually Help Your Knees

We’ve heard it for years — running is bad for your knees. But is that actually true?

It seems to make sense. When you’re running, you’re putting a good deal of force and pressure on the joints in your knees. So, it’s no wonder when you end up with knee pain…or develop arthritis in the knees later in life.

Right? Well, maybe not.

The thought was that running gradually wore away the cartilage in the knees, which helps cushion the knee joints. This, in turn, can cause arthritis.

But though that was a common theory, there was very little evidence to back up the claim. On the other hand, recent research has revealed that running may actually have a very different effect on the knees. Let’s take a look.

What the research says about running & the knees

There has been a good deal of research on the topic. Here’s a look at what it has revealed:

  • Long-term studies have revealed that those who run are generally less likely to develop osteoarthritis in the knees than non-runners are.
  • There’s some speculation that running ultimately benefits the knees because it’s associated with a low body mass, meaning the body (and the knees) are under less strain.
  • A 2017 Baylor College of Medicine study found that running can actually have a protective benefit on the knees.

That last study is particularly impactful, so let’s break it down a bit more. It specifically studied the effects of running on the knees, something that most other studies hadn’t done directly.

In the study, researchers looked at inflammation and cartilage turnover in the knees. They did this by studying healthy, young runners with no history of knee injuries or arthritis. Participants were put through two separate sessions — one in which they sat quietly for a half hour and one in which they ran on a treadmill for 30 minutes at the pace of their choosing.

After each session, researchers took samples of blood and synovial fluid. Synovial fluid helps reduce friction in the joints and is found in large quantities in unhealthy or arthritic knees. From those samples, researchers were looking for markers of inflammation, which can contribute to the development of arthritis.

The results were fascinating — in comparison with their baseline samples, participants’ samples after running had significantly lower levels of cells linked with inflammation in the synovial fluid. This shows that running can, in fact, benefit the knees, protecting them from inflammation.

In contrast, samples after sitting showed an increase in inflammatory molecules in the synovial fluid.

The takeaway about running & the knees

So, what’s the bottom line here? Well, essentially, if you enjoy running, you can continue to do so without substantial fear of contributing to knee arthritis.

There are a few steps you can take to further protect your knees if you’re a runner (or an exerciser in general, really):

  • Choose the right shoes. As with any other type of physical activity, you want to choose shoes that are specifically intended for the activity. Running shoes should support the foot at several key points, lessening the impact of hitting the ground with your feet. It’s best to talk with an associate at a shoe store and request a gait analysis, which can help you find a shoe that’s best for your arches and stride.
  • Replace your shoes regularly. If you exercise regularly and are still wearing the same shoes you were a year ago, you probably need to take a good look at them. Because running shoes are designed to absorb shock from a foot hitting the pavement (or treadmill), they can wear down quickly. Many experts recommend replacing running shoes every 300 to 600 miles, so when purchasing your next pair of shoes, talk with the salesperson about best practices.
  • Switch up your workouts. Cross-training is a good idea no matter what exercise is your fave. That’s because no single activity works every part of your body. With running in particular, it’s important to also incorporate exercises regularly that help strengthen your hips and your core. Doing so will protect your body from injuries but can also help boost your running performance. That’s a win-win, we think!
  • Watch your form. This tip is also relevant to any type of activity. You can do major damage to your body if you aren’t using the correct form when exercising. When running, you want to ensure you’re leaning forward slightly, which shifts your weight away from your knees and to your hips. Increasing your stride rate may also help lessen the impact you’re putting on your body in each workout.
  • If you hurt, stop. This one seems like common sense — and yet, it is not to many people. No matter what activity you’re performing, if you feel pain, step away from the activity. If you continue running after pulling something, for example, you run the risk of worsening the injury and increasing the time you’ll need to recover.

Dr. Jesse Doty is a foot and ankle specialist at the Erlanger Orthopaedic Institute. Call 423-778-ORTH (6784).


running knee pain

Jesse Doty, MD