Knee Pain: Is Running On Concrete Or Pavement Bad For My Knees?

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Struggling with pain in your knees after running? If your main running route happens to be mostly on concrete, you may be wondering… Is running on concrete or pavement bad for my knees?

Your feet take on up to 4 times your body weight when you land during running, which means harder surfaces will reduce shock absorption. But it doesn’t mean you need to change your running surface entirely.

If you happen to run mostly on concrete, the good news is that there are ways to protect your knees. Here’s everything you should know about running on concrete and pavement.

Is Running On Concrete Bad For Your Knees?

Running on concrete can be bad for your knees if you don’t take precautions. We have natural shock absorption in the arch of the foot and the fatty pads on the heel and ball of the foot.

But if you aren’t wearing the right shoes or running too often on hard surfaces, your knees can begin to take the brunt of the impact. When you land, the impact causes vibrations to run through your feet, legs, and even into the hips and back.

If your shoes are not absorbing this vibration effectively, then there’s a high chance of you developing knee pain from the hard landings on concrete. Surfaces like grass or the track have some give to them, significantly reducing that initial force.

What Happens To Your Knees When You Run On Concrete?

When you run, there’s a significant downward pressure on your knees and ankles, as they hold your entire body weight. Gravity adds extra pressure, and during a run, your ankles and knees can take between 3 and 4 times the force they do when walking.

Hard surfaces like concrete don’t do a good job of absorbing that impact. This means it gets sent back up your feet, jarring the joints up the kinetic chain. Concrete is one of the hardest surfaces you can run on, so almost all the impact force gets returned straight to your feet.

This impact force can not only move the ankles and knees out of alignment—potentially leading to injury—but can also cause muscle injury from the vibration.

If you have an injured or tight quadricep or hamstring muscle, the tightness can also pull at the tendons or ligaments, leaving you with pain in the knee.

Over time, this constant pounding on an extra-hard surface can lead to knee degeneration if it’s not addressed early. Arthritis can develop, which is much harder to manage than protecting your feet and knees!

Are There Benefits to Running on Concrete?

Running on concrete tends to help you go faster. Soft surfaces have a certain amount of “lag,” thanks to the bit of give they have. You need to push yourself harder on a softer surface to maintain the same pace that would be easy on concrete.

Concrete also tends to be fairly smooth and flat, which reduces hazards and means you should be able to run without incident.

How Different Surfaces Affect Your Running

Asphalt

Asphalt is a bit softer than concrete, but it’s still quite a hard surface. It’s also uniform and fairly consistent so you can expect few hazards. If you often run on asphalt, you can expect similar injury potential to concrete.

Concrete

As mentioned above, concrete is hard and unforgiving. It naturally bounces force back into your feet, so you’re at a higher risk of developing pain and injuries to the knees, ankles, and even the hips as the vibrations travel.

Concrete is one of the most common surfaces out there. While it has the potential to lead to injury, if it’s all you have, you can take precautions and make an effort to protect yourself against the jarring.

Grass

Grass is better for your feet than concrete or asphalt, being much more low-impact. The forgiving nature of the surface means you need to activate your leg muscles more in order to run at speed, so it comes with some extra muscle-building and calorie-burning advantages.

However, there is also potential for injury on grass. The softer surface makes it easier to turn an ankle or twist a knee. It’s also quite slippery when wet, so you’ll need to be extra careful running on grass in the early mornings or in damp weather.

Sand

Sand can be a tricky surface to run on because it’s very different. We aren’t just talking about dirt trails here—we’re talking about soft, sink-in sand.

Runners often praise the benefits of running on the beach. Not only is it beautiful and serene, but it’s challenging too. Sand is low-impact—even more so when it’s wet—but you do need to get those muscles working hard against it.

Your calves, in particular, will notice the extra work. Dry sand is noticeably challenging to push through, so you may not be able to do long runs on sand, or you’ll risk your calves and feet going into cramps. Running in sand can be hard on the Achilles as well.

Track

The track generally features a rubberized surface that’s much easier on the joints than many others. The bonus here is that while the track is low-impact, it provides the same benefits as running on concrete or asphalt.

It’s smooth and even, so there’s little chance of twisting an ankle. Another pro is that you know precisely how long a track is—400 meters, or roughly a ¼-mile—so tracking your distance is a breeze.

The negatives include the curved shape of the track, which can put pressure on your muscles on only one side of the body unless you switch directions every few laps. The rebound of the track can also add some strain to the calves and IT band.

Treadmill

The good news is treadmills usually have cushioned decks for a low-impact run. They’re smooth and level, so there’s little risk of tripping, slipping, or encountering a hazard.

They also have shocks built into the deck, so much of the shock absorption is done for you by the surface. It’s still essential to wear good shoes, though—your knees and ankles need all the help they can get!

Other advantages include being unaffected by the weather, being available at any time of the day or night—if you have one at home—and being suitable for all levels of runner.

The obvious downside is the boredom that may arise, but you can always watch a TV series or even follow along with a virtual run.

Tips for Protecting Your Knees If You Run On Concrete

Need help finding soft surfaces to run on? If you run on concrete often, follow these tips to protect your knees and lower your chance of developing pain.

Wear Well-Cushioned, Supportive Shoes

Your feet hit the surface with up to 4 times your body weight in force every time you land! This means your shoes should be used as a tool to help lower that impact and reduce injury.

Make sure the arch support in your chosen shoes is adequate for your feet. You should also have great cushioning underfoot, which will help to absorb shock as you land and reduce vibrations up the kinetic chain, protecting your knees.

Improve Your Running Form

Improper running form can contribute to pain, no matter what surface you’re running on. If you’re wearing well-cushioned shoes but still have knee pain when running on concrete, you may need to fix your form.

The easiest way is to increase your cadence to 170 or 180 steps per minute. This might sound like a lot—3 steps per second—but it can do wonders to reduce your stride length and prevent you from overstriding.

This action can significantly reduce the strain on your knees when you run, no matter which surface you’re on.

Do Knee-Specific Strength Training

Incorporating knee-specific strength training into your regime can be a big help. One, you can do light mobility exercises to improve the range of motion in your knee.

Two, leg exercises like squats, lunges, and leg extensions can build the quad muscles, which can go a long way toward stabilizing the knee joint and reducing the risk of pain.

Use a Knee Strap or Brace

Using a knee strap or knee brace can be a huge help when it comes to preventing injury and pain. They help to stabilize the knee joint and stop it from moving out of its natural range of motion, as well as stopping the ligaments from overstretching.

A knee sleeve or strap can also provide some compression benefits, bringing more oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to the area for healing.

Mix It Up

Try alternating between different running surfaces. That means you’re still getting your mileage in, but it’s not taking as much of a toll on your knees. If you have a concrete route near you, you can run it—just try to do a grass route the next time or spend some time running on the track.

This can do wonders for giving bad knees a break from hard surfaces. It can also make your running more exciting and challenging!

Cross-Train

To stay active without overdoing it on the knees, choose a knee-friendly cross-training activity. Swimming, cycling on a stationary bike, or jumping rope will give you a great cardio workout without placing undue strain on your knee joints.

You should be including cross-training in your training plan at least a day or two a week. Breaking up your running with a more low-impact exercise will help to protect your knees and reduce pain.

Stretch Often

Stretching helps to loosen tight muscles and bring more nutrient-rich blood to the knee, which keeps it moving well. You should be doing some dynamic stretching as part of your warm-up, and you can do some to cool down.

Loosening the muscles around your knees—the quads, hamstrings, and calves—can release the tension on your knee joint that may contribute to knee pain.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.