To be a runner is to be sore. From time to time our feet ache, our muscles ache, our ankles and knees ache. Some soreness is a sign of a good hard workout. Too much soreness and pain, though, can be signs of a problem. Runners are constantly being told by non-runners that running is bad for your knees. Despite evidence to the contrary, it is true that many runners experience knee pain for a variety of reasons. And knees are an important part of running, absorbing a good amount of the shock of each step. If you’re dealing with knee pain, diagnosing the problem is the first step in fixing it. You can look at your shoes, your stride, the health of your bones and connective tissues…but what about running surfaces?
This post delves into knee pain and running on hard surfaces, specifically concrete and pavement. There is debate about whether you should run on them at all, but many of us have no choice. So we’ve added other tips to help prevent knee pain. By the end, you should have a game plan for dealing with any knee pain you might experience.
Should I Run on Hard Surfaces?
The short answer is maybe. In reality, the answer isn’t clear whether you should run on hard surfaces like concrete, pavement, and asphalt, so we’ll look at the pros and cons on each side.
For some people, especially as they get older, hard surfaces can get more uncomfortable, but you might not experience that as much if you’re a younger runner.
Why Running on Hard Surfaces is Okay
From one perspective, running on hard surfaces shouldn’t be a problem because humans have built-in shock absorption when running. It doesn’t come from the great shoes you have, although you’ll see the phrase “shock absorption” all over Google in relation to shoes.
One set of researchers found that cushioning in running shoes had dropped by ⅓ after 150 miles of load bearing, meaning that the shock absorption predominantly comes from somewhere else—you! Specifically, your foot, ankle, knees, and hips.
Within the first step, runners make adjustments to new surfaces, meaning that we’re great at adjusting our shock absorption to account for different surfaces.
Additionally, as is often the case with injuries, proper running form makes all the difference. If your running form isn’t good, this can impact knee injuries more than the surface itself. So, you might want to check your form first before avoiding hard surfaces. That might solve a couple problems – fixing your pain, but also making you a more efficient runner.
Why You Should Avoid Running on Hard Surfaces
There is more joint impact when you run on hard surfaces. For example, one study found that the peak pressure, or the greatest amount of pressure on the foot, was about 12 percent higher on asphalt than on grass. And that’s asphalt—concrete is even harder.
Additionally, even if your running form is good and the joint impact on hard surfaces is minimal for you, they just feel more painful. It’s better to take a cautious approach to running on them, even if part of the issue is psychological.
Finally, softer surfaces increase ground contact time, meaning that your body can better redistribute impact. This is true for all softer surfaces from grass to sand. But the latter is in its own category (and can cause its own problems).
While sand is considered a softer surface and is the least impactful surface, it is more challenging to run on because it’s so unstable.
Instead of having a flat surface that is more firm like grass, the sand absorbs a lot of the force when you push down in a running stride, meaning that it’s going to be harder to pick your foot back up and it can be hard for your foot and ankle to stay stable.
Other Tips to Prevent Knee Pain
Since the evidence isn’t completely clear as to whether you’ll get knee pain from running on hard surfaces like concrete or pavement, there are some other ways to help prevent knee pain besides just bidding hard surfaces farewell.
Wear the Right Running Shoes
The shoe can make all the difference. Evidence suggests that knee pain from hard surfaces may be more likely for some runners than others. For that reason, it’s important to wear the right running shoes for your gait and stride.
If you tend to land hard on your feet, you might consider getting a pair of shoes that is known for being springy or has extra cushion to help you absorb the shock. It likely won’t benefit you as much as changing your running form, but it’s definitely a good start.
Improve Your Running Form
One of the best things you can do to help prevent injuries, including more than just knee pain, is to make sure that you’re executing proper running form. Take short strides and land on the balls of your feet. This way you aren’t overexerting yourself and straining your body, including your knees.
Another thing you might consider is running more gently. If you take “pounding the pavement” literally, tone it down a little bit. See if developing a smoother stride helps with your knee pain. Being less aggressive should definitely help your knees feel better.
Strengthen Your Quads and Hamstrings
Injuries come from overuse and/or weak muscles and joints. The best thing you can do is strengthen them. Because your quads help to keep your kneecap in place, you need strong quads in order to absorb impact in your knees better.
That’s why strengthening your quads and hamstrings will help your knees feel better as well as make you a stronger and faster runner. You can do exercises like walking lunges, mountain climbers, and squats to strengthen these muscles.
Cut Back on Running Mileage
If you’re logging too many miles and putting too much stress on your knees, you might just need to take a step back and give your knees a break. Cut back on your running mileage and see if that makes a difference.
It could be that your knees are overworked. Rest and recuperation will are as important to strengthening them as the exercise itself is. During this time, make the most of the miles that you do run, and there’s a good chance that you’ll see benefits from running less and cutting out the junk miles.
Do More Cross-Training
Finally, doing more cross-training, whether it’s in addition to your normal running routine or if it’s to substitute for mileage that you dropped, will help you stay active and work your muscles. Your body benefits from differing from the high-impact motions of running.
This is the time to pick up your bike and go for a ride. Jump into the pool and go for a swim. You could even try aqua jogging! You’ll especially want to try activities that are non-weight-bearing and low-impact, to give your knees a break.
In the end, depending on your form and physique, running on concrete, pavement, or other hard surfaces may be bad on your knees. However, instead of focusing on this, we’d recommend focusing on what you can change: your form, shoes, training, etc.
You’re likely going to be better off adding in more runs on a variety of surfaces in addition to mitigating knee pain in other ways. For many of us, it’s nearly impossible to cut out running on hard surfaces entirely. But that’s something for you to figure out to see what works best for you personally!