Ever had that nagging knee pain halfway through your favorite route? One of the worst and, unfortunately, most common injuries a runner can experience is knee pain.
I can speak to this personally. I’ve been suffering from regular knee pain – mostly tendonitis, aka runner’s knee – but I haven’t slowed down too much. With regular knee-strengthening exercises and some smart common sense, I’ve been pain-free on my runs.
This is something any runner can do. Learning how to protect your knees while running can ensure you can run for years to come without pain.
In this article, we cover why, with some thoughtful effort and paying more attention to knee-friendly stretches and exercises, you can build a bulletproof set of knees to keep you running strong.
Why Is It Important to Protect Your Knees While Running?
Many believe that running can be detrimental to your knees. However, recent studies suggest that running, when done correctly, can be beneficial for knee health. The key lies in adopting the correct form, finding suitable places to run, and wearing the right gear.
Frequent training on hard surfaces such as concrete or asphalt can lead to increased stress on the knee joints. This heightened strain can elevate the risk of various knee injuries.
Understanding these injuries is crucial for prevention:
- Runner’s Knee: The ligament behind your kneecap becomes inflamed, which can spread to the knee’s cartilage.
- IT Band Syndrome: Pain arises when the IT band rubs on the outside of the knee joint and causes inflammation.
- Patellar Tendonitis: The tendon connecting the kneecap to the shin becomes inflamed or injured.
As you can see, your knees can get injured from all sides. Protecting your knees is essential to keep running without pain and retain full function of your knee joints as you age.
How to Protect Your Knees While Running
Protecting your knees during your runs is crucial. Here are some things to remember to ensure your knees stay healthy, whether on the road or trail.
Sole Mates: Wearing the Right Running Shoes
The right running shoes are key for protecting your feet, ankles, legs – and knees. On the other hand, the wrong shoes can increase the risk of injury.
One important factor is the shoe’s cushioning. Good cushioning helps reduce the shock from running, which is a common cause of knee injuries. So, ensure the shoe has enough cushion to support and protect your knees.
It’s also important to pick shoes based on your foot’s arch and your gait (i.e. pronation). Choosing the correct shoe for your running style ensures your feet stay straight, reducing pressure on the knees from joints that aren’t aligned.
You can do a quick arch test to determine if you have low, medium, or high arches. Wet your feet and stand on a piece of cardboard.
- Low arches: The footprint is almost filled in, with very little empty space.
- Medium arches: There’s an empty, dry space underneath the arch and wet mark where the edge of your foot is.
- High arches: There’s a very slight edge but mostly dry paper beneath your foot.
Typically, those with low arches overpronate and should choose a stability shoe. Runners with neutral or high arches can stick to neutral running shoes.
Terrain Matters: Where You Run Can Save Your Knees
Selecting the right place to run can make a big difference for your knees. Running on hard surfaces like concrete roads can be tough on your knees, even with cushioned shoes.
However, opting for softer ground, such as trails, a track, or a treadmill, can lessen the blow to your knees, ensuring less strain on your joints. If you suspect the ground you’re running on is causing knee pain, consider choosing a park or trail route instead.
We know it’s not always feasible to change where you run. But at a minimum, we suggest mixing up the terrain you run on. I usually run on asphalt roads, but I try also to include sections of dirt roads, grass, and short trails on the run.
Warm-Up and Stretch: Your Knee’s Best Friends
The knee joint can easily be pulled out of alignment by tight quad, hamstring, and calf muscles. While you can’t physically stretch your knee joint, you can stretch the surrounding muscles so that doesn’t happen.
Dynamic stretching is the best way to warm-up your knees before starting your run, or any other exercise. Just 5 to 10 minutes before you start your run will help to prime the knee muscles, tendons, and tissues for exercise, reducing your chance of injury.
Stride Right: Mastering Your Running Form
Running doesn’t harm your knees, but running the wrong way can! Taking steps that are too long, called “overstriding,” is a major cause of injuries. When your foot lands too far in front, it puts more pressure on your knee. This makes the knee work harder and can lead to stress.
Try taking shorter steps, make sure your front foot lands below your body, and stand tall when you run. These changes can help you run in a better way, and you’ll likely notice less pressure on your knees.
Building Fort Knox: Knee Strength and Stability
Strengthening your leg muscles is just as important as stretching them. This is because strong quads, hamstrings, and calf muscles give better support to your knee. These muscles can also help absorb some of the shock when you move, so your knee doesn’t take all the pressure.
When working to make your knees stronger, doing the exercises correctly is very important. Strength training can actually make things worse if you’re not doing it the right way.
So, begin with lighter weights and only use heavier ones when you’re sure you’re doing the exercises perfectly. You can find exercises to help make your knees stronger at the end of this article!
Rest Days Are Your Secret Weapon
Don’t neglect rest days! This is when your body heals and recovers, but it’s also when your muscles grow. Not only that, but taking your rest days helps ensure you don’t overtrain.
Overtraining is an easy way to bring on a knee injury, so your rest days are a much more important factor than you realize.
Fueling Your Knees: The Nutrition Factor
Believe it or not, what you eat and drink can help your knees! Drinking enough water is very important for your joints. They have a fluid (called synovial fluid) that helps them move smoothly. A lot of this fluid is water. When you drink plenty of water, your joints can move more easily and safely.
Eating the right foods can also help. Try to eat foods that help reduce swelling, like fish, green veggies, berries, nuts, and beans. Also, think about using spices that do the same thing, like turmeric, when you cook.
Listening to Your Body
If you take all these steps and still have knee pain, don’t push through it. Persistent pain means your body is trying to tell you something, so take your foot off the pedal, take a break, and look after your knee.
If your knee is puffy and swollen, there’s a high chance that you’ve injured yourself. Deeper pain inside the knee could be from any number of things, so if the pain doesn’t go away, it’s time to listen to what your body is saying.
Rest and Recovery
If you’ve experienced knee pain, take some time after your run to give your knee some TLC. Here are the steps you should take.
Apply Ice to the Affected Knee
Ice can reduce pain and ease swelling. Apply an ice pack or ice to the sore knee, ensuring it’s wrapped in a cloth and not directly against the skin. Keep it on for 5 to 10 minutes. Ice it multiple times a day.
Compression knee sleeves can boost circulation in the knee, alleviating pain and inflammation. Once your knee feels better, you can use these as you get back into running.
If your knee is swollen, elevating it above your heart can help the fluid to drain and reduce the swelling. The easiest way is to lie on your back and place a pillow underneath your knee, raising it above your heart.
Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers
If your knee is painful, you can take OTC painkillers. However, be careful not to pop a painkiller and then go for a run because the numbing effect might mean you miss more serious pain on the run.
Stretches and Strength Exercises for Knee Protection
Incorporate these into your routine to bulletproof your knees. Remember to do each one with good form for the best results.
Dynamic stretches are excellent for warming up and getting blood and oxygen flowing through the knee joints and muscles.
- Stand next to a wall, chair, or something else for balance.
- Swing one leg forward and backward, like a pendulum.
- Repeat this motion for 10 to 15 swings and then switch legs.
- Next, swing your legs side to side, crossing in front of your body, for 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
- Stand upright with your feet about hip-width apart.
- March in place, lifting your knees as high as possible.
- Aim to bring your knee level with your hip.
- Continue for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart.
- March in place quite fast, kicking your heels towards your glutes.
- Keep your upper body upright.
- Continue for 20 to 30 seconds.
Hamstring Floor Stretch
- Lie on your back with your legs straight.
- Bend your left knee, bringing it toward your chest.
- Reach your hands around your left thigh and hold behind it with both hands.
- Gently pull your left leg toward your chest, keeping your arms straight and your upper body relaxed.
- Try to align your left knee directly over your hip, but don’t force it.
- Slowly straighten your left leg, raising your foot toward the ceiling.
- Then, slowly bend your left knee again to relax, using a controlled motion.
- If you can’t fully straighten your leg, go as far as is comfortable for you.
- Repeat the process for 1 to 2 minutes.
- Lower your left leg to the floor and straighten it.
- Now, switch to the other side and repeat the same steps with your right leg.
- Stand on one leg and lift the other knee up.
- Make clockwise circles with your raised knee, then switch to counterclockwise.
- Perform 10 to 15 circles in each direction on each leg.
Lateral Leg Raises
- Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart.
- Lift one leg out to the side as high as comfortably possible.
- Lower it back down, then repeat on the other side.
- Perform 10 to 15 raises on each leg.
- Take a step forward with your right leg into a lunge position.
- Keep your knee over your ankle and your back straight.
- Push off your front foot and bring your left leg forward into the next lunge.
- Continue for 10 to 15 lunges on each leg.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Rise up onto your toes, lifting your heels off the ground.
- Lower your heels back down.
- Perform 10 to 15 calf raises.
We recommend strength training as part of your cross-training routine. Including these specific exercises will help to strengthen the muscles surrounding your knee. Like with dynamic stretching, make sure you use good form.
Squats work your quads and glutes, with a bit of hamstring engagement as well. You can do them with just your body weight, or use a kettlebell, dumbbells, or a barbell to add some weight if you can handle it with proper form. Some variations to consider are:
- Bodyweight squats
- Goblet squats
- Barbell squats
- Hack squats
- Bulgarian split squats
Lunges also work the glutes and quads, as well as hamstrings. The movement is different to that of a squat, so it’s a great muscle-builder to add to your repertoire.
- Forward lunges
- Reverse lunges
- Walking lunges
Deadlifts are generally considered to be a back exercise, but they’re great for building legs too. They can be a little safer than squats as the weight isn’t directly on the knees.
- Regular deadlifts
- Romanian deadlifts
- Sumo deadlifts
Step-ups might seem boring, but the simple act of stepping up and stepping down again can work the leg muscles and the knee joint. Do them slowly and with good form.
- Bench step-ups
- Box step-ups
The leg press machine is an excellent way to load weight onto the quads, strengthening them and the knees at the same time.
This exercise targets the hamstrings specifically, so we highly recommend adding them into your routine. You can do them on the hamstring curl machine. If you’re quad-dominant, we advise balancing your quad exercises with hamstring exercises.
Calf raises are straightforward and simple to do. You can use just your bodyweight to start, and add weight in the form of dumbbells or a barbell.
- Standing calf raises
- Seated calf raises
Make sure your back is flush against the wall and your thighs are at 90-degrees to the floor. Hold this position for as long as you can.
Resistance Band Exercises
You can target specific muscles in the legs with a resistance band. Try adding these quick exercises to your exercise schedule.
- Monster walks
- Leg raises
When to See a Doctor
If you’ve taken all the steps to protect your knees, but you’re still experiencing knee pain, go see a doctor to make sure there are no larger issues.
You should also stop running immediately and see a medical professional if you experience a sudden, sharp pain in your knee during a run.