Debunking the Myth: Does Running Really Destroy Your Knees?

Explore the research and evidence surrounding the impact of running on knee health and discover the truth behind the common misconception.

“Oh no, don’t run, you’ll ruin your knees!” Chances are you’ve heard this pearl of wisdom at some point, whether from a well-meaning relative, an overcautious friend, or perhaps even a doctor with an old school mindset. In fact, it’s such a commonly held belief that you might even have repeated it yourself. But where exactly does this myth originate, and is there any scientific truth to it?

A Tale as Old as Time (or at least as old as Running Shoes)

Let’s rewind to the 1970s, the golden era of jogging. Forrest Gump was hitting the screens, everyone was “feeling the burn,” and the marathon started to become a bucket list item. This was the time when road running took off on a mass scale and, unfortunately, also when people started noticing knee issues.

Running, like any other exercise, carries some risk of injury, and our poor knees, those dutiful hinge joints smack dab in the middle of our legs, often take the brunt of the impact. A little bit of knee pain here, a touch of arthritis there, and voilà! a myth is born.

An article from the New York Times back in 2009 called ‘Can Running Actually Help Your Knees?’ traces the origins of the myth, showing how fears and misinformation often grow from a grain of truth. The article reminds us that our knee-jerk reaction (pun intended) to associate running with knee damage is a classic case of correlation, not causation.

From Fact to Fiction

Real-life examples, like basketball legend Bill Walton, who underwent numerous knee surgeries partly attributed to his intense running routine, certainly didn’t help dispel the myth. Neither did news headlines screaming about the dangers of running.

Did you know, that …
Knee pain can often originate from issues in other parts of the body, like the hips or feet? It’s known as referred pain, and it’s one more reason why taking a holistic approach to running – from proper footwear to overall body strength – can keep your knees happy.

The leap from “running can sometimes lead to knee injury” to “running will destroy your knees” is a big one, but in a world where sensational headlines are king, this myth found fertile ground and quickly took root.

The Science Behind Running and Knees

Ever wonder how a marionette manages to move without a pile of tangled strings? Well, you can thank its “knees,” or more accurately, its hinges. Now, take this concept, add some biological brilliance, and you have a simplified idea of your own knee.

Fast Facts
#1 Your knee can absorb up to 5 times your body weight during running.
#2 Runners might have a lower risk of knee osteoarthritis compared to non-runners.
#3 The right kind of stress from running can actually strengthen your knee joint.
#4 Wrong footwear can increase the stress on your knees.

Think of your knees as the unsung heroes of your body, quietly absorbing shock and faithfully supporting your weight every time your foot strikes the ground. However, when you run, the force exerted on your knees can be up to five times your body weight. Sounds scary, right? Yet, our bodies, and especially our knees, are marvels of adaptability and resilience.

Now, here’s where the plot thickens. Your knee, much like your favorite action hero, thrives under stress – the right kind of stress, that is. Believe it or not, the moderate stress that running puts on your knees can stimulate the body to strengthen the joint, much like lifting weights can help build stronger muscles. We’re talking about good stress here, the kind that your body responds to by becoming more robust, more resilient.

Now you might be thinking, “Okay, so why all the hullabaloo about running ruining knees?” The trouble starts when we ignore the rest of the equation: overuse and improper form. This is where the ‘bad stress’ creeps in, leading to knee problems and giving running a bad rap.

Multiple studies, like the one published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, have found no definitive link between running and long-term knee damage. In fact, runners might even have a lower risk of knee osteoarthritis compared to non-runners.

And so, just like an onion, we start to peel away the layers of the myth, revealing a different, more nuanced story. One that shows us that running, done right, can not only be knee-friendly but might actually be knee-beneficial. Now, who would have thought?

The Final Sprint: Putting It All Together for Healthier Knees

Remember those videos of sprinters, with their perfect strides, that they play in slow motion during the Olympics? There’s a science to that grace. The way your foot hits the ground, the way your knee bends, and even how your arms swing can all affect the strain on your knees. So, investing in learning proper running technique could be a game-changer.

Next, running shoes. You wouldn’t go hiking in flip-flops, right? By the same token, you shouldn’t be running in shoes that don’t offer the right support. When it comes to picking the perfect pair, each foot is a kingdom unto itself. What works for your gym buddy might not work for you.

Here’s where the old saying, “Moderation in all things,” really shines. Yes, running can be beneficial for your knees, but overdoing it can backfire. Try mixing up your fitness routine with low-impact activities like swimming or yoga. And remember, rest days aren’t for the weak; they’re an essential part of a balanced fitness regime.

Bringing it to the finish line, the question is no longer, “Will running wreck my knees?” but “How can I run in a way that’s best for my knees?” In a world bursting with fitness myths, you’re now armed with facts, ready to hit the track or the trail with confidence. And your knees? They’re ready to go the distance, one healthy stride at a time.

“People who engage in moderate exercise do better in terms of their knee health. In fact, we’re finding that exercise is a good thing. It’s all about maintaining a balance – between rest and activity, strength and flexibility.”

Dr. Jordan Metzl, Sports Medicine Physician at Hospital for Special Surgery (NYC)
1 comment
  1. Oh man, this piece really hit close to home for me. I’ve been running on and off for years and always had that nagging worry about my knees in the back of my mind. My father used to tell me all the time that I’d regret all the running when I’m older because of knee problems. So seeing an article like this kind of puts things into perspective… I guess it’s all about balance, which is pretty much good advice for anything in life, right?

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