Is Running Bad for Your Knees?

We all know that running is one of the best forms of cardio that you can commit to. Still, the old myth persists—running long-term on a treadmill or on concrete is widely believed to be a great way to ruin the cartilage in your knees. Is it completely true, though?

We’re here to help you sort fact from fiction. Does running increase your risk of developing osteoarthritis in your knees, or any of a number of other seemingly-related conditions? Poor form, prior inflammation, all are key to developing osteoarthritis in your knees later in life.

Will Running Damage Your Knees?

The fact of the matter: no, running is not inherently bad for your knees[1]. Common knee injuries occur through other related factors, many of which we’ll dive into shortly.

While the exact relationship between joint health and running isn’t easy to define, there is no question that cardio and strength training will, in a general sense, greatly improve your mortality risk and your quality of life[2].

What Else Causes Knee Injuries When Running?

Other factors that non-runners might not consider may include:

  • Form issues; bad form is one of the most common culprits to blame in new runners experiencing pain and stress during and after exercise
  • The type of ground that you’re walking or running on might be imposing wear and tear on your knees—concrete is especially dangerous to joint health
  • Wearing the wrong shoes for running
  • Failing to cross-train; cross-training helps you develop muscle groups that are able to support the knee, the hip, and the cartilage, preventing injury and pain
  • A simple misstep—you could fall or trip, resulting in injury to the hip, cartilage, joints, and even your muscles

Running isn’t dangerous, but you should always do what you can do to practice safely. Luckily, this isn’t difficult to accomplish.

How Can I Run Without Damaging My Knees?

All of the problems above come with their own easy solutions, such as the following:

  • Improving your running form, possibly with the help of a physical therapist or personal trainer
  • Investing in supportive shoes designed for long-distance running
  • Running on softer surfaces—treadmill running, grassy knolls, or any public sports fields or parks in your area

Competitive runners play this game for a living—they take care of their knees so that they last beneath them for an entire lifetime. Here’s how you can do the same on your turf. First, a quick re-cap on some of the knee injuries that may befall you, no pun intended.

Types Of Knee Joint Injuries From Running

It’s not all just ligament tears, ambient pain, and more stress on your knees as your body compensates. There are actually many flavors of running injuries that may result from any of the risk factors mentioned previously:

  • Runner’s Knee: Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a diffuse, non-local fitness injury that impacts[3] the runner’s ability to squat, bend, and flex the knees
  • Knee Osteoarthritis: The most common form[4] of arthritis, also called “wear and tear” arthritis
  • Kneecap Subluxation: When the leg twists with the foot still on the ground, you may end up with subluxation of your kneecap temporarily or even dislocating it entirely
  • Meniscus Tear: Running increases the rotational and shearing forces[5] being imposed on the tibiofemoral joint; this axial load may rip the ligaments of the knee, resulting in serious injury
  • Knee Stress Fracture: Runners of any surface risk fracturing the bones in the knee during exercise

The good news is that runners who do their due diligence for the body are much less likely to develop problems like knee osteoarthritis and other fitness-related misfortune.

How Can I Tell When It’s Time To Take A Break?

The symptoms of a knee injury, knee arthritis, or something more serious will generally make themselves obvious to the runner immediately. If you notice any of the following, something might be amiss in at least one knee:

  • Knee pain
  • Inflammation, redness, and swelling
  • Difficulty moving or placing weight on the injury
  • Tightness in the knee

Symptoms that last for more than a week may indicate a darker underlying problem, which may very well stem from exercises that you’ve done previously. For a runner with only minor knee cartilage complaints after exercise, however, there’s plenty that can be done at home to catalyze the healing process.

How To Treat Knee Injury From Running

is running bad for your knees
Apply ice to the knee to soothe the pain. Photo: S. Mahanantakul/Shutterstock

Whether you’re dealing with knee arthritis or a minor strain, most runners know that taking it easy is often the best way forward. Short of anything seriously debilitating, it’s not difficult to soothe the pain and get an injured knee on the road to recovery:

  • If you experience knee pain, stop running immediately; take at least a day or two off, possibly easing your way back into your normal mileage slowly with a couple of days of walking instead of running
  • Apply ice to the knee or knees in question
  • Stretch your joints gently if inflammation and weakness don’t prevent mobility
  • Use knee tape or a knee brace to protect your bones as you rest and take time away from your running routine
  • Transition into a pair of new running shoes, ones optimized for balance, support, the safety of your feet and joints
  • You can support your workout with beneficial supplements

For many runners, a lot of these remedies and extra considerations will be natural choices to make. If you’ve tried all of the above and are still experiencing serious, pervasive pain and even immobility after a week, you should seek the help of a medical professional in order to root out the exact cause of your pain.

Runners, Research, Proper Form, And Our Best Advice

35 million recreational runners nationwide can’t be wrong—there are plenty of scenarios that will inevitably be bad for your knees, but these risks will always be at play any time you choose to stand instead of sit.

Should non-runners avoid picking up the habit? Absolutely not—computer modeling, gait analysis, and plenty of research and data on the practice all point to one overarching truth: running isn’t bad for your knees. Instead, poor planning and a lack of attention, knowledge, or advice will usually be what give your knees a tougher time.

There’s a lot of info suggesting that running helps your knees maintain themselves[6] in the long run. We’re sold, but we’ll let you be the judge.