How many times have you heard this one? “If you keep up with all that running you do, it’s going to ruin your knees.” Typically, such advice is from some well-meaning, non-runner who knows as much about running as one-time vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan does about his marathon PRs.
If I had a nickel for every single time I’ve heard that useless bit of advice about my knees, I could fly on NetJets, instead of sitting with my knees in my chest.
Heck, I’ve been running since fourth grade and my mother still insists on telling me how running’s going to trash my body before every marathon I’ve ever done. Not that I’ve ever bother to listen (sorry, mom).
I have to admit though, intuitively it does make some degree of sense that the longer you run, the more wear and tear you place on the knees. One of these days your knees are just going to wear out, right?
Wrong. It simply isn’t true. Nor, does running lead to the onset of osteoarthritis. In fact, just the opposite. Inactivity does.
A study at Boston University School of Medicine looked at the continuous impact of the foot with the ground and the common belief that running causes degeneration of the knee and leads to arthritic conditions.
Said researcher David Felson of BU: “We know from many long-term studies that running doesn’t appear to cause much damage to the knees. When we look at people with knee arthritis, we don’t find much of a previous history of running, and when we look at runners and follow them over time, we don’t find that their risk of developing osteoarthritis is any more than expected.” Felson added that recreational running doesn’t increase the risk of arthritis.
Yet another study—this one conducted in Sweden—found that exercise, including running, may even be beneficial. In this study, researchers took one group of people at risk of osteoarthritis and had them engage in exercise, including running. The other at-risk group didn’t exercise. After looking at the joints of the participants in both study groups, they found that the biochemistry of cartilage improved in those participants who ran.
Certainly, when you run there is minor damage to the muscles, but, say researchers, exercise (or running) stimulates cartilage to repair much of the damage. It is theorized that the impact of your body weight when the foot contacts the ground, increases production of certain proteins in the cartilage that make it stronger in the same way that running increases bone and muscle mass.
This is especially good news for older runners who lose some cartilage after the age of 40. But, says researcher Nancy Lane ,“If you have a relatively normal knee and you’re jogging five to six times a week at a moderate pace, then there’s every reason to believe that your joints will remain healthy.”
Lane, who has done long-term studies of runners when she was at Stanford University, adds: “We wanted to answer the important question of whether, if you continued to run into your 50s and 60s and even 70s, you also ran the risk of damaging the knees?”
Her answer, based on years of studying older runners: Regardless of your age, running will not damage the knees.
But, there are a few caveats. Lane says that if you have suffered a knee injury, especially one that required surgery, running can increase your risk of knee arthritis. So can routinely running really fast — at a five- or six-minute-mile pace — or running a marathon.
Ooops. Maybe, mom’s right after all.