Run smart: know your knees to avoid injury

If you’re a runner, there’s no doubt someone has warned you: “Oh that’s so bad for your knees.” It’s also not unusual to hear many trainers advising against running completely after the age of 50.

So, are the critics correct? The answer is no … and yes!

The knee is a complex joint. Hips and shoulders have capsular constructions to hold the bones in place, whereas the knee is more like a hinge swinging on a gate. It hangs off a thigh bone that’s longer on one side than the other, and has four major ligaments that strap the joint together.

Damaged cartilage and meniscus cells found here don’t have the capacity to regenerate, and no amount of glucosamine or fish oil will change that. So, if you’re a runner in particular, you do need to be pro-active if you want to extend your running life as long as possible.

There are three factors that may affect the health of a runner’s knees – weight, knee alignment, and previous injuries. If you’re not affected by any of those, you should enjoy a long and happy running life. If you are, here are some tips to help you run smart for knee protection.

Be aware of weight

When jogging, forces on your knees can be four to eight times your body weight. A runner who weighs 120kg is going to put a greater load on their joints, and have a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis than a 60kg runner.

Running can be one of the best ways to lose weight, but you could do yourself a favour by introducing some cross-training too. Cycling is great, and knees love cycling, especially with clipless shoes as these require a cyclical movement and ensure less stomping on the pedals.

Walking with poles will strengthen the upper as well as the lower body and take a lot of strain off your joints, as will water workouts.

Strength training can help increase metabolism to aid weight loss and it goes without saying, that healthy eating is vital. Keep aiming for more vegetables, less sugar and lean protein servings the size of your palm and you can’t go wrong.

Look at your leg alignment

Various issues can affect alignment, you could save yourself years of pain and frustration by visiting an exercise physiologist who will analyse your running style and prescribe appropriate exercise to improve or alleviate any problems, but every runner – whether they have knee issues or not – should work on their hip function, an area that is often neglected.

Stretching is also important to keep knees tracking correctly and it’s well worth investing in a foam roller particularly for the ITB (illiotibial band) on the outside of the thigh. You can buy them for as little as $15 from major department stores.

Manage injuries

If you’re a gym-goer, reduce your weights and do more sets making sure your technique is perfect. Do half-squats instead of full squats, and always exercise in front of a mirror so you can check your alignment. If you notice your knees are tilting towards each other, it can help to lift the arches of your feet – keep all your toes on the floor though– or imagine holding a beach ball between your knees.

Similarly, make a big effort to focus on posture. Stand evenly on both feet and ensure you’re standing straight – imagine there’s a light in your chest and you need it to shine directly forward.

When you do run, wear shoes with good support and avoid running on bitumen.