The Planet Wave: Is Running Bad For Your Knees?

April 25, 2013 Posted By: Bob "Wish" Wischnia

How many times have you heard this one from some well-meaning, non-runner: “If you keep up with all that running, it’s going to ruin your knees. Pretty soon, you won’t be even be able to walk.” If I had a breakfast taco for every single time I’ve heard that, I could compete with Taco Bell.

Heck, I’ve been running since fourth grade and my mother still insists on telling me before every marathon that all this running around I’ve done has trashed my legs and makes me too skinny. Not that I’ve ever listened to her. (Sorry, mom).

Gotta admit though, intuitively it does make some degree of sense that the longer you run, the more wear and tear you place on the knee. One of these days it’s just gonna wear out, right?

Actually, no. Nor, does running lead to the onset of osteoarthritis or any other crippling disease. In fact, just the opposite. Inactivity is the crippling disease of millions of Americans, not running.

A study at Boston University School of Medicine looked at the continuous impact of the foot with the ground and the commonly accepted belief that running causes degeneration of the knee and can lead to all sorts of arthritic conditions.

Said lead researcher and epidemiologist 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 older people at risk of osteoarthritis and had them engage in exercise, including running. The other at-risk group didn’t exercise at all. 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.

Multiple studies have shown that movement boosts the knee’s cartilage. Running also helps people to maintain their weight which is another key to slowing arthritis. Lack of movement is the killer.

The one caveat is if you already have knee osteoarthritis—a slow, steady loss of the knee’s cushioning cartilage—running is not recommended. Especially if you’re already overweight. Running won’t cause arthritis of the knees, but it may hasten or worsen the condition, once it started.

Without question, your muscles sustain some minor damage when you run, 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 naturally lose some cartilage after the age of 40. But, says researcher Nancy Lane of the UC Davis Center for Healthy Aging,“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 of the 50-Plus Running Club 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, do 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.

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