Is running bad for your knees?

Whether you are a seasoned marathon runner or a beginner jogger, time and time again you've probably heard this: RUNNING TOO MUCH IS BAD FOR YOUR KNEES.

As a Physiotherapist who runs frequently, I'd be a millionaire if I was given a dollar every time I was asked the question, “Will running damage my knees?" or being told, "You're a Physio, you should know that running damages your knees!"

  The fastest woman in Singapore - the author holds the women's half marathon national record of 1hr 23min 14sec!

The fastest woman in Singapore - the author holds the women's half marathon national record of 1hr 23min 14sec!

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FACT: RUNNING IMPROVES YOUR JOINT HEALTH

A 2016 research done with more than 2500 Osteoarthritis Initiative participants shows that running has no correlation with knee damage. Another study also found that running decreases inflammatory markers correlated with knee pain and degeneration. The study discovered that the cyclical loading of the knee joint during running promotes healthy cartilage turnover in the knees. The bending and straightening of the knee, along with the loading and unloading of the knee during running, circulates the joint fluid and provides nourishment to the surrounding tissues.

(Disclaimer: Current studies on running and knee degeneration are limited to recreational runners with no existing knee issues. Research is inconclusive for runners with previous injury history. However, excessive long distance running can result in a situation where the knee is overwhelmed. When this happens, the knee joint is no longer able to counter the inflammation effectively, risking the potential for joint degeneration.)

So is it okay for you to run ten marathons one after another then? The answer is NO. If performed in the wrong manner, running can injure you, just like any other sport!


What are the 3 main causes for running injuries in Singapore?

1. LOADING ON AN IMBALANCED STRUCTURE

Running is a sport that involves symmetrical weight bearing. Ultimately our running speed is only as fast as our stronger leg can work. In my experience as a physiotherapist, identifying the areas of muscular strength and length imbalances appear to be the most straightforward way of pain reduction and injury prevention.

I can often get my patients to run without pain by simply identifying and tackling their weak and tight muscles. If the weaker leg begins to lag, the stronger leg starts to take on more responsibility in moving the body forward. Muscular strength imbalances put you at a risk of overworking the stronger leg. Otherwise, the weaker leg simply ends up working way beyond what it can manage. It is crucial to have symmetrical strength so that both your legs are working together to propel the body forwards.

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2. OVERLOADING

Overtraining – or overloading the capacity of your muscles is another common cause of running injuries. During a hard training session, your muscle fibres break down, and for that period, your body is temporarily weaker. At this stage, you must rest to allow your muscles to repair and heal, after which it is stronger.

A sudden increase in mileage or accumulation of high mileage without adequately resting can prevent the healing process of your muscles. Excessive loading can eventually exceed your muscles’ loading capacity. This is when injury occurs.
 

3. OVERLOADING ON AN IMBALANCED STRUCTURE

This is the most common cause of exercise related injuries in our modern-day society. Running is an efficient sport to raise our heart rates and burn calories, so it is no surprise that it is the go to exercise for the "weekend warriors". These people are generally inactive during the work week, and then come weekend, switch gears from zero to five and do a marathon-distance run.

These runners are essentially overloading onto an imbalanced muscular system – a result of accumulated sitting from Monday to Friday. Muscles can change its length tension if you stay in the same position over a period of time. Therefore, sitting for too long can lead to certain muscular imbalances such as tight hip flexors, weak glutes, weak abdominals, tight lower back muscles…just to name a few.

If you are a weekend warrior, you should consider incorporating a couple of short pre-habilitative exercises during the weekdays, to minimise the number of imbalances before you begin any heavy training regime on the weekends.


How can Physiotherapy help prevent overloading injuries?

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  • Ensure that your muscles have adequate loading capacity to take on your current training load.
  • Use different functional testing to make sure your muscles can tolerate and sustain loads relative to your training level.
  • By analysing your movement patterns – such as running hard on the treadmill, a Physio can gather clues as to whether your muscles have adequate capacity to load well at higher running speeds.
  • The Physio can then prescribe you with the right type of exercises to do to complement your training regime.

Remember not to bump up your running volume too fast and too soon. Happy running!


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Mok Ying Rong is a Physiotherapist at UFIT Clinic. With an intense passion in the musculoskeletal field, she utilises a holistic manual approach alongside an energetic desire to get people back to a pain-free status. Ying's niche is in analysing and treating issues related to the running biomechanics. 

Ying is also an avid sportswoman. She started off as a competitive swimmer before transiting towards triathlons, and finally establishing herself in the run scene. Her more memorable achievements include breaking the Singapore National Half-Marathon record in the 2016 Gyeongju Half Marathon, and representing the nation in the 2015 World Cross Country.

Ying's first hand sporting experiences allows her to relate better to people who are passionate about sports.