Every runner has heard from a non-runner, “Isn’t running bad for your knees?” The answer from devoted runners has always been that it’s no worse than other sports (like skiing or hockey), but a 2019 study for the British Medical Journal confirms that running isn’t so bad after all–and may even be beneficial in some cases.
The study looked at 82 novice runners who received MRIs six months before and two weeks after running marathons. They found improvements in damaged subchondral bone (the layer of bone just below the cartilage) and also in the femur. Together, the femur and subchondral bone make up the main weight-bearing areas in the knee (so the areas that stand to affect a runner.)
The one area that running wasn’t shown to improve in the knee was the patellofemoral compartment–where the activity was actually shown to worsen the condition of the cartilage. However, researchers found that runners typically didn’t notice this change and reported no symptoms.
The patellofemoral compartment is the area where people can develop what’s known runner’s knee. This injury is most commonly characterized by generalized (non-specific) pain behind or around the kneecap (patella), that most often occurs when climbing or descending stairs, squatting, kneeling, sitting with a flexed knee or during activities such as running or cycling. The irritation is often described as dull and achy but can also include short, sharp and shooting pain.
Tight hips can worsen the condition, and working to relax this area can help with the pain. Relaxing the muscle can be done through foam rolling and strengthening related muscle groups. Another great way to prevent injury is through mobility and activation.
Three great exercises that will keep your hips (and hopefully your knees happy) are: the 90/90, the 90/90 reach back and the Yogi Squat.
Start with your legs at 90 degrees, with one forward and the other backward. Move your upper body forward, aiming to get your chin as close to your foot as possible. Keep the movement fluid and only hold at the bottom for a couple seconds. Repeat this motion 10 times and switch sides, placing your right leg forward and your left leg back. This exercise has two variations: holding your forward foot or placing your hands on either side of your forward leg.
The 90/90 reach back
This stretch targets your hip flexor specifically. Get into the 90/90 pose and instead of reaching forward, sweep your hand across your body landing over your head with your arm in line with your back leg. Once there, lift your hips off of the ground for an even deeper stretch.
The Yogi Squat
This pose is often used in yoga practices but is fantastic for runners as well. It looks fairly simple but is actually quite difficult. Lower yourself into a low squat position and bring your arms in front of your knees. Try your best to rock side to side without falling over. Most people struggle to stay upright in this pose, and if you can’t manage to stay on your feet, try dropping slowly into this position while holding onto a railing or pole for balance.