“How Are Your Knees?” If you are a long distance runner, chances are, you’ve been asked this questioned about your knees and joints. Some people insist that because you run long distances you are trashing your knees. A friend even suggested that my 100 mile finisher's buckle could be used as a knee cap replacement which I found very funny. I’ve often wondered what will become of my body if I continue to run ridiculously long distances so I decided to do a little research on the subject.
The Benefits of Running” (Judi Ketteler), Dr James Fries is quoted as saying, "Aerobic exercise improves most body functions--including joint health. Without exercise, cartilage cells get weak and sick.” The Standford University Medicine professor explains that exercise causes joints to expand and compress which brings in oxygen, removes waste, and keeps cartilage healthy.
Keep in mind that recent studies have shown that people who have healthy joints to begin with can run for many years without any damaging effects. However, if one has sustained an injury to the knee, hip, or ankle and the joint is not working properly further damage can occur. Arthritis can also develop in the injured joint so you should be careful and listen to your body for pain.
Why We Run, he writes about a doctor who told him that he should never run again because of his knee problems. Ignoring the doctor, Heinrich was able to strengthen his joints through running and eventually win the 100K championship. Now 70 years old, this professor emeritus still enjoys occasional jogs of up to 20 miles and finished the Wilton Blueberry 10K in 47:17 just a few weeks ago.
Can Running Actually Help Your Knees” discusses a study by a group of doctors from Stanford. Their research showed that running and walking actually conditions your cartilage to that specific motion. Gretchen Reynolds writes, “[Cartilage] grows accustomed to those particular movements. You can run for miles, decades, a lifetime, without harming it.” However, Reynolds continues by writing, “But if this exquisite balance is disturbed, usually by an injury, the loading mechanisms shift, the moving parts of the knee are no longer in their accustomed alignment and a ‘degenerative pathway’ seems to open.”
There seems to be a fine line between pain from an actual injury and pain from weak joints. Most beginning runners experience pain from impact and wonder what’s going on. You must know the difference between injury and weakness. If your knees aren’t in shape, you must start slowly by walking and then gradually build up to running. Watch this NY Times video on increasing knee stability:
After regularly running long distances for over 20 years, I have not experienced any ill effects on my knees. My joints seem to be stronger as a result of running and I’m able to keep unwanted body fat off. The next time I’m asked, “Are you ruining your knees?” I will simply respond, “No.” See you on the trail.