If you’ve been wanting to ramp up a running routine but are worried about wrecking your joints, here’s some news. A new report that reviewed nearly two dozen other studies confirms what experts have been saying for years: Running can actually protect your joints. In fact, the study found that people who run recreationally are actually less likely to experience osteoarthritis compared to those who don’t hit the pavement at all. All this in addition to a slew of other benefits: longer lifespan, weight management, stress relief and more.
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Running Away from Osteoarthritis
Previous studies have been a bit mixed as to whether and how much running leads to a higher risk of osteoarthritis (OA), or when the cartilage that cushions your joints starts to break down. But a new study published in the Journal of Orthopedic Sports Physical Therapy pulled together a quantitative meta-analysis of 17 studies involving 114,829 people to analyze the link between hip and/or knee osteoarthritis. The study looked at competitive runners (think pros and elites), recreational runners and non-runners. Recreational runners included pretty much everyone else who runs 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons.
The study found that people who aren’t active and those who run the most may be more likely to have hip and/or knee osteoarthritis than recreational runners. Among recreational runners, 3.5 percent had hip and knee oseteoarthritis, compared to 10.2 percent of non-runners and 13.3 percent of competitive runners. Recreational runners also had lower risk of joint degeneration than non-runners.
What the study couldn’t determine was exactly how much mileage protects people’s joints. But the study authors did highlight other research, which found no association between OA and running anywhere between 13 to 26 miles per week.
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So what if you’re running 20 miles or less per week? You’re less likely to damage your knees, says performance-based physical therapist Doug Kechijian, D.P.T., who specializes in treating orthopedic injuries and chronic pain. It’s when you start hitting 60 or more miles per week and pushing your physical limits that you need to be more mindful about your joint health, he says.
The researchers also weren’t able to take into account participants’ other risk factors for OA, including previous injury, age or BMI. That means people who are sedentary may have had, on average, a much higher BMI, been older or have injured their knee in the past. All these factors would increase their risk of developing OA and explain why they were skipping the pavement.
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How Running Helps Build Healthy Joints
Despite some ambiguity in some of the study’s findings, it suggests running recreationally has more benefits for your knees — and overall health — than not running at all. For one, running helps keep your weight in check. When you’re overweight by even just 10 pounds, you’ll feel like you’re walking with 30 to 60 extra pounds on you, according to the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center. More stress on the knee breaks down the cartilage that helps provide cushion and support for your joints. And for every five pounds of weight gain, your risk of OA increases by 36 percent.
But running isn’t just great for weight maintenance; it also conditions the body to respond to stress and ultimately makes it stronger. Mike Reinold, D.P.T., a physical therapist, strength coach and performance enhancement specialist in Boston, MA, says our bodies were made to move — and people are generally moving a whole lot less these days. “The body is super amazing at adapting to stress. Applying a certain load to joints tells the body that we want to keep our cartilage healthy,” he says. When we sit at a desk all day and never work out, it has the reverse effect. “That can cause similar adaptations, which make our body less resilient,” he explains.
“You need to put stress on your joints to maintain joint health. It’s kind of like a vaccine that inoculates your body to stress. You become more resistant to it,” Kechijian says. The benefits of exercise aren’t just reserved for runners, either. Any physical activity, whether it’s dancing, playing tennis or walking, is good for joint health to an extent. It also strengthens your heart and lungs and reinforces your bone density and muscle strength.
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7 Ways Runners Can Protect Their Knees
Whether you’re lacing up your sneakers for the first time or training for your first marathon, there are steps you can take to help protect your joints. While Kechijian and Reinold agree that ideal mileage will widely vary from person to person, here are a few best practices you can do to avoid injury.
1. Ramp up slowly.
“Most people who get hurt do more than what they’re prepared for,” says Kechijian. “An average healthy person without preexisting medical conditions can run up to 25 miles per week without too many problems. It’s jumping from five to 25 miles in a week that’s not healthy.” Overloading your joints too fast too soon causes discomfort — and that can be enough to discourage you from continuing, Reinold says.
Reinold recommends starting with a couch to 5K program, which slowly eases you into a workout routine without overloading your joints and muscles. Other experts will suggest starting with two miles per week for new runners. You can also increase your mileage by about 10 percent per week until you get close to hitting your goal. “It’s probably arbitrary, but it’s relatively safe,” Kechijian says.
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2. Check your stride.
Many runners (and especially those who are new to the sport) over-stride, or land with their feet way out in front of their bodies. Over-striding puts more weight and stress on their knees and back, increasing risk of injury, says Kechijian. To check your stride, ask a friend to film you running from the side with a smartphone. Watch yourself in slow motion: You want your front foot to land under your hips, in an almost perpendicular line from your hip to the ground. If your foot is hitting the ground way out in front of your body, try shortening your stride and increasing your cadence. For more on proper form, check out these pro tips.
3. Strengthen your hamstrings.
Some runners may rely more on their quads than their hamstrings, which can overpower these muscles and weaken them. Strengthening your hamstrings can help prevent serious running injuries. A couple times per week, Kechijian suggests doing six to eight reps of this inchworm exercise for two sets, along with this couch stretch for two sets of 40 contractions per side. (Imagine you’re trying to squeeze something between your heel and butt by contracting your hamstring.)
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4. Work your hips.
The human body generally moves forward and backward pretty efficiently — but we’re weaker moving side to side. That means if you’re a regular runner, your quads and hamstrings are probably pretty strong, but your hips might be weak. To keep your legs more stable when you’re running, Reinold suggests two external rotation hip-strengthening exercises: clams and side-lying abductions using a resistance band. “Just two sets 10, three times per week, could be beneficial to someone just starting a running program,” he says.
Because running puts a lot of stress on your legs, it’s essential to stretch regularly. “You don’t want your muscles to be tight and then apply force, because that can overload them,” says Reinold. Check out these hip stretches to help relieve tightness, and before you head out for a run, try this mobility warm-up.
6. Inspect your shoes.
Take a peek at your sneaks: If they have a pattern of wear around any part of the sole that looks significantly different from when you bought them, it’s time to invest in a new pair. Also keep in mind that your shoes can only do so much. So if you can only run in one specific sneaker, they’re probably masking a problem with your technique that’s worth checking out with the help of a pro, Kechijian says.
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7. Get a tune-up.
If you’re running 60 miles per week or more, technique really matters. “You need to be much more careful about managing the stress you’re putting body through,” says Kechijian. “Think about your car: If the alignment is off, you’ll wear down your tires more.” So see a physical therapist for movement assessment to check if you have any issues with strength or mobility.
As for aches and pains, some are normal if you’re hitting the pavement regularly. But if your joints are bothering you when you’re not running (i.e. when you’re walking, taking the stairs or sitting for long periods of time) get it checked out, says Kechijian.