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How to Prevent Knee Pain When Running—Techniques & Exercises

Reading Time: 4 minutes 49 seconds

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-02-18T00:00:00-05:00


Running offers many health benefits. This physical activity can help you stay at a healthy weight, strengthen your joints, and lower your blood pressure. Running provides mental benefits too. Namely, it can reduce your stress levels and boost your mood.

Yet, none of these benefits matter if you or your clients experience knee pain when running. Pain can not only make your runs less enjoyable, but it may keep you from running altogether.

Getting to the bottom of the pain in your knee joint is the first step to finding a solution. One potential cause is runner’s knee, one of the most common running injuries.

What is Runners Knee?

Runner’s knee is another name for patellofemoral pain syndrome. Patellofemoral pain syndrome consists of pain around the patella, also known as the knee cap. Therefore, it’s also sometimes referred to as anterior knee pain.

This pain may be more severe when you’re active. But you might also feel patellofemoral pain after sitting for a long time. Other signs of runner’s knee include a grinding sensation or clicking sound when bending or straightening your knee.

According to research published in the American Family Physician, roughly 6% of the population has patellofemoral pain syndrome. Females make up most of the cases at 55%. Where you live can affect your knee pain risk as well, with incidences in the South being three times higher than those in the Northeast.

Other Causes of Knee Pain When Running

Patellofemoral pain syndrome isn’t the only reason you might feel pain in the knee joint when running. Other potential causes include:

  • Overuse injury. If you run regularly, overuse could be the cause of your knee pain. Your regimen may be causing your iliotibial band to tighten, for instance. This band runs from the hip to the outer knee. It can tighten due to overuse, resulting in iliotibial band syndrome. This syndrome irritates the knee, causing pain. Another consequence of overuse is jumper’s knee. Also known as patellar tendinitis, this can occur when the patellar tendon is overworked.

  • Tight hamstrings or quads. When the hamstrings are tight, it can create a pull on the kneecap. This pull causes the kneecap to rub on the knee joint. Tight quadriceps can lead to knee pain as well. When the quadriceps are tight, it pulls up on the patella. If it pulls hard enough or long enough, this can cause patellofemoral misalignment. A misalignment places more stress on the knee joint.

  • Hip dysfunction. Research has connected patellofemoral pain with faulty hip function. Specifically, if the hip flexor muscles are weak or the joint is out of position, there is an increased risk of pain in the kneecap. Signs of hip dysfunction include hip pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion.

  • Knee arthritis or bursitis. Additional causes of knee pain when running include arthritis and bursitis. With arthritis, the knee joint becomes inflamed and painful. Two common forms of arthritis are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Osteoarthritis can occur due to normal wear and tear. Rheumatoid arthritis is when the immune system erroneously attacks itself. If the small bursa around the knee joint become inflamed, it is called knee bursitis. In either case, the result is increased pain.

  • A running injury. It’s also possible that an actual injury causes the pain emanating from the knee. You may have a stress fracture in the tibia, for instance. Untreated shin splints can cause these stress fractures. Though you may feel it in the front of the leg, the pain can also spread to the knee. A foot injury can also cause pain to radiate to the knee. So too can a meniscus tear. If a knee injury is suspected, seeing a doctor can help you know for sure. They can take an x-ray or do a CT scan to see the area more clearly. Some injuries will heal with non-surgical treatment. However, more severe injuries may require surgical intervention.

  • Old or unsupportive running shoes. If you’ve been running in the same shoes for ages, this could be causing your knee problem. The shoes may be broken down so much that they don’t provide the support that your lower leg needs. Or maybe they’re the wrong shoes. Some shoes are made to provide support specifically for running. Others are made to better support your specific foot’s structure and function. A shoe insert can also help with this. Special shoe inserts may be needed if you have an atypical foot issue.

Running Techniques to Help Avoid Pain in the Knee Joint

Depending on the cause of your patellofemoral pain, reducing the discomfort may be as simple as taking more days off or buying the right running shoes. Modifying your running technique can help too.

Keeping your knees soft can reduce the stress placed on this joint during the landing phase. Also, watch your foot position when it lands. If the toes point out to the side, you may feel pain on the inside of the knee. Instead, the foot should be pointing in the direction you are traveling. Correcting this issue slowly is best. If you try to make significant changes in your foot’s landing position all at once, this can aggravate the pain versus lessening it.

Pay attention to where you place your weight on the feet during the landing phase. Ideally, you want to land on the whole foot. If you land on the ball, this can increase your risk of injury. Land on the heel, and this places more stress on the knees.

If you run slowly, speeding up a bit can help you avoid knee pain. This is because a slow stride allows for bigger steps, and landing on your heels. Both place more stress on the knee. Aim for a tempo of around 180 steps per minute. Running to music that is 180 beats per minute can help you keep this cadence.

How to Prevent Knee Pain When Running with Corrective Exercises

Once your running technique is in order, you can further prevent knee pain by doing a few corrective exercises. Corrective exercises work by reducing movement dysfunctions. In some cases, these dysfunctions are caused by structural issues. Other times, they’re a result of muscle imbalances.

Exercises targeting the hamstring muscles and quadriceps can help build the strength needed to support the knee area better. Squats, deadlifts, and lunges are three to consider. Don’t forget movements that target other thigh muscles, such as the adductors and abductors. Side leg lifts and side lunges work the inner thighs. Leg abductors include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. Glute bridges, hip thrusts, and kettlebell swings are.

To keep muscle balance, work both sides of the body. If you do an exercise that targets the thigh muscle on the right leg, do the same movement with the left leg. This prevents one side of the body from becoming stronger than the other.

Learn more exercise options with ISSA’s Corrective Exercise Specialist certification course. This course teaches trainers how to assess movement dysfunctions leading to joint pain. Then it dives into the exercises that can help restore alignment, thereby reducing the pain.

Featured Course

Corrective Exercise Specialist

The ISSA's Corrective Exercise Course will help you learn how to identify and correct the most common movement dysfunctions that you are likely to see in a wide range of clients.

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