Runner’s knee is a common problem for runners of every fitness and skill level. The pain that comes from this condition may be located beneath the kneecap or slightly above or below it. Generally speaking, this pain worsens when you run up or down hill or when you ascend or descend stairs. You may feel as if your kneecap is popping, and you may even hear a popping sound. In severe cases, your knee(s) may become swollen. In this article, we will discuss runner’s knee and provide information to help you prevent or cope with it. Read on to learn more.
What is Runner’s Knee?
This term can be used to describe several different knee problems. It can be caused by lack of core strength and/or poor form while running. Injuries or imbalance in the low back or hips may also lead to knee problems. Some runners report feeling pain from time-to-time for no apparent reason. Others say that there is a definite cause-and-effect aspect and that the pain intensifies whenever distance is added.
How can you tell if you have a physical imbalance?
Sometimes you don’t know if you are lacking in core strength or other aspects of fitness until you have injured yourself. It’s important to be vigilant about body awareness and pay close attention to what your body is telling you. All too often, runners try to run through discomfort and injury. This is exactly the wrong approach. As soon as your knees begin to bother you (even a little bit) stop what you are doing and take some time to assess and deal with the situation.
If you push an injured knee, you will only make matters worse. Remember that rest, ice, compression and elevation (RICE) are always recommended for stress injuries. If your knees are bothering you, take a break and give them a rest, ice and elevation to help reduce inflammation and swelling. Wrapping the knee or using a knee brace can ease your pain and protect your knee against further injury.
While you are resting, think about what you were doing when the pain started. Try to identify the cause of the pain. Double-check your running shoes to be sure they provide ample support and stability. Make adjustments, add support or replace the shoes if you find they are not in good enough shape to support and align your feet and help you prevent knee pain.
Everything You Need to Know About Runner’s Knee
When should you see your doctor?
If a few days of RICE and shoe adjustments as needed don’t do the trick, make an appointment to see your doctor. A good health care professional can help you identify injuries you may have missed. He or she will evaluate your condition and may refer you to a doctor of sports medicine, a physical therapist or perhaps a specialist, such as a chiropractor.
Your problem may be caused by areas of tightness and/or tension in another part of your body such as your abdomen, lower back, quadriceps or hips. Working on flexibility in these areas and getting them to move more freely can facilitate stabilizing your knees, lower legs and feet. This may realign your knees, alleviate your pain and resolve your runner’s knee.
Can Back and Hip Stiffness Really Cause Runner’s Knee?
Remember that the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone, and the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone! This connection is an aspect of the kinetic chain, which is the concept that every part of your body (bones, joints, muscles, nerves, etc.) must work together to successfully produce healthy movement. A study published by the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that participants who completed an eight week program of core and hip strengthening exercises experienced significant reduction in knee pain. They also reported increased knee function and flexibility. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3361354/]
What About Form?
The way you run has a big influence on whether or not you experience running related injuries. Maintaining good posture and a steady, well-aligned, even gait can really help you avoid wear and tear on your joints and resulting pain. According to a study conducted by the University of Kentucky, runners who had experienced runner’s knee were able to gain relief from pain through gait retraining. After correcting problems with uneven gait, participants saw improvement in running mechanics and impressive decreases in pain levels. [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20584755]
Just as with strength and endurance training, gait retraining can act as both a preventative and a treatment for runner’s knee. Keeping your core muscles strong and your hips flexible supports keeping your knees in alignment, and that can help you avoid wear and tear on the knees. Basically, staying fit all over can help prevent knee injuries.
How Can You Design a Knee Fitness Program?
As with any other fitness program, an exercise program designed to strengthen the knees should include stretching, exercise and rest. Here are some focused stretches and exercises to add to your overall wellness program.
Top 3 Stretches for Runner’s Knee Pain Relief
5 Exercises To Strengthen Your Hips
Strong, flexible hips help keep your knees aligned. Here are 5 tried-and-true exercises that can help you avoid developing runner’s knee.
Lie on your side with your knees bent at a 45-degree angle. Keep your feet together and lift your top leg slowly. This is the opening of the “clamshell”. Hold the position for a count of five and then lower your leg to the starting position. Don’t just drop it! Maintain control. Repeat the exercise ten or fifteen times and then switch to the other side and repeat with the other leg.
This is a yoga pose that is very good for your abdomen, lower back and gluteus muscles. Lie down on your back and bend your knees, keeping the soles of your feet on the floor. Gradually lift your hips from the ground using your gluteal muscles and the muscles of your lower back. Your back should be straight and your abdominal muscles engaged. This strengthens your core muscles, and you will probably also feel it in the muscles surrounding your knees. Breathe in and out deeply and steadily and hold the pose for ten seconds. Gradually, return to the starting position. Repeat the pose ten times.
This is sort of a modified push-up, but instead of supporting your upper body weight on your hands, support yourself with your forearms and your toes. You don’t need to propel yourself up and down for this exercise, just straighten your back and align your body. Be sure your knees are straight. Don’t allow your shoulders to sag, and don’t let your waist droop. Hold the pose for thirty seconds. Lower yourself, rest for thirty seconds and repeat six times. This exercise actually engages your entire body, so it’s more challenging than it sounds. Be careful not to hold your breath. Breathe deeply and fully throughout the exercise and rest periods.
4. Leg Lifts
Lie on your side with straight legs. Lift the top leg out to the side as high as you are able and lower it slowly to the start position. Repeat the exercise fifteen times and then switch to the other side.
5. Alternating Lifts
Start on your hands and knees. The aim of this exercise is to alternately lift your arms and legs. Begin by lifting your right hand in front of you while lifting your left leg behind. Hold the position for five seconds then return to start and repeat with your left hand and right leg. Be sure to stretch fully on each repetition, keep your lifted leg and arm straight and breathe as you hold the position. This exercise tones your core, helps align your body and builds your sense of balance. Repeat the exercise fifteen times on each side.
Exercises for Runner’s Knee
A Holistic Approach Builds Strong Knees
Naturally, it’s always a good idea to start with a sound foundation for running. This is why it’s smart to approach fitness holistically and participate in a well-rounded exercise program that includes both strength and endurance training. Strong muscles, good balance, full mobility and range of motion and robust endurance go far toward protecting you against all manner of sports related injuries, including runner’s knee.