All About Arthritis in Runners
One of the most common complaints of pain for most adults is caused by arthritis. This condition can become extremely debilitating and limit the ability to enjoy even the simplest activities. It has been a common thought that running is harmful to joints and causes arthritis. Recent research has shown the opposite results. Running can actually help control the symptoms of arthritis. Early signs are often ignored as they are usually short-lived and infrequent and can mimic other conditions as well as overuse symptoms and muscle soreness. If you are a runner or partake in other activities, it is beneficial to understand the causes, symptoms, and management options available in order to avoid requiring invasive treatment.
What is Arthritis?
According to the Arthritis Foundation, the condition is just a term used to described joint disease and includes over 100 different types. It is most common in adults, but many of these types of arthritis can be found in children, as well. The cartilage located in between bones, which acts as a “cushion”, is lost creating constant pressure during activities. The earliest symptoms include joint stiffness, pain, and swelling. As mentioned, these can last a short time and occur infrequently. Stiffness is usually felt the most after prolonged positioning such as sitting or when getting out of bed in the morning. When in motion, such as walking or running, the stiffness is usually relieved. In more advanced stages of arthritis, significantly prolonged activities can make the pain worse. Over time, arthritis can cause visible joint changes such as enlarged knuckles. Other joint deformities are only visible with X-rays.
Unfortunately, arthritis cannot be cured, but there are several management strategies available that can allow you to live comfortably without sacrificing your desired activities. The most important treatment approach, especially in the early stages, is balancing aggravating activities with rest. The key is to control the buildup of inflammation in order to avoid extreme pain to the point where you must take too much time off. For runners, this means if you are beginning to feel symptoms during or after a 10-mile run or longer, than you should be cutting back to shorter runs and adding in other cross-training activities, including strength training.
Strength Training is a Must
The constant grinding of bones with arthritis is what naturally causes pain and swelling. Getting the surrounding muscles stronger can help relieve this pressure. Stronger muscles also mean you can tolerate activities for a longer period of time, such as getting back to those 10-mile runs and racing marathons. Yes, this is possible, but runners must understand that strength training needs to become part of their regular training regimen. This is also the best way for non-runners to help control their symptoms and possibly avoid worsening arthritis leading to requiring surgery.
For hip and knee arthritis, which is one of the most common areas affected, especially in runners, it is important to alternate between bodyweight exercises and resistance exercises. Both offer strength gains but gives the joints a break from too much impact. Exercises should incorporate the larger muscle groups such as the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, as well as smaller muscles that play a role in hip and knee stabilization. These smaller groups are the hip abductors and adductors, internal and external rotators, and the core muscles. Besides squats, lunges, heel raises, and step-ups, which all target the larger muscle groups, floor exercises for the lower body are an easy way to get in strength training at any time. Bridges, clamshells, and hip extensions are all great exercises that can be done with or without a resistance band. Core exercises such as planks and leg raises are also good additions.
Management for Runners
Besides alternating runs with lower impact cross training, there are several other strategies to help relieve symptoms. Using hot packs before activities can help ease pain and stiffness and the use of ice afterward can help control inflammation buildup from your workout. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications can also help manage symptoms. Below are other methods specifically for runners with arthritis.
- Use a run-walk method during most runs
- Eat a low-inflammatory diet. Examples of foods that help lower inflammation in the body include fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, beans, and fish. Foods that can increase inflammation in the body include fried foods, high gluten foods, processed and high-fat meats, and dairy products, and foods with trans fats.
- Run on softer surfaces. Consistent road running causes repetitive pounding on joints. Try alternating running on trails, grass, and the treadmill.
- Warm-up properly. Getting right into running on stiff joints can exacerbate symptoms. Incorporate dynamic stretches such as leg swings, lunges, hamstring and quad pulls, and ankle rolls before every run.
- Exercise consistently. Avoid taking long breaks in between workouts. Even if you do not have time for your training runs due to a busy work and family schedule, you can increase the amount of walking during the day by parking further from your destination, stretching while cooking dinner, or waking up 15 minutes earlier to add in a few exercises before starting your day.