Does Running Ruin Your Knees? Finally, a Definitive Answer
Want to tick off a runner? Tell them they’re ruining their knees.
I’m not sure how this old wives’ tale started, that running will ruin your knees, but I know it’s become so accepted that I probably hear this (from nonrunners—always nonrunners) about once a month. Most people appear to be well-meaning when they say it. They’re not doctors, mind you, but they really believe they are doing you and me a service when they tell us, “You should stop running—you’ll ruin your knees.” The most amusing part is that there have been studies that suggest quite the opposite is true. Running may actually strengthen your knees. How’s that for a plot twist?
So the next time someone tells you you’re going to have bum knees when you’re older, be ready with the evidence—and don’t be afraid to tell them they’re wrong, even if you have to shout it over your shoulder as you run away.
Why Do People Think Running Ruins the Knees?
There’s no conclusive answer to this. It could be because runners do suffer knee ailments. It could be because running with incorrect form can exacerbate those ailments — patellofemoral pain syndrome is even called Runner’s Knee. Or it could be someone just blurted out this silliness years ago and it stuck because, well, that’s what rumors do?
I Googled the heck out of the topic and couldn’t find out for sure. I also asked all my smart running friends, the ones who have been at this even longer than me (I’m at 22 years and counting on the road). No one could give me a definitive reason. I think it’s equal parts busybody-ness and envy.
When you see someone else doing something active and physical, you may feel a little envious. You may want to take them down a peg, because let’s face it, runners can be smug. (I think it’s the endorphins.) So you point out that the healthy behavior they are so proud of perhaps isn’t so healthy.
Whatever the reason, the idea that running ruins the knees has taken root, and it did so a long time ago. I found articles going back decades that address this common misperception.
The Science: Running and Knees
The general agreement in the scientific community seems to be that, while runners are susceptible to knee injuries, running does not automatically doom you to knee replacement or hobbled steps down the line. One study found that, while running does impart a much higher impact on the knees than walking, footstrikes are so quick that the total stress on the knee is about the same between the two activities. Another study declared that there was no increase in the risk of developing arthritis in the knees for runners. In fact, running might even strengthen joints and help protect against disease and injury—quite different than “ruining the knees.”
Researchers continue to look into this area because, truthfully, there’s still a lot about the long-term benefits of exercise that hasn’t been unlocked. A more recent study suggested that a half-hour of running can help reduce inflammation in the knee joints, which in turn leads to fewer knee injuries. Critics quickly pointed out that this applies only to running short distances and not longer ones.
Knee Injuries From Running
Chances are, if you have been running long enough, you’ve injured a knee. Of course, you’ve also probably injured other parts of your body, because when you do any type of repetitive motion, you stand a decent chance of being injured.
So why the frequent knee injuries for runners? It’s not because running simply ruins our knees. Some researchers actually believe your risk of knee injury rises based on your biomechanics. When you have an awkward or incorrect running form, your chances of hurting your knees rises. Getting your gait analyzed by a professional can help you hone in on the problem and adjust accordingly to decrease injury risk. You may also have a physical issue that leads to the knee injury. If, for example, your legs are two different lengths, you are at risk of hurting your knee(s) when you run. Overuse or ramping up your miles too fast, as well as wearing the wrong type of shoes or ones with insufficient support, can also lead to knee injuries.
The Verdict: Running Will Not Ruin Your Knees
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that everyone who told you running would ruin your knees will probably end up wrong. Is it possible that you will sustain long-term damage to your knees as a runner? Yes. But it’s also possible that the sun could turn green tomorrow and my cat could stop waking me up at 5 a.m. every morning for a feeding. Those things are possible but not probably.
Most runners probably don’t let the fear of bad knees down the line stop them anyway. Running has tons of pros versus just a handful of cons. Though it started off as a means to control my weight, I’ve long since moved on to the more practical benefits of running. For me, it’s a way to control stress levels. If I don’t run for a few days, someone in my family will gently point me toward the door, because I’m just not pleasant to be around without that fix. Is that worth the very tiny possibility of bad knees down the road? Yeah, for me it is. I believe the science that suggests it won’t happen anyway.
So the next time someone tells you you’re “ruining your knees” with running, look them right in the eye and say, “I don’t think so.” Then drop all that scientific knowledge I listed above. At the very least, they will probably back off because they don’t have their research in hand. At best, perhaps they’ll learn something. The best possible scenario is that they never say it again to someone else—in which case you’re a running do-gooder, in addition to someone with strong knees.