Every marathoner has faced the question: Aren’t you worried that running all that way will ruin your knees? Fortunately, studies over the years have thoroughly debunked that notion. If anything, healthy runners are slightly less likely to develop knee osteoarthritis than comparable non-runners. But that’s not much consolation for those who do end up developing knee problems that interfere with their running. Once the cartilage in your knee has started to degenerate, the joint no longer works the way it’s supposed to – and it’s reasonable to wonder whether continuing to run on it will hasten the knee’s demise.
Until now, there has been very little research on the effects of running with osteoarthritis, making it difficult for doctors to give advice. But a new study in the journal Clinical Rheumatology by Grace Lo of the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, offers some encouraging news. Lo and her colleagues followed 1,203 older adults with knee osteoarthritis, of whom 138 were runners, assessing how much their condition progressed over a four-year period. Contrary to their expectations, those who continued to run didn’t have any worse deterioration compared to non-runners, and in fact were more likely to have their symptoms improve.
Don’t get carried away, though. The runners weren’t given carte blanche to run as much as they wanted. In fact, they weren’t given any specific instructions, so they were presumably guided by their symptoms and by common sense. That probably involves adjusting your running routine – running shorter, slower or less frequently – depending on how your knees are feeling. But it suggests that if you’re able to find a routine that doesn’t cause your symptoms to f lare up, you can run without accelerating the progression of osteoarthritis. Respected sports science writer Alex Hutchinson’s latest book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, is available now.