I’m sure you’ve heard the comments ‘Running is bad for your joints’ or ‘Running will wreck your knees’. Running gets a bad wrap and is cited as the cause of arthritis in the knees but not is all as it seems. Humans are made to run. If you subscribe to the theory of evolution, we evolved from apes into bipeds that walk on two legs and we evolved a number of traits to help the movement. Our glutes (bum) muscles are larger than other ape species, we have the nuchal ligament in the neck to stabilise the head while running and our Achilles’ tendons are longer to help absorb the shock of landing. That considered, there are those who fear running will be damaging for your joints. Thankfully, that is not the case.

As with all things in sport science,

  • In a 20-year study conducted by Professor James Fries of Stanford University in California, runners from the study (now in their 70s) revealed that those who run consistently could expect to have less arthritis than non-runners when they get older. It also showed that runners have a lower risk of osteoarthritis and hip replacements.
  • A 2014 study conducted by Dr. Grace Hsiao-Wei Lo, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, found that running at any stage of life doesn’t increase a person’s risk of osteoarthritis of the knee. In fact, it may even help to ward off the condition.
  • The findings of the study, presented at the American College of Rheumatology Annual Meeting in Boston, looked at over 2,600 participants, giving them knee x-rays, assessments, and surveys. Researchers concluded that runners had a lower prevalence of knee pain than non-runners, regardless of their age.

Three different studies al showing that there is a benefit, not a detriment to running.

This is not surprising because as mentioned in the introduction, humans are designed to run. “Our bodies are designed to run,” says Professor John Brewer, Head of its School of Sport, Health and Applied Science (SHAS) at St Mary’s University (stmarys.ac.uk). “In the past, we had to run to catch food or avoid being the food of a predator, so running is a natural form of human locomotion.”

So why is there the perception that running is bad for us?

While running may be beneficial, it is, odd as this may sound, very easy to get wrong. When you consider the running gate, you essentially hop from one foot to the next which does place. Any small muscle imbalances or weaknesses are exacerbated by the continued impact. “Problems can arise when an individual has a biomechanical issue that puts extra stress on a particular joint or when they do too much and refuse to listen to signals (like pain) telling them to rest or ease off,” says Brewer. Poor footwear, running too far, too soon also creates problems because your body doesn’t have time to adapt to the stress.

Not only this, extra weight worsens the problem. “Simple physics says that the greater the force through the joint surface, the greater the wear and tear, which is the essence of osteoarthritis,” says physiotherapist Mark Buckingham from Witty Pask & Buckingham (wpbphysio.co.uk). “The joint surface does not increase in size with an increase in weight, so therefore there is a greater force on the same surface area. Hyaline cartilage is remarkable stuff but it can tolerate only so much and once it has gone, it’s gone – much like your teeth!”

There are many benefits to running including increased bone mineral density, lowers cholesterol, can ease PMT in women, reduces stress and anxiety, reduces the chance of glaucoma to name a few. If you want to go running, my advice would be to get proper footwear that is tailored to your pronation. I would also advise starting small and adding distance slowly over time. 10-20% increase per week would be sufficient, although this will vary depending on the level of runner you are.