Hip or knee niggles? How running can help, not hinder, joint health

Runner’s knee or arthritic hips are often quoted as a reason not to run, but science tells us this isn’t the case. It’s time to don a pair of running shoes.

It is often said that running will give you hip or knee pain and, worse, that it’s bad for you. But this is wrong. Research confirms it won’t do you any harm and, in fact, running to help joint health is good for you when it comes to tackling issues such as hip and knee pain. Indeed, one long-term study showed that the incidence of hip and knee osteoarthritis was three times higher in sedentary people than in recreational runners. Movement is medicine when it comes to running and joint health.

Now, before you rush out of the door in your brand-new running shoes, take note. We’re not talking about running 100 miles a week in an attempt to break a record; this is all about having fun. Performance running, as any coach will confirm, is about stressing systems to the max and allowing them to rebuild and recover to become stronger, which in turn could have an effect on your joints.

Running for health and pleasure – and as part of managing your knee or hip pain – is the reverse of that. It is all about enjoying an active lifestyle. So, go as slow as you wish. Indeed, that’s better for all sorts of reasons. 

A group of older runners happily chat with each otherCredit: Shutterstock/Rawpixel.com
Running to strengthen your knees and hips is always worth celebrating. It can actually reduce any niggles

A positive approach to joint health

The key is to recognise that everybody is individual and individual needs will be very different. But, according to studies that have followed runners for as long as 18 years, physical activity does play a positive role in dealing with hip and knee pain. Running to help joint health can work. 

Let’s start with the basics to make sure you minimise joint pain. That means never, on any account, ignore what your body is telling you. If there is any pain whatsoever, stop. Of course, your challenge will be to decide what is debilitating pain and what is merely the muscle soreness you’ve developed from the training you’ve started. 

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An older runner clutches his kneeCredit: Shutterstock/DexonDee
Running is surprisingly efficient at helping you cope with knee and hip pain

R&R is key

To help things along when it comes to muscle recovery, it’s worth investing in a massage gun and reaping its benefits to iron out those problems.  

Recovery is going to be key to all of this, so build in two or even three days off between runs and start to keep a log of how you feel after each outing, to create a picture of what is happening. 

The 6 simple changes to make for runners with joint pain

  • Make sure you have all the correct running gear essentials. Shoes are hugely important in all of this. Make sure they’re cushioned, supportive and designed for running.  
  • Soft surfaces are good, so run on the grass in the park. Off-road surfaces reduce impact, so they play a big role in reducing joint pain. 
  • Hill running is good but running up them is much better than down them. When you’re descending, you tend to brake using your knees as shock absorbers, so where possible, keep that to a minimum.
An older Asian woman kneels down after a runCredit: Shutterstock/PattyPhoto
With the right approach, it’s possible to tackle knee pain head on
  • Include some strength work in your week. Keeping your glutes, hamstrings and quads in top shape is important when you’re dealing with joint pain. Take heart, our cartilage, bones and muscles grow stronger with every workout.
  • Before heading out for a run, make sure you do a running warm-up. These 10 minutes before you run should always be included. One amazing runner in his eighties told me to always use that first mile to go much slower than you plan for the rest of the run, to allow all your old, worn bits to get loose. Think of yourself as a classic car that needs time for everything to get moving.  
  • Your running form matters when it comes to minimising your risk of picking up an injury. Try to keep nice and upright, no bending over, as so many older runners tend to do. Instead, focus on the distance and stay relaxed. The right form means your body will work in the correct way and not place unnecessary stress on your joints. 

Dealing with ankle pain

A few years ago, I chatted to Paula Radcliffe, the former world record holder for the marathon, who has lived in Monaco for many years now. She’s just as in love with the sport as she was in her youth, but she told me that, these days, she runs only every other day because of a degenerative foot joint. 

She said: “Fifteen minutes outside Monaco there are some really nice trails as you start to go into the mountains. I can also run the coast paths, which are nice out towards Italy and the other direction down into France. It sometimes doesn’t have to have any purpose than to clear my head and make me feel better. Often it’s social, to run with friends and chat with them, running with the kids. And occasionally, it’s a bit of thinking time, me time.” 

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“I ran right to the day of my hip replacement and was running again within five weeks”

Steve Hall is a club runner who can still knock on the door of 19 minutes for 5km (three miles 188 yards) even though he’s in his fifties and just three years ago had a hip replacement. 

To many – given his superb results, which include a sub three-hour marathon – he may seem like a life-long runner, but he only returned to the sport he loved after his son decided he wanted to join a running club. “I had stopped because my hip was bad and, as a result, I’d put on loads of weight,” Hall recalls. “I started training six days a week and, as I lost weight, I would go as far as the pain in the hip would allow. I spent the next 10 years competing at a pretty good local standard for my age and for the club. 

“But I knew I was on limited time as it was very noticeable that my hip had deteriorated to the extent of a very bad limp and a strange running style, much to my running buddies’ humour.” 

How I got back running

“I started light jogging about five weeks after I had the hip operation. But I was struggling with lots of pain. Ironically, not from the hip but from where the muscles, tissues and tendons had become stretched due to the operation.” 

So, the recovery took a little longer than Hall expected, but today, after more than a year increasing the workload, he’s up to around 35-45 miles running a week. Running to help joint health has been very important.

Science is amazing

“Hip replacements these days are incredible. And my surgeon told me it’s a bit like a car needing new tyres now. If I need another operation, they’ll simply pop the hip out and replace the plastic liner. 

“During a check-up, my surgeon told me to cycle and swim, but when he realised the buzz I get from running, he told me, ‘No problem’, recognising that I’m passionate about running. It goes without saying, everybody is different and should always consult their surgeon for full advice.” 

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Paul Larkins

Written by Paul Larkins

Published:

Paul Larkins has been a sports journalist for more than 30 years, covering two Olympic Games, one Paralympics, numerous World Championships and, most recently, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in 2022. He’s also been a magazine editor, heading up titles covering everything from running to cooking and buying tractors. But his real passion is running. As a former GB International athlete and sub-4-minute miler in the 1980s, Paul has a great understanding of life-long fitness and the benefits it can provide.