Running with Knee Arthritis

Q: I was diagnosed with arthritis in my left knee, but I enjoy running as a way to keep fit. Do I have to give it up?

A: A diagnosis of arthritis doesn’t have to end your running career. You just need to make some changes so you can keep moving.

Arthritis in the knee is usually a slowly progressive degenerative disease where the joint cartridge gradually wears away. Arthritic pain usually develops gradually and sometimes the knee becomes stiff and swollen, making it hard to bend or straighten the knee. At other times, the pain may cause a feeling of weakness or “locking.”  Arthritis pain may be worse in the morning or after a period of inactivity. Or at other times, the pain may increase after walking, stair climbing or kneeling.

Now that you know what’s happening with your knee, here are some tips to help avoid pain so you can keep running:

  • Cross-train with low impact activity. Alternate your runs with other workouts that don’t put direct pressure on your knee, such as cycling, using the elliptical trainer or swimming. By running one day and then using the elliptical the next, you decrease the impact on your joints while still maintaining your overall fitness.
  • Get strong. Add some total-body strengthening exercises, such as yoga, Pilates or a strength class at the gym to your workout regimen. These exercises will help improve joint mobility and stability.  In particular focus on the quadriceps muscles and the pelvic muscles.
  • Get flexible: The Arthritis Foundation recommends adding 15 minutes of stretching and range-of-motion exercises, such as Tai Chai, to your daily workout. These exercises strengthen and relax stiff muscles.
  • Watch where you run. Try running on softer surfaces, such as trails or even the treadmill, which decreases the impact on your joints. Running on concrete all the time could lead to additional pain.
  • Listen to your body. If you get significant pain and swelling after runs, it means the running you did was too much for your knee.
  • Don’t be afraid to walk. Some runners have found success by doing intervals of running and walking. First, they will run three to four minutes and then walk for one or two minutes. They will keep up this pattern throughout the workout.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.  If you are carrying excess weight, running puts significantly increased forces across your arthritic knee.

Making some of these changes should allow you to continue running. Please keep your physician informed how your knee is feeling and make sure he or she knows about the different workouts and exercises you’re doing.

By Ken Kleist, MD, orthopedic surgeon, ThedaCare Orthopedics Plus in Appleton.