You can Run Hard, but Easy on the Knees.
By George Konetsky
I started running at age 62. I had participated in a charity 4 mile run for God’s Love We Deliver, an organization in New York. I hadn’t run in a race since High School. Afterward, I was constantly asked how I felt, and I said “Fine.” After all, it took over 10 minutes a mile, so I didn’t work that hard at it.
But I decided to join New York Road Runners, which ran the charity, and got the bug. I now run over 30 miles a week and have since run in many races including 4 Half Marathons and the last Long Island and New York Marathons (and took around 3 minutes off my 4-mile pace).
Running is a solitary activity, at least while you’re doing it, and I’m often asked about aches and pains and how to avoid them. They say running is the only activity that uses every muscle in your body, so if you run a lot you will strain or tighten up somewhere from time to time, and there are a lot of ways to prevent or reduce the chance of soreness or injury.
Over the course of my first year with NYRR, my less developed muscle groups would get extra sore or stiff, and those were the areas that I needed to work on if I wanted to keep improving; first my upper thighs, which led to more stretching before runs, then it was my stomach, which led to adding crunches a few times a week. Then it was my rear end and lower back, and for that it meant adding some stretches on a mat on days when I was in the gym or working out at home. I’ve never been a home gym type of person, with weights and a stationary bike, etc. I find that if you make a habit of just exercising a few times a week, even if you just do light stretching and a few pushups and crunches that are just enough to be a little challenging, but not so much effort you can’t maintain doing it, you’ll get all the benefits you need. And when something becomes a habit it becomes self-reinforcing – you will get to where you actually want to exercise, and feel like you’ve missed something when you don’t. Good running takes on a similar quality, you can feel yourself gliding along when you start to hit stride. It’s this unconscious state – the ‘Zen of Running,’ that non-runners will never understand.
I think I’ve learned a little over the last couple of years about finding that state of mind.
Today I want to talk about the knees.
I do my running in New York City, where there are lots of concrete and asphalt surfaces, potholes, and even random bottles or trash to step over. Of course there are parks and grassy areas, but they say the paved surfaces are especially tough on your knees. I’m frequently asked about why I never seem to have a problem. The truth is if you run properly you actually strengthen your knees, along with your legs, along with all the other benefits you get from running.
Here are 3 things I think I’ve learned to help you run and keep your knees pain -free:
1 – Posture – Running often tends to make a person lean a little forward, especially if you’re trying to go faster. While everyone has a different ideal posture, you should try to find the proper posture for you to run most comfortably, particularly if you’re going for distance. If you’re having knee trouble, you may be leaning too far forward, putting extra pressure on the front step. Most of the time you run better with relatively vertical posture, and very few people lean back at all while running. The right posture also helps with breathing. If you’re looking to be a competitive sprinter, you may lean a little more forward, but even the best high speed runners need to mind their center of gravity.
2 – Stride – When you run, your stride is longer than walking of course. If you’re taking longer steps than you should, you’ll risk stressing your knees because your midsection, and specifically the weight of your torso, has to catch up to stay in step so you push a little harder with each step. Your foot is also more likely to come down on the heel if your stride is too long, which has more of a shock effect on the knee. You should try to go for a mid-foot foot strike. Worse, it may cause you to “bob” up and down, increasing the knee pressure because of the springing motion you create. So find a good stride that’s easy to maintain.
3 – Pace – For longer distances especially, the proper pace is another way to reduce pressure on those vulnerable synovial joints (I took an anatomy class once, where else do I get to use that word?). So try to find a comfortable pace. Pay attention to your breathing. If your breathing becomes labored relatively soon, it may be a good idea to reduce your pace. Don’t worry, if you run a lot, you will eventually get faster if that’s your goal.
While running, you can make adjustments in all three areas as you go along. Often in-process (or in-race) adjustments are the most instructive, because you always remember how it felt when you made the adjustment. Eventually running will become easier if you pay attention to your pace, posture and stride, and develop your own style and movement.
With all these considerations, you might think that all runners need to adopt the same movements to do well, but that’s not really true. We’re all built a little differently and so you see a wide range of running styles in any big race, or even at the local park. I know I’ve finished behind people in events that ran with swinging arms or side to side stepping that just didn’t look right to me, but suited them just fine.
So remember to express your own style, if it feels good. Be sure to enjoy the journey.