You Can Run Hard, But Be Easy On The Knees A Message For Older Runners
When I started running at age 62 and 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.
A Message for Older Runners
I started running again at 62, after not running for decades. I wondered a little about whether my age was a positive or negative factor in my activity. Before the current pandemic I had been meeting with a casual group for 5k runs in Astoria Park, near my home in Queens, NY. After starting in the middle of the pack, I now finish regularly near the front, although this is a casual, community kind of event overseen by the New York Road Runners, and not a competitive runner’s club. It’s called an Open Run, and they have them all over the metro area.
The research I’ve seen on the subject surprised me. There is a school of thought that says exercise builds strong bones when you are young, and maintains strong bones when you are older. A complex study of data by the National Center for Biotechnology Information, affiliated with the NIH, seemed to suggest that long distance running increases bone formation markers, but doesn’t make the bones weaker (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6416492/), though you’d have to read it to understand the entire argument. There are other studies that suggest running is better for BMD (Bone Mineral Density), than other kinds of exercise (Univ. of Missouri study, in Science Daily, Feb. 2009).
There are many other sources and studies you can review (Orthoinfo.aas.org, Silver Sneakers.com, Sixtyandme.com and of course Runner’s World to name a few), and then there’s personal experience. Over the last couple of years, as my performance times have come down and the high of running has displaced the tight muscles and stiffness of earlier efforts, I’ve experienced some physical changes. I’m thinner, but also more flexible. In general I also have more energy. My runner friends say the same things
If you are thinking of taking up running, and are 40 or older, a few general things to consider:
1 – Check with your doctor if you want to be sure you can take on the exercise; if you are already doing some kind of exercise, then you can probably start with: 2- Taking some jogs or even power walks to build up to faster and more interesting runs; 3 – Get a good pair of running shoes – this could be a whole article by itself. Consider if you want something just for casual running or more for long distance or cross – training. There are shoes for every type of surface and style of running. 4 – Some say you should check your expectations –beware the “New Year’s Resolution Illusion,” like people that join gyms on those great discount rates the first of the year and immediately start training for the Olympics only to tire out within a month and finally just have an expensive locker rental until the membership runs out at last. 5 – A lot of people like to have a running buddy to share in the activity, or you could look for a group in your area, like the Astoria Park runners that meet in my neighborhood.
Some areas to consider for older runners:
1 – Osteoporosis – This occurs in men as well as women. There’s the famous case of Bill Rodgers – an Olympian, 3 time NY Marathon winner, 4 time Boston Marathon winner and former marathon world record holder who suffered a bone fracture due to brittleness at age 56. It is a more common problem for women, but as mentioned before, running can help to maintain bone strength too. Your circumstances may vary.
2 – Flexibility –As we age we lose some of the fluidity in our joints and upper body. I became acutely aware of this trying to play basketball with my 15 year old nephew recently. He was able to dart around my left and my right and I just felt like a statue. I did better playing a zone defensive style even though it was one on one. Any rushed movement, hitting a pothole you didn’t see or making a sudden change of direction can cause a sprain, or worse.
3- Cardiovascular Health – This is something you can check with your doctor. Your heart races when you run, and if you use something to measure it, like a Fitbit, you may want to stay in certain maximum range of beats per minute –say, 150 – and eventually you will be able to run faster and keep you heart rate down as your conditioning takes effect. “It’s not so much that the heart can’t beat as quickly, though that’s probably true,” says Benjamin Levine, M.D., founder and director of the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, “the heart can’t relax as quickly” (runnersworld.com/advanced/a20825431/the-science-of-aging-and-running/). If you get into running more, you should look at mixing sprints in now and then, and intervals, where you change speeds for a set interval of your run, like every 220 yards or per quarter mile.
4 – Special conditions – Like asthma or COPD, can be obstacles, but don’t mean you can’t be a runner. COPD can reduce your lung capacity to 22% to 30% of the normal level. But you can still be active. Take the case of Russell Linwood (healthline.com/health/copd/running-marathon-copd), an Australian man with stage 4 COPD who finished the New York Marathon in 2015 (and raised $10k for the American Lung Association).
5 – Don’t forget to rest – If you establish a routine, be sure to take at least a day or two off every week. You might also mix in running and walking over a long distance. I’ve heard people say that when they participate in a marathon or half marathon, they take advantage of the water stations along the route to slow to a walk before continuing on with the race. Some say it even helps get a better finishing time because they have the energy to ramp up for the finish.
Hopefully, this will help you in your running adventure. You can have fun, enjoy the benefits of improved health and meet a wide range of people, no matter what age you take up the activity. I like that it’s pretty cost effective fun, too – just the sneakers are needed.
One thing all the experts agree on: Just run!