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What is Runners Knee?

Categories: Exercise, Massage, Top Tips

What is Runners Knee?

It can be your worst fear as a runner getting injured and not being able to train or race. Often getting knee, shin or foot pain you can it put to the back of your mind and hope that it’ll go away. But unfortunately that is never the case. In most circumstances if you ignore the problem it is only going to get worse. 


Runners knee isn’t a structural problem. This means your ligaments and cartilage surrounding your knee are fine and haven’t been damaged. The culprit is your muscles and how they function over the repeated movement of a run. These muscle imbalances then cause your patella (knee cap) to not move in line with the femoral grove (bottom of your thigh), when they rub against each other this causes the pain.


What happens if you have damaged your cartilage?


You may also find you can have ligament or cartilage damage. These things aren't as scary as they sound, and treatment is much better now than it has been. When you damage the ligament you're also reducing its proprioceptive qualities (how quick your body reacts to knowing where it is in relation to another body part), they can be damaged by being overstretched or torn and they can take a lot of time to rehab them back to strength. However by strengthening the surrounding muscles you're stimulating those neurotransmitters in the muscle fibres to increase the proprioception in the joint again. This means you'll be able to react quickly to the movements your asking your body to do. For example twisting and changing direction or landing on uneven surfaces. 


Cartilage damage isn’t great news. If you injure the articular cartilage at the end of the bone this narrows the joint space and essentially means you’ll end up with bone rubbing on bone and can be very painful.  In runners it’s more common to injure and tear the meniscus. This is found medially and laterally (inside and outside) to the knee and acts as shock absorption and provides structural support, this can usually lead to a surgery to have to repair it.


These injuries can take a long time to heal from due to cartilage not having a blood supply. This is where doing rehab exercises and strength and conditioning work are vital to getting back full function on the knee.


What can cause knee pain?


Knee pain can show itself when you start something new. 


This could be because:

  • You’re new to running and you’re not used to the impact on the body
  • You’ve started to increase the distances you’re covering
  • You’ve changed the surface you’re running on
  • You’re training in a different pair of shoes
  • You’ve landed badly on it after coming off an obstacle
  • You’ve twisted in on uneven ground or changing direction


These are just a few external factors that can impact your knees and some of these things you can’t to do much about.


We’re going to focus on the elements you can do something about. Strengthening the muscles that help to support your knee, so when you put it into challenging situations it is able to adapt and take on the rigours of training and racing. 


What muscles are involved in the movement of your knee?


The main muscles that cross and support the knee joint are your quads, hamstrings and calves. You can also find if you have dysfunctioning glutes they could also be a problem and cause knee pain. 


Exercises to strengthen your legs to avoid knee pain


Here is one exercise to help build each of the muscles that play an important role in your knee function.


Resistance Band Hip and Knee Flexion

Attach the Resistance Band around your ankle. Face away from the anchor point so there is enough resistance in the band. Raise your leg up so there is a 90 degree bend at your hips and knee. Slowly lower back down. 


Hip Bridge Swiss Ball

Lay on the floor with your heels on the ball. Keeping your hips level, squeeze your glutes and raise your hips off the floor and slowly lower back down again. If you feel the ball start to move side to side it is a sign your hips are moving. The ball adds instability to the exercise so it is a good challenge to get your glutes working well. You could progress this to a Hamstring Curl, by bring your heels towards your glutes and extending them back out again. 


Hip Hitch or Abductor Raises

Stand on a step and have a slight bend in you stationary/standing leg. Hang your other leg off the step. Slowly bend and lower your hip, to the side and raise back up. You'll feel your glute working on your standing leg. 


Lay on your side with your hips vertical. Slowly and controlled raise your leg in the air and lower back to the start. Keep your foot relaxed so you can put more emphasis on your glutes. 


Calf Raises

Stand on the edge of the step with your heels overhanging. Hold weights in your hands to help act as a counter balance. Slowly lower your ankles down and raise back up so you’re on your tiptoes. 


Will stretching and foam rolling help?

Avoiding and treating tightness is your muscles is to get into a good stretching and foam rolling routine. If you’re able to work on your flexibility everyday by getting it into your morning or evening routine you’ll reap the benefits.

For knee pain focus on stretching and foam rolling your quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes.

Do you need to see a professional help?

If after a few weeks of doing the strength training exercises and stretches and you’re not seeing an improvement in your pain levels then it would be a good time to think about having a sports massage to get a bit deeper into the muscles.

If there is swelling in your knee and you’re in constant pain it is always best to get it checked out by your GP who may refer you to see a physiotherapist. They may be able to diagnose the problem for you.

What else can you do to avoid knee pain?

I would always recommend doing a strength training programme and having a sports massage first, however sometimes this might not be enough.

If you still feel the need to run whilst you have knee pain, keep your distances small and mileage low. You’ll need to slow down and take things very steady so not to aggravate the injury.

If you need extra support you might think about taping your knee or having orthotics in your shoes to support your feet and arches.

Glucosamine supplements can also help to lubricate your joints, so if you have cartilage damage this can help in those situations.