By Alexander L. Lambert II, MD, F.A.A.O.S. –
People often assume that if they’re not competing in long-distance races or elite sports, they’re not at real risk for knee pain and injuries linked to running.
In fact, anyone running recreationally can develop knee problems if they don’t take the time to stretch before workouts – and, ideally, on days off as well – warm up and cool down, gradually increase distance and speed, and rest as needed.
While some acute injuries are unavoidable, many types of damage are not. In fact, up to 70 percent of runners will develop overuse injuries at some point, more than half of them involving the knee, according to data from the National Institutes of Health.
Common conditions that we treat include soft tissue injuries such as tendinitis and torn ligaments; cartilage damage and arthritis; and growth plate inflammation in children and teenagers. It’s also important to realize that knee issues can actually be referred pain from a hip or back problem, such as arthritis or a pinched nerve.
Here’s what everyone from young athletes to senior weekend warriors can do to keep their knees healthy:
• Stretch Regularly
While there are varying theories on stretching, easing tight muscles in the legs, ankles and hips is beneficial, especially before playing a sport such as tennis or basketball that requires explosive movements. Each individual should tailor stretches based on fitness level, but basic moves that target the hamstring and quadriceps – three sets of each, counting to 10 slowly – are certainly important for protecting the knee. Another general piece of advice is to bend forward and try to touch the toes; people who can’t do that fairly easily need to work on flexibility. No one can go wrong by spending a few minutes at least once a day on stretching.
• Warm Up…
To get oxygen-rich blood moving through the knees and supportive muscles surrounding them, start with gentle activities such as jogging slowly for a quarter mile or riding a stationary bike for five minutes at low resistance.
•… and Cool Down
Immediately sitting down after a run can lead to knee stiffness and inflammation. Instead, jog or walk for a few extra minutes, and then stretch.
• Build up Gradually
It’s not healthy to attempt to run five miles or sprint after any period of inactivity. Even top athletes who take just a month off will see rapid muscle deterioration. Begin with very short workouts and low speed, or even a combination of walking and running, and go easy on the knees by avoiding hills at first.
• Listen to Your Body
Don’t try to power through knee pain. A sharp pang during a pivot, for example, could be the start of a partial ligament tear that could turn into a full tear without rest, ice (applied every few hours for 15 minutes), compression and elevation. If pain lingers after two or three days of self-treatment, consult a specialist.
Dr. Lambert is a Board certified Orthopaedic Surgeon and Sports Medicine specialist at Hampton Roads Orthopaedics Spine & Sports Medicine, based in Williamsburg. He also has been a team physician at the College of William & Mary for 18 years. hrosm.com