The term ‘runner’s knee’ tells you how much we associate running with joint problems. But is running really as bad for our knees and hips as is widely believed? A new scientific study from the US suggests that, on the contrary, running could actually boost the health of our joints and in turn prevent osteoarthritis and hip replacement.
Over seven years, Paul Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, followed the progress of almost 75,000 runners. He found that those who ran over one-and-a-half miles a day were 15 per cent less likely to develop osteoarthritis than more sedentary people, and that the more people ran, the less likely they were to suffer osteoarthritis.
Experts believe that one of the top reasons running reduces our likelihood of developing osteoarthritis, is that it helps us to lose weight.
‘Osteoarthritis is driven by mechanical factors and weight is one of these,’ says Phil Conaghan, spokesman for Arthritis Research UK and professor of musculoskeletal medicine at the University of Leeds. ‘Being overweight puts joints at risk of minor injury and puts more mechanical force through joints that have existing minor damage, thereby making osteoarthritis progress faster. There are also some theories that increased fat tissue in the body has some generalised or systemic effects on joints.’
Williams also suggests that running thickens cartilage, which, in turns, reduces our risk of osteoarthritis. ‘It’s important not to think of the body as a car,’ he says. ‘A car’s engine bearings will eventually wear out. However, a car doesn’t add more bearing material when you drive it more, whereas the body will adapt to exercise by thickening joint cartilage.’
Technique and alignment
A big cause of osteoarthritis is the joint damage caused by injury or operation. When we head out on a run, we are, of course, at risk of injury. We can massively reduce our injury risk by keeping feet low to the ground (rather than bouncing too high) and holding our arms wide (as if hugging a giant ball) to create balance.
As well as safe technique, we must have good alignment, whether we’re standing or sitting. For example, if we run with our knees pointing in – and therefore our weight on the inside edges of our feet – we put a massive amount of pressure on the knees.
The head should float on top of the spine and the pelvis should sit beneath it (many people jut their head and/or pelvis forward or back); and our feet should move beneath (or just in front of) our centre of gravity, rather than lunging out ahead. Children have beautiful natural alignment, so if you want to see how it’s done, watch a toddler’s alignment as he or she moves about! By learning good alignment, perhaps through studying the Alexander Technique, Scaravelli yoga, t’ai chi or qi gong, we can take a lot of strain off our poor old joints.
When we run on roads, our joints absorb huge amounts of stress – up to six times our body weight – each time our foot hits the ground because the surface has no give. It is therefore widely believed that trail running is better for joint health. However, there is arguably more risk of injury on the trails because the terrain is often uneven and injury increases our chances of developing osteoarthritis. The best surface to run on then is a smooth, soft surface, such as a flat grassy path in a park or through fields.