What causes 'runner's knee, and how can you prevent this?

BSc in Health Studies, Dip.Nut
Ask Earle

01 July 2016

What is runner's knee?

Knee pain after running is just one of the many aches and pains that can accompany exercise. It is often termed runner’s knee, since it is particularly common in runners. However, knee pain can appear in anyone who regularly does exercise that involves bending the knee, like hiking, cycling or skiing.

Runner’s knee occurs when the kneecap (patella) becomes inflamed and irritated where it meets the thighbone. This can result in a sharp pain, or a dull ache which is generally worse either during or after running.

The reason that the most common cause of knee pain is running is that running is such an accessible exercise. You can do it almost anywhere without the need of much specialist equipment, and it’s really easy to build a programme that suits you; whether that’s a 20 minute run or a more long distance run, up a hill or on flat ground, slow or fast.

This flexibility also means there are a number of adjustments you can make to your running habits that can help reduce knee pain after running.

What can I do about it?

Finding ways to alleviate knee pain from running is often a case of figuring out what factors are contributing to the pain. There are a number of factors you may wish to consider, including:

  • The surface you are running on can have a big impact on your joints. If you tend to run on hard surfaces such as concrete or a treadmill this can cause shock impact on the knees. To avoid this, try switching to a softer surface, such as grass, dirt or sand, or buy better running shoes
  • Wearing the wrong kind of shoes means that your knees are not being supported. You need to wear good running shoes with plenty of shock absorption in the soles. Some running shops will actually assess the way you run and tailor running shoes and insoles to suit your needs. Shock absorbent shoes are particularly important if you frequently run on hard surfaces such as treadmills or concrete roads
  • Being a beginner can also increase your risk of developing runner’s knee. If you are new to running, your body may take some time to adapt to this new form of exercise. The knee may not be used to this repetitive motion so may begin to ache. In addition, the muscles around your knee may not be very strong if you are a beginner so they may not be able to support and cushion the knee. Try to ease into running slowly by running regularly for shorter periods of time; instead of trying to run once or twice a week for an hour, try three or four times a week for 20 minutes each. If you need help easing yourself into running try the Couch to 5K app from the NHS
  • Long distance running can cause knee pain because of the sheer length of time the knee is being made to repeat the same motion and absorb impact. Try running shorter distances more frequently. If this is not possible, try to improve your running habits elsewhere; buy better shoes, run on softer ground, or try some of our treatment methods detailed below
  • Being overweight can also cause runner’s knee because it puts added pressure onto the knee. Before taking up running, try to lose weight using lower impact exercises such as swimming, which is particularly great because the water supports your body weight, taking pressure of your joints. Weights may also be a good idea, as well as gentler exercise like yoga
  • Remember to warm up and cool down before and after running as it is harder to damage warm joints and muscles. Walking briskly for 5 minutes before you start running will warm you up. Don’t forget to stretch too! A brisk 5 minute walk and gentle stretching after running will gently slow your body down and prevent a build-up of toxins which cause stiffness, muscle ache and cramps.

For most people, variation will help prevent injury. If you regularly experience knee pain from running, one of the simplest solutions is to incorporate different kinds of exercise into your routine. Instead of doing the same run five times a week, try switching one or two of those days for swimming, cycling, an exercise class or weights. This helps build fitness across the whole body, engages a wide range of muscles, and prevents injury from the repetitive motion of running.

What treatment is there?

Firstly, if you are experiencing runner’s knee it is a good idea to stop running and rest the knee until you are no longer experiencing pain, as your knee may need some time to recover. I advise speaking to a doctor or physiotherapist so they can assess the level of inflammation and pain in your knee, and therefore suggest how much rest is required.

Aside from this, there are a few methods you can use to prevent or treat your runner’s knee:

  • You could invest in a good knee brace to support your knees while you run. This is particularly useful for long distance runners and people who run on concrete or treadmills
  •  Using a cold compress or cold pack will help reduce inflammation around the knee – helping reduce pain and quicken recovery time. This is particularly useful if your knee pain comes on very suddenly. Try a frozen bag of peas wrapped in a towel or a cloth soaked in cold water
  • Use an arnica gel such as Atrogel to soothe the ache and pain in your knee. For long term pain, try Devil's Claw
  • Elevating the knee can help reduce swelling
  • Anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and swelling. These kinds of medication should not be taken long term, so consult with your doctor about how long you can use them for knee pain
  • Try our exercises for knee pain to keep your knees and legs strong

For more information on knee pain, head to the knee pain page. If you have any more questions regarding knee pain, don’t hesitate to ask me in my Q&A service.

Atrogel – Arnica gel for muscle and joint pain

Arnica gel for relief of muscle pains, stiffness, sprains and bruising. 100ml size available.
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