Anyone who enjoys running will eventually hear: “Running will wear out your joints and give you arthritis.” On the surface, it seems logical that running several times a week for years would be hard on the knees and hips.
But what does science tell us about whether running causes arthritis? Let’s take a closer look.
Recreational vs Competitive Running Matters
The first thing to remember is not all running is the same. Some clinical studies have been done that try to answer the question of whether running causes arthritis. One of the key factors is how much you run.
It’s estimated that about 3.5% of recreational runners in the United States have hip or knee arthritis. Those runners in the cited studies claimed they ran recreationally for at least 15 years.
How far they ran and how long varied, but the total miles never exceeded 50 miles per week.
However, competitive runners who go for 57 miles per week or more have a 13% risk for arthritis in the knees and hips. An indicator of a competitive runner is one who works with a running coach to reduce their running times.
That study also showed the risk of arthritis for sedentary people is about 10%. This suggests that competitive runners only have a slightly higher risk of getting osteoarthritis than those who don’t exercise.
This suggests that running a reasonable amount doesn’t really increase the odds of getting arthritis. In fact, studies suggest that sedentary people can sometimes be at a higher risk of pain in the joints.
Additional Running Studies Question The Stereotype
One of the strongest pieces of evidence against running causing arthritis was a clinical study in Arthritis Research & Therapy.
This exhaustive study compared runners who ran about 25 miles per week to a control group who only ran two miles, over the span of 14 years. Many people would assume the runners who ran the most would be at the highest risk for arthritis pain.
But that isn’t how the study turned out. Instead, the most significant conclusion was people who ran an average of 26 miles per week had less joint pain than the control group.
The study also showed that long-term runners over 50 had less pain than the control group who didn’t run. Women runners had about 58% less reported joint pain, and men had about 25% less.
This study suggests that running 26 miles per week may prevent changes in the joints by reducing the number of chemicals that cause inflammation in the knees. So, you can run 20 or 25 miles per week and know you may be preventing yourself from having arthritis years from now.
Other Risk Factors For Arthritis and Running Injuries
There are other factors that can increase the risk of developing serious running injuries and arthritis:
- Improper technique: Not running correctly can increase the chances of being injured. For instance, if you run flat-footed, the shin muscles are pulled and can experience damage.
- Hard surfaces: Running on concrete every day can increase the chances of injury. Try to run on gravel or trails as much as you can.
- Incorrect shoes: Wearing the wrong shoes or inexpensive shoes can increase the chances of injury.
What Does All This Mean?
The most obvious conclusion is there isn’t a direct link between running and getting arthritis and joint pain later in life. So we can tentatively conclude that recreational running 25 or 30 miles per week can be used for exercise if you are in good health.
It also seems that many recreational runners enjoy some protection from hip and knee arthritis. There are several possible reasons this could be true:
- Running usually leads to a lower body weight, which reduces wear on the joints
- Running provides mental health benefits
- Running lowers the amount of body inflammation
- Running may enhance the health of the cartilage in the joints
- Running reduces the stresses of life
If you do end up with arthritis, there’s no conclusive evidence that running caused it. Instead, some are simply more likely to have problems than others.
Runners who have hip arthritis can do a few things to help:
One of the common issues with hip arthritis is it stiffens, and there’s less range of motion. That may force the rest of the body to adapt and strain other body parts.
You can reduce this problem by stretching and moving the hip joints before running every day.
Build Muscle Strength
The muscles around the hip joint may absorb more than 60% of the exertion when you run. Therefore, the more muscle strength you have, the less running affects the joints. So it’s essential to boost your muscle strength in the gym.
Don’t Overdo It
Runners understand: Once you start running and get into it, you want to keep doing it. After all, it’s a fun, invigorating activity that is fantastic for your mental and physical health.
Unless you are training for a long-distance event or competition, consider dialing back a bit on your miles. You can work other exercises into your training regimen, such as bicycling and swimming.
Evidence suggests that developing arthritis from regular running is uncommon. However, someone with a chronic injury shouldn’t push themselves too hard. This could make the injury worse.
Research shows that people who continue to run with a lower-body injury may increase the risk of arthritis. This could be because you compensate for the injury by altering your running form, which stresses the uninjured joints.
Before returning to a regular running routine, you should let the injury heal. Rest, ice and heat, and an anti-inflammatory can do wonders. If these remedies don’t do the trick, talk to your doctor.
Running doesn’t necessarily cause arthritis and may even prevent it. So, feel free to take up running or keep at it!
Nathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science.
Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.
To work with Nathan directly on your personal training goals, contact him today!