Is running safe? If you are thinking about long term joint health, especially of the knees and hips, does the repetitive stress and pounding of running wear out joints faster? Some people argue a very mechanical nature of the knees and the hips and argue the more use, the faster the break down. Others believe there may be some protective benefits of repeated loading of joints with activities like running. Putting aside all opinions of the matter, what does the evidence say? The best evidence shows there may be a protective benefit of recreational running to prevent osteoarthritis, but doing too much or too little could increase one’s risk.
Unfortunately, there is no a clear-cut answer. However, some of the statistics may help you decide if you should get off the couch and go for a jog.
- The prevalence of osteoarthritis in individuals who do not run was 10.2%.
- The prevalence of osteoarthritis in individuals who run recreationally was 3.5%.
- The prevalence of osteoarthritis in competitive runners (professional, elite, Olympic) was 13.3%.
If you do nothing, there is a 1 in 10 chance you will get osteoarthritis in the hip or the knee. There is a significant decreased prevalence in people who run recreationally compared to people who do no run. Running at a moderate level, despite the additional stress, seems to have a protective effect on the knees and hips. But if you are training for the Olympics, there is about a 3% increased risk compared to doing nothing but 10% increase compared to recreational counterparts.
One limitation of the research is that this study was not able to determine cause and effect due to the nature of the studies. There is no guarantee that running at a recreational level will improve your risk of osteoarthritis. There could be multiple confounding variables of why people run versus do not run. It seems quite clear that running itself is not dangerous, per say, for the development of hip or knee osteoarthritis.
The distance one runs a week, may be something to consider when running. Other studies have found running 13-26 miles a week is not associated with increased rate of osteoarthritis but running 57 miles or more a week is associated with increased rate of osteoarthritis. There are more choices when running such as distance per run, speed, strides per minute, stride length, and surface type. If running is painful, altering the variable above could be beneficial on an individual basis.
Running at recreational levels is not associated with the development of osteoarthritis of the knees or hips. When deciding whether running should be a part of your regular workout routine, the excuse that running might damage the knees or hips may not stand. It might be more dangerous to go home and sit on the couch. With the vast cardiovascular benefits of running, running may be a very safe method to stay aerobically active.
Avoiding Knee and Hip Arthritis: To Run or Not to Run?
Alentorn-Geli E, Smnuelsson K, Musahl V, et al. The association of recreational and competitive running with hip and knee osteoarthritis: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther 2017;47(6):373-390.