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The Truth Is, Running Might Save Your Knees
 
 
John Peterson John Peterson is offline
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Join Date: Feb 2008
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01-06-2010, 06:13 PM
 
Hey Friends,

I received an e-mail today from a young man that read my post about Tiger Bend Squats, asking me if I am at all hesitant to be running almost daily at the age of 57. The poor guy that wrote me is only 36 years old and seems to think that anybody past forty must automatically be falling apart. Still, it’s not an unreasonable supposition given that other sports have been linked directly with early-onset arthritis in knees. For instance, in a British study, almost half of the middle-aged, formerly elite soccer players were found to have crippling, bone-on-bone arthritis in at least one knee. Busted up former weight lifters also have a high incidence of the condition, as do retired N.F.L. players.

But despite deeply entrenched mythology to the contrary, the truth is distance runners don’t seem prone to degenerating knees. Consider: An important 2008 study, conducted at Stanford University, followed middle-aged, longtime distance runners (not necessarily marathoners) for nearly 20 years, beginning in 1984, when most were in their 50s or 60s. At that time, when examined by medical professionals, 6.7 percent of the runners had creaky, mildly arthritic knees, while none of an age-matched control group did. After 20 years, however, the runners’ knees were considerably healthier; in fact, only 20 percent showed arthritic changes, versus 32 percent of the control group’s knees. But get this, barely 2 percent of the runners’ knees were severely arthritic, while almost 10 percent of the participants in the control groups were. “We were quite surprised,” says Eliza Chakravarty, an assistant professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. “Our hypothesis going in had been that runners, because of the repetitive pounding, would develop more frequent and more severe arthritis.”

Instead, recent evidence suggests that running may actually shield somewhat against arthritis, in part because the knee develops a kind of motion groove. A group of engineers and doctors at Stanford published a study in the February 2009, issue of The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery that showed that by moving and loading your knee joint, as you do when walking, running, or performing Tiger Bend Squats you “condition” your cartilage to the load. It grows accustomed to those particular movements. You can run for miles, decades, even a lifetime, without harming it. But if this exquisite balance is disturbed, usually by an injury, the loading mechanisms shift, the moving parts of the knee are no longer in their accustomed alignment and plane of motion and a “degenerative pathway” seems to open. The cartilage, like an unbalanced tire, begins to wear away. Pain, tissue disintegration and, eventually, arthritis can follow.
So, here's the deal, the best way to ensure that your knees aren’t hurt by running is not to hurt them in the first place. The biggest predictor of injury is previous injury and one of the best deterrents against a first (or subsequent) knee injury is targeted strength training. The hip stabilizers, quads, hamstrings and core must all be strong enough. As soon as there is weakness, some other muscle or joint must take over, and that’s when injuries happen. This is why a program like G.U.T.S. is so perfect for runners. And while it is absolutely true that several pounds of added muscle mass will slow down anyone's running speed somewhat, it is just as true that the added muscle, if it is in all the right places will keep the skeletal structure in perfect alignment and thus prevent injury.

Bottom line. If you have ever injured your knee in the past, particularly if you’ve ever torn an A.C.L. (an injury that, in the Stanford study, was closely associated with misalignment and cartilage degeneration), talk to your physician before running. But for most runners, the scientific observations of Chakravarty will ring true. “What struck me,” she says, “is that the runners we studied were still running, well into their 70s and 80s.” They weren’t running far, she says. They weren’t running frequently. They averaged perhaps 90 minutes a week. “But they were still running.”

Finally, I run because I like it. I always have. Am I at all worried about my knees? Why should I be? I don't have the slightest bit of pain and I have been running almost daily for more than 40 years.

---John Peterson
 
 
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