Congratulations to the participants of Sunday’s 14th Steamtown Marathon. Most of you woke up this morning having difficulty walking down the steps for your morning coffee. The stiffness in your joints, coupled with severe muscle soreness, makes you walk like an arthritic octogenarian. In spite of stiff hip, knee and ankle joints you should feel good about your accomplishment. I am sure that your well-meaning wife, parents, friends, and coworkers, (especially those who don’t like to run) are telling you how foolish you are to run 26.2 miles. They will say that you are ruining your knees and it is time to grow up. Many will say that you will regret this someday when you can’t even walk without pain.
Up until recently, your well-intended family and friends had reason to be concerned. Many previous studies indirectly supported their point of view. A British study found that almost 50% of former elite soccer players had crippling, bone-on-bone knee arthritis by middle-age. Similar findings were reported for elite weight lifters and retired NFL football players. However, the good news for runners is that they may be different. The lean, light-weight runner, who trots like a deer, light on his feet, in perfect alignment, and with good form, may not be doing so much damage to his knee joints after all.
Therefore, I hope to add to your euphoria after completing a 26.2 mile journey by sharing wonderful news based on recent research about runners and knee arthritis. You may not have done as much damage to your joints as previously theorized. Last year an article in Skeletal Radiology received significant attention for disproving “current wisdom” about running and knee arthritis. Researchers from Austria used MRI imaging to examine the knees of participants before the 1997 Vienna Marathon. Ten years later, runners received an MRI before the 2007 race. Scans of those participating in both races were compared for changes. The results were very surprising. No major changes regarding new internal damage to the knee joints of the runners in both marathons were discovered.
A 2008 Stanford University study supported the findings in the Austrian study. In 1984, Stanford researchers followed runners who began running in their 50’s and 60’s and continued to run for 20 years and compared them to the same age group of non runners. While 7% of the runners began the study with creaking and crackling associated with mild arthritis under the knee caps, none of the non runners had such findings. However, 20 years later, only 20% of the runners had advanced arthritic changes compared with 32% of the control group. Furthermore, only 2% of the runners had knee arthritis requiring surgery when compared to 10% for the control group.
Therefore, current wisdom suggests that running may not cause advanced and progressive knee arthritis. Moreover, running may actually offer protection by grooving the surfaces through motion and creating demands on the cartilage in the joint to rebuild, repair and protect. Keep in mind that the joint requires optimum conditions to benefit from the stresses associated with running. Some suggestions purported are: