Crack. Pop. UGH.
The sounds that haunt you as you drag yourself off the floor from foam rolling. What the heck is going on with your knees?!
Good news, all those noises are normal, but any pain is not. As runners we often hear that pounding the pavement is bad for our knees, which is running myth debunked.
That doesn’t mean you get to ignore knee strengthening exercises!
You’ve got to put in a little time every week for prehab to keep the hips and glutes strong, while releasing the built up tension from sitting all day.
Don’t get tricked in to thinking that running must be hard on your knees!!
And if you have had a knee injury, checkout this post on returning to running after knee surgery it will give you both hope and key steps!!
How to Strengthen the Knees?
- Your body will adapt to the change in stress of going from not running to running. So there could be some initial aches.
- You need to be in the right shoes with the right alignment to prevent knee pain.
- You need to practice good running form (no heel striking!!)
- You need strong hips, core and glute muscles to keep your knees tracking appropriately (not falling in or being pulled by weak muscles)
What you might notice from the above notes is that knee strength isn’t so much about doing something with your knees, as it is creating a solid structure of support around your knees.
And then moving in a way that doesn’t destroy them!
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, having strong and flexible muscles can keep knees healthy and also prevent injury.
Knee strengthening exercises don’t affect the knee joint directly, but instead work on strengthening the muscles surrounding it. Having strong muscles in the feet, legs, hips and core will provide support for your knees.Don't worry about the snap, crackle, pop of your knees, but use these moves to keep them strong! #runchat Click To Tweet
What if You Have Knee Pain?
If you’re having some aches then I’d say move right along to doing the exercises below, along with the one’s I mention in my knee pain prevention guide.
But if you are having true PAIN: sharp, shooting, changing your stride. Then do not pass go, do not try to go for just one more run, do not try to tough it out.
- Go to a sports medicine Dr. They’ll do X-rays or an MRI and will look at your movement to see what might be the cause
- If it’s not yet that intense I still can’t say enough about going to a Physical Therapist who can review your movement patters and make suggestions that will often resolve issues.
- IT Band issues are an extremely common cause of knee pain in runners!! That can be fixed easily!
- Start paying attention to these joint health for runners tips
- Know if you you are running with arthritis you absolutely CAN continue, just with a few adjustments
If your knee pain is due to an injury, surgery, or arthritis, gentle stretching and strengthening exercises may help alleviate the pain while also improving your flexibility and range of motion.
But know that certain exercises may be contraindicated for certain types of knee pain and overuse injuries.
So, it’s always a good idea to check with your doctor and get a personalized diagnosis and treatment plan if you think you have an injury.
5 Key Knee Strengthening Exercises
There are a ton of incredible knee strengthening exercises for runners, but sometimes I feel like we don’t do the one’s that we have seen on repeat because we think for some odd reason they’re simply too basic to work.
While that is in fact not the case, I still wanted to give you some new and different ideas.
- Don’t neglect learning how to do the lunge matrix – for multi-directional movement
- Remember you must do a dynamic warm up
- Focus on adding 10 minute core workouts in to your weekly routine
- Build up to things like step ups once you have more stability from these moves
One of the most interesting things about our bodies is that we need to work muscles from a lot of different angles. This is an issue for runners who do everything in a forward motion and why we need additional movements.
The weakness which needs to be corrected for one person, might not be the same for you.
If you aren’t doing it right, it isn’t going to benefit you! The following exercises are going to stretch all the right muscles and truly help strengthen your knees.
Ready? Let’s get started!
First I’ll describe each move and then you’ll find a full video demonstration so you can see them in action to ensure you’re using the correct form. Repeat each exercise for 3 sets of 5 – 10 reps each.
1. Banded Squat
Squatting with resistance bands targets the glutes, quadriceps (front thighs), and hip adductor muscles. Secondary muscles this exercise targets include the back and core, which your body needs for balance and stabilization.
Start by looping a band above your knees with feet shoulder-width apart.
Slowly bend the knees and lower into a squat as if sitting back into a chair. Keep your back straight and your abdominal muscles engaged.
While lowering into a squat, push out to keep your knees in line with your toes. This is a great move to do in front of a mirror as you may not realize how wild your knees are going while squatting.
Banded squats work your muscles harder than regular squats and help you maintain a better form.
Having the band makes you think about the position of your legs and reduces the chance that you’ll let your knees buckle, while also ensuring your knees are slightly more than hip width apart.
Repeat the exercise, and try holding the sit position a few seconds longer as you get stronger.
2. Banded March
The banded march is an excellent knee strengthening exercise that helps target the quads. Here’s how you do it:
Loop the band around a solid post or knot and put in a door. Put your left leg through the band, anchor just above the back of your knee, and then bend and press down your left leg.
Tighten your core and raise your right knee to hip height at the same time. Do it in a slow and controlled manner to reap the most benefits from this move.
3. Single Leg Hold
This exercise is great for targeting your glutes and improving stability when you run. The starting position for this exercise is the same as the banded march.
Keeping your leg in the same loop, turn so that band is on the inside of the knee and with enough tension to pull the leg towards the band resist and hold while raising the other leg.
For a more advanced version, hold and pause while moving your free leg and arms in a running motion.
In this position, you’re mimicking a run which makes it an ideal knee strengthening exercise for runners because think about it, what is a run?
During a run, we’re on one foot at a time which means your body needs to be able to balance so that your hips don’t shift and in turn don’t create unnecessary pressure on your knees.
4. External Hip Rotation
External hip rotation helps increase range of motion and ensure our hips are fully open while promoting flexibility.
In a reverse tabletop position, rotate your right leg out to the side so that your knee is near the ground and your heel is pointing to the sky. Return to starting and rotate the tight leg inward towards your other leg.
Repeat on the left side. You might notice being tighter on one side, and that’s completely normal. It just helps you identify where you need to focus more. Keep your hips high up the whole time.
5. 3-Way Calf Stretch
Think about it, if your calf muscles are tight what it’s actually doing is pulling downwards on your knee. It’s actually quite common to have tight calves as a runner, especially if you’re doing a lot of hill work.
There are a lot of basic stretches you can do for this, such as calf raises, but I love this one since it stretches all the three different heads of your calf muscles.
So, you can hit all sides of your calf by changing the leverage in your stretch. Start by placing the back foot down with heel on the floor and toes pointed forward.
The first stretch will have the front leg bent and also pointing forward in a line. Keep the back foot down and move your front leg across the body. Finally, move the front leg out to the side.
Watch the video for a demo of each move and some additional notes on things like your hips!
Repeat these exercises for 3 sets of 5 – 10 repetitions each.
Always keep in mind that muscle soreness after a hard workout is normal. But sharp, shooting, or sudden pain in the muscles or joints means you should stop and seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Like I mentioned above before you start an exercise program for your knee be sure to talk to your doctor or physical therapist to make sure they’re safe for you if you have any prior injuries.
Beyond these movements, we know that yoga can help lubricate the joints and a consistent strength training program is going to hit on all those weak areas that I mentioned as well!
Don’t back away from running because your knees feel funky. Instead, find the cause and get to work fixing it!
Looking for more injury prevention tips?
- Get more ideas on strength training for runners
- Should You Run with Sore Legs?
- Dynamic Stretch Routine to Prevent Injuries
- Best Post Run Stretches
- 10 Foot Strengthening Exercises for Runners
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Fairytales and Fitness
I have a band I got from PT and it has been my favorite strength training tool!
Great stretches! Since I’m just coming back from an injury, I’m hyper aware of how one weak link affects everything.
Patricia @Sweet and Strong
I love using bands and really need to use them more often. And I LOVE some protein pancakes! This recipe looks so simple, I definitely need to try it.
I’ll get those calf stretches into my routine. Whenever I’ve had ITB issues lately, it’s been due to my tight calves. I’m strength training, and I do stretch them each day, but I think your series could also help.
For some reason calves are totally overlooked when it comes to ITB!
I have a protein pancake recipe but I have not been able to find liquid egg whites (here) and I’m usually too lazy to DIY.
I’m waayyyy to lazy to DIY :) interesting that they don’t have them there!