Two women that I’ve known for many years now inspired this post. Both run with Rheumatoid Arthritis and inspire me with how much they do, how they handle flare ups and are committed to feeling the best they can. Running with arthritis is doable, but requires some understanding of they body and some training tweaks.
Arthritis and other rheumatic conditions are a leading cause of work disability among US adults. In fact, over 58 million people in the US have been diagnosed with arthritis.
For most people this means pain and stiffness around the joints.
It may effect many joints or just those in certain areas, which is the most common issue known as osteoarthritis. This tends to be what people worry about when saying running is bad for your knees (again…it’s not).
Physical Therapist, Stuart Wilson of Elevate PT, reminds us that we can indeed help arthritis with movement and not just drugs. So don’t be afraid to learn more about how you use your body all day long, in addition to on the run.
Osteoarthritis in Runners
Osteoarthritis -OA is known for wear and tear. A joint that has been used repetitively to wear down cartilage and start effecting the bone.
Runners have NO HIGHER rate of knee osteoarthritis than non-runners.
BUT we do have mobility and health to keep us from some of the arthritis symptoms that more quickly plague others.
Of course, as with any sport protecting your hip and knee joints is going to require smart training and we’re going to dive in to that today!
All of this is to say having arthritis should not stop you from running.
You may simply need to adjust your training or be more diligent about the right types of recovery.
7 Tips for Running with Arthritis
First, I want to acknowledge that there is a difference between Arthritis and Rheumatoid Arthritis. The tips here are going to help both, but the additional RA symptoms mean you need to pay even more attention to how your body responds to training.
People with RA experience fatigue day after day irrespective of their activity or how much rest they get. So yes, it’s much more than a few joints that ache!
We can’t fix cartilage damage, but we can find ways to run with less pain and tools that are anti inflammatory.Follow IronWillJill who runs and cross trains with RA.
1. Strength Training for Joint Support
Possibly the most important piece of the training puzzle for runners, but especially when we’re talking about joints or age.
With age EVERYONE loses muscle, which then creates more instability around our joints. Arthritis just forces us to pay attention to this situation faster.
- Include at least two days of resistance training per week with your running.
- Don’t be afraid to work up to heavier weights (what you can only do 5-8 reps of). This is what’s required to build muscle, not the 12-15 reps range.
- Learn how to do the basic movements correct before worrying about anything fancy.
- Deadlifts, squats, chest press, shoulder press, single arm rows
The more you can work your hips, glutes and abs the more stability you’ll be creating for your whole body which results in less pressure on the joints.
2. Balance Training for Joint Stability
Right in line with strength training is doing some additional work that will help our tendons remain stiff enough to provide good stability and protection.
This is another area where women have to focus after menopause because the drop in hormones makes it easier than ever for us to injure tendons.
- Checkout these balance exercises for runners
- Try just standing on one foot while brushing your teeth
- Do alternating lunges and step ups, in a slow and controlled movement
- Add in mobility workouts which will further help to maintain your full range of motion
3. Varied Running Surfaces
The body takes a tremendous amount of impact with every step we take. Which means that the surfaces we run on can help to lessen this load.
- Run on the asphalt of the road over the concrete of the sidewalk when it’s safe. It has much more give, which will make your legs feel better.
- Go run barefoot in the grass or astroturf. It’s a great chance to strengthen your feet and ankles.
- Embrace the treadmill. The platform is designed with give, so it can be much easier on the body than running outside.
- Find a good NEW track. Oh man the new one’s are literally springy! Don’t worry about doing easy runs there, no one is paying attention to you, they are just focused on getting their own workout done.
- AVOID running long on sand or snow. Both of these require a tremendous additional amount of strength, stability and small muscle movements.
- BONUS: Get cushioned running shoes. It’s one of the reasons I do so love the Hoka Bondi.
4. Improved Running Form
A gait analysis is one way to ensure that you’re running in a way that won’t cause additional stress on your joints.
BUT, you can make some quick changes on your own.
The biggest thing that we want to avoid is overstriding. This is when your foot lands in front of your body and therefore sends more pressure up through the leg to the knee.
- Think about quick, light steps, instead of longer strides
- Stand in front of a mirror and practice marching in place to see where your foot should land
- Add in a few short running drills to improve your form
- Remember that run walk is a tool used by all levels of runners and could be really beneficial for you too
5. Low Impact Cross Training
While this one is true, I’m often not as eager to throw it out for every single runner. Perhaps you have shoulder pain, so telling you to swim means now your shoulders hurt along with knee pain!
Or we recommend jumping on the bike, but you have weak hips so your knees fall inward with every peddle stroke put more pressure on your knee joints than if you’d stuck to a run walk with good form.
- Pay attention to what feels best for your body
- Try a variety of different activities
- Know that strength training is cross training!
6. Focusing on the Wins
We get so caught up in what’s not working that we forget to celebrate the progress we’re making each day. Even if that progress is simply that you moved!
After knee surgery, I didn’t want to spend all my time comparing where I was to where I used to be. So I stopped.
- Start celebrating every time you go out and enjoy a run.
- Don’t wait for a big race or the perfect workout.
- That little mental shift will also help you keep showing up more consistently.
This isn’t about one run, it’s about many.
7. Embrace Rest As Needed
Your mind has to do a lot of work in running to convince your body to keep going. But some days your body is driving the train and you best get on board.
Don’t worry about what other runners are doing. They very likely won’t understand what you mean when you say you’re fatigued or achy…they think it’s normal.
IT’S NOT!! Runners aren’t supposed to feel run down all the time.
So don’t get sucked in to that cycle or think you need to just toughen up.
- Consider a 10 day training cycle, it allows more time between hard days
- Implement a cross between hard days and really easy days like yoga
- Remember that it’s not about the number of miles you run, it’s about enjoying them
Great reminder from Meg that you need to keep taking care of your body post run. Tight muscles could also pull on the joints.
How to manage arthritis symptoms when running
Often the goal here is to help manage inflammation to reduce pain the best we can.
- Staying hydrated is really important as it keeps your cartilage fresh and joints lubricated
- Since sugar can create inflammation, try fueling with something like Muir which is more fat based or utilize things like applesauce packets for all natural sugars.
- If you feel a sharp pain, stop running. STOP. See if you can walk without pain, if not call an Uber or a friend.
- Try utilizing something like Joint Health — my husband started using this for arthritis in his hands from breaking them repeatedly mountain biking and it has a lot of data behind it.
- Apply a topical like CBD cream or Biofreeze to your key areas prior to starting to run.
- Consider adding turmeric pills to your daily routine (I do this already as a long distance runner). NO NSAIDS prior to running, that can cause liver damage!
People with knee pain don’t always have arthritis, but as noted it’s super common.
And what’s also super common is a PT visit that tells them they need to work on their hip, glute and ab strength. So don’t dilly dally, start doing those things ASAP and of course it’s a good idea talk to a sports medicine doctor to fully understand what’s happening with your body.
I hope this helped give you some tools for running with arthritis!
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Thank you for this very thoughtful post. Sharing on my Running with RA page.
PS Who’s the other woman? :P