The 6 Things I Do to Run with Arthritis

My knee has been feeling a lot better in the last two weeks. So much better than I’m nervous my body is screwing with me and it’s all going to come crashing down at any moment and leave me hobbling around again and finally understanding the merits of a cane.

I don’t know what’s made the difference, which is what has me nervous, but also hopeful that at least something is working. I’m not sure if it’s the three times a week I’m doing a 20 minute simple strength routine, the daily foam rolling or the extra stretching. Maybe it’s just time and rest. Or voodoo.

It’s likely a combination of all of them. But probably voodoo.

My one wish is that my next major injury or autoimmune disease just has a simple recovery protocol. I’m getting a little tired of balancing art and science in trying to find a solution.

It’s becoming a familiar mantra this past year. Take it slow and do the little things. Taking the time to do the extra preventative steps is something I wish I could go back about five years and hammer into my naive, younger self that just wanted to get to the suffering at all costs. Sure, it’s annoying and not all that fun, but neither is being injured and unable to do any workouts. 

Runners just wanna run but man there is a cost.

Those niggles are harder to shake off post-40 and easier to get. Unless you are blessed with perfect form or can keep your workload and recovery perfectly harmonized then you need to really take care of the little things if you want to continue to be active and compete as an older athlete.

So, I’m slowly ramping the running back up, but with an arthritic knee, is this the best course of action? Should I give up on running for lower impact sports? Am I putting my future mobility and lifestyle at risk? 

In short, is it worth it to keep running? 

The short answer is, yes. 

Contrary to what you might think or what your primary care doctor might tell you, running does not cause arthritis and recent studies have shown that a workout routine that includes running can actually help you manage your symptoms.

The Arthritis Foundation itself recommends that people with arthritis use running as part of their exercise routine. If you’ve been diagnosed with osteoarthritis (OA) going cold turkey and quitting running may do more harm than good.

Now, what is the best way to run with arthritis? Carefully and likely with some adjustments to how you used to do it.


1. Take it Slow

If you were a competitive runner or weekend warrior, you are not going to immediately go back to your previous workload or previous performance. You need to accept that or you are in for a load of frustration.

The first rule or arthritis run club is to listen to your body and run without pain (or without increasing your pain).

Add miles slowly, be very conservative, and see how your knee handles it. If there’s any additional pain or inflammation rest for a few days before going out again.


2. Seek out soft surfaces

Concrete and asphalt can be up to ten times harder than other surfaces, like trails, to run on. In a game where we are trying to lessen impact, load and potential inflammation, it can pay off handily to get off the roads and and play in the dirt.

Running on trails more can have the additional side benefits of increasing your ankle, foot and lower leg strength and torsion as you dodge roots and rocks. All the while, taking the load off the knee joint.


3. Don’t neglect strength training

My old nemesis continues to haunt me, but if anything is going to get me to commit to a weight routine it is to threaten to take away my running! Stronger legs, hips and core muscles can all combine to diffuse and spread out the forces that come from running, rather than concentrate them in the quad and knee joint.

This is what I believe did me in and led to my OA diagnosis. I had weak hips and core which ultimately led to muscle imbalances that caused my body to compensate in unnatural ways and put stress on that knee joint.

4. Work on your flexibility

Going hand in hand with strength training is being dedicated to loosening those muscles and joints so they work effectively. This can be through yoga, foam rolling or a stretching routine. This should be done daily to keep everything oiled and moving freely.

I have never been flexible. Ever. I failed the Presidential fitness test because of that stupid box stretch. Even with daily rolling and a weekly ashram visit, I’m still not exactly limber, but I am getting better. Every bit helps.


5. Increase the cross training

While I haven’t given up running, I have been slowly coming to the realization that daily running or sixty to seventy miles week are probably in the past if I don’t want a knee replacement in fifteen years. I won’t be following up any long runs with another run, even an easy one. It will be into the pool or onto the bike saddle.

I am now looking to balance my training schedule with other lower impact activities. This isn’t a huge switch during triathlon season as I was already swimming and running, but I’ll likely now need to continue this year round even when I’m training solely for a running event.


6. Respect your body and rest

Finally, a mindset shift. Rest is part of the plan. A key and necessary part. Rest is not an off day. It’s a recovery day. Days when I do not exercise are always a struggle for me, but something I’m trying to see less as slothful rest and more as a respecting my body and allowing it to recover from the workouts I put it through on all the other days.


So after reading and researching, it turns out the collection of voodoo I was doing is probably correct. Or as correct as we know today. Running with arthritis is possible, even recommended, and backed up by science, but you can’t do it by itself. Running is the result and reward of doing all those other little things to strengthen and prep your body for that runner’s high.