Older runner holding knee suggesting knee pain

Running vs Arthritis: A Meta-Analysis Review

exercise prescription running running biomechanics running coaches Mar 24, 2024

For years, a cloud of concern has hovered over running, casting long shadows of doubt regarding its impact on our lower limbs. The pervasive myth that running (and one today that still ranks in my top 3 perceptions of running) - a pursuit shared by millions worldwide for its cardiovascular, mental health etc, etc, etc benefits - invariably leads to joint wear and tear, particularly in the knees and hips, has deterred many. However, a peer reviewed systematic review and meta-analysis conducted by Michaela Khan and colleagues, titled “The Influence of Running on Lower Limb Cartilage,” published in the Sports Medicine journal in 2022, challenges this longstanding belief and shines a new light on the relationship between running and lower limb health.

Unpacking the Myth

The genesis of the cautionary stance against running lies in the assumption that the repetitive impact forces exerted on the joints during running expedite the degradation of cartilage, potentially leading to osteoarthritis. This perspective has not only discouraged many from embracing running but has also instilled fear in those passionate about the sport. Yet, as science progresses, it becomes imperative to revisit and scrutinise these beliefs under the microscope of contemporary research.

The Study at a Glance

Michaela Khan et al.’s study emerges as a beacon of clarity amidst the fog of misconceptions. By systematically reviewing existing research and conducting a meta-analysis, the authors have provided a comprehensive examination of how running impacts lower limb cartilage, and therefore the likelihood of developing OA. The study’s meticulous methodology included sifting through numerous scientific articles, selecting those which met stringent criteria for examining the effects of running on the cartilage in knees, ankles, and hips - joints that bear the brunt of the impact during a run.

Running’s Redemption

The synthesis of the evidence leads to a compelling conclusion: running may actually confer protective benefits to the cartilage of lower limbs rather than harm them. Contrary to the popular belief that running degrades cartilage, the findings suggest that running can improve the quality and resilience of this vital tissue. The study posits that moderate, consistent running stimulates the cartilage, enhancing its structure and function. This is analogous to how regular exercise strengthens muscles and bones, suggesting that the cartilage is also adaptable and responds positively to the physiological demands of running.

Beyond Cartilage: A Holistic View

While the study primarily focuses on cartilage, its implications resonate through the broader spectrum of health benefits attributed to running. Increased cardiovascular fitness, improved mental health, weight management, and enhanced musculoskeletal strength are just a few of the well-documented advantages. Thus, running, when approached with moderation and proper technique, emerges not as a villain but as a valuable ally in our pursuit of overall health and well-being.

Embracing Running with Confidence

The findings of Michaela Khan and her team provide a much-needed corrective to the narrative surrounding running and lower limb health. Far from being a cautionary tale, the study encourages individuals to lace up their running shoes with confidence. It underscores the importance of letting evidence-based research guide our health and fitness decisions, allowing us to enjoy the myriad benefits of running without the shadow of unfounded fears.

The Way Forward

As the dialogue on running and joint health evolves, it opens up new avenues for research and deeper understanding. Future studies are essential to unravel the nuances of how different running practices influence cartilage health across diverse populations. Until then, Khan et al.’s work stands as a testament to the power of science in challenging myths and uncovering the truth about our body’s incredible capacity for resilience and adaptation.

To Conclude

Running, it turns out, isn’t a foe to flee from but a friend to embrace, with open arms and fast feet. Let this scientific inquiry inspire us to view running in a new light, one that illuminates its potential to strengthen not just our limbs, but our lives. So running isn't bad for your knees.  If you get sore knees when you run, it's NOT running that's giving you sore knees.  It's going to be a multi-factorial relationship between the way you run, your family history, your training age, your history of previous surgery.......

"If exercise were a pill, it would be the most popular pill in the world.  It would also be the least expensive, with little to no cost." Dr. Robert Butler

Khan, Michaela C. M. et al. “The Influence of Running on Lower Limb Cartilage: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Sports medicine (Auckland) 52.1 (2022): 55–74. Web.

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