Runner’s Knee

Last December, I started training for my first triathlon, which for me primarily involved running. I’d never done any sort of regular running, but I soon found that I really loved doing it (far more than, say, swimming). In March, I successfully entered and completed the Pasadena Sprint Triathlon — what a high point! I’d worked up to 3-mile runs without any trouble. After the triathlon, I continued running, and kept increasing the distance until I made it to 5 miles. That run actually wasn’t so much fun, so I backed off from there to ~3.5-mile runs again.

By June, however, I started experiencing knee pain. Not while running, but at other times, like just walking around, and especially when going downstairs. The final straw was when I was hiking in Scotland and had to cut a hike short (one I’d done two years before with no trouble!) because it was just too painful. I took a couple of weeks off of running but still was feeling achiness in my knees. That’s right, knees plural — not just the one I’d injured skiing last year.

Today I visited my doctor and learned that I’ve developed runner’s knee, also known as “patellofemoral pain,” which often manifests as aching below the kneecap, most strongly when going downhill or downstairs. This can be caused by a variety of things including imbalance in musculature or mechanical problems with how your patella (kneecap) slides over the knee, but it’s very common in runners who increase their distance or speed too aggressively, and also twice as common in women as in men. Argh! I was being cautious, but I hadn’t really abided to the suggested “only increase by 10% each week” rule because I was feeling fine. In fact, my knees don’t hurt much or at all while I’m running. It’s afterwards (for days?) that I notice it. So this all points to the running aggravating the joint, and it means I need to back off, take it easy, and be more gradual in my efforts. As my doctor said, “Run for enjoyment, not for achievement,” and then chuckled self-deprecatingly before he segued into a story of his own over-ambition and series of injuries in his determination to run a half-marathon even if it killed him (or his knees). There are also some strengthening exercises for the quad muscles that can help, and I can go to a running shoe store to get an assessment and their recommendation for shoe styles (many friends have advised this). His other advice was to avoid running downhill (here I’d thought downhill bits were my chance to improve my average speed!) and online I’ve read that I should be running on a track or something softer than sidewalks/roads.

I hope to improve soon! I am really, really missing my running. The good news is that the doctor said there’s no reason someone my age shouldn’t be able to run 3 miles 3-4 times a week, so I should be able to build up to that pain-free. It was good to hear this confirmation of my own expectations, rather than a dim outlook and some dire words about the effects of aging. Bah!

2 of 2 people learned something from this entry.

  1. Michael Littman said,

    July 20, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    I’d love to run with you sometime! (I took a few weeks off after developing some sort of arch/heel pain but I decided to ignore that because the not-running pain was becoming much worse than the arch pain.) Yeah, muscle strength around the knee was my first thought.

  2. Kiri said,

    July 20, 2012 at 8:12 pm

    You get not-running pain, as in physical pain? Or just the emotional frustration and endorphin withdrawal?

  3. Matthew Graham said,

    July 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm

    The Caltech track is a great place to run – it’s certainly gentler on my knees than sidewalks/roads.

  4. What I Learned Today » Blog Archive » Recovering from Runner’s Knee said,

    August 21, 2012 at 9:17 pm

    […] weeks ago, I was forced to stop running due to intense knee pain. My doctor advised a complete halt to impactful exercise (running and Jazzercise) and then a […]

  5. Vilas said,

    September 27, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    (Learned something new!)

    Good story, very informative, lesson for me is to run for fun and not for achievement , I am a half marathon runner myself.

    Hope you are feeling better now and able to run the distance you wanted to.

    Best wishes,


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