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It’s hard to talk to non-runners about running without having them ask the inevitable question, “What about your knees?” It makes sense: The repetitive impact of running can be tough on your lower body, and running has long had a bad rap when it comes to knee injuries.
But running on its own isn’t as bad for the knees as people previously thought. Runners who logged the most mileage in a study published in the journal Arthritis Care & Research actually had less knee pain than the other participants.
That said, “the knee is the anchor of our running gait, thus taking on the brunt of the impact with every step of our run,” says Bethann Wittig, an RRCA-certified running coach, NASM-certified personal trainer, and Fitness and Personal Training Coordinator at Rutgers University.
Knee injuries are still common—they account for 28 percent of injuries in runners, according to data published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. “The most common knee injuries are overuse injuries: too much distance, intensity, frequency, or a significant change in terrain that overstresses the tissues around the knee,” says Ben Reuter, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., author of Developing Endurance. And given its location halfway between your hip and your foot, your knee is susceptible to problems in both areas.
That’s why “strengthening the muscles that surround our knees is key to stability and injury prevention,” says Wittig. “The knee is involved in the full running gait cycle: When we flex it, the hamstrings contract; to extend it, the quadriceps come into play. All of these interconnected muscles need to be strengthened in order to protect that knee.”
When there are weakness or imbalances in those muscles, it can lead to issues like runner’s knee, or pain under your kneecap (which accounts for approximately 25 percent of running-related injuries, according to research from Orthopedic Reviews); patellar tendinitis, or pain below your kneecap and at the top of your shin; and iliotibial band syndrome, or pain on the side of your knee.
Your knee isn’t working independently from the rest of your body, so a consistent, whole body resistance training program is important for strengthening all your muscles, so they can withstand not just the repetitive muscle contractions or running, but also be better able to absorb the forces that come with each foot strike, says Reuter.
How to use this list: Wittig and Reuter both recommend incorporating knee-strengthening exercises twice a week to get the full benefits. If you’re feeling any knee pain, take a day or two off of running and do these moves instead. If you’re looking to use them as a preventative workout, perform this workout on an easy running day or rest day. Start with your body weight and then add weight once you're feeling confident with your form. Perform each exercise for the reps and sets listed. They are demonstrated by certified personal trainers so you can learn the perfect form. You will need a towel and a resistance band.
How to do it: Stand with feet just wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, and hands clasped at chest. Sending hips back, then bend knees to lower down as far as possible while keeping your chest lifted. You should lower down until thighs are at least parallel to floor. Press through heels and engage glutes to return back to the starting position. Repeat. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
Why it works: “A squat is a compound movement that strengthens the knee by focusing on large lower body muscles: the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes,” says Wittig. This move helps improve knee mobility and strength.
Reverse Towel Lunge
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart with a towel or slider under right foot. Slide right foot back as you bend left knee, allowing left hip to flex, and lowering left knee to floor. Press left heel into the floor, then drive upwards to return to standing. Do 1 to 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps on each side.
Why it works: Reverse lunges focus on balance and stability through the knee joint. “They’re great for the knee because your front leg remains safely anchored while the exercise improves stability with the unilateral movement,” explains Wittig.
How to do it: Stand with feet hip-width apart. Lift right foot just off of the floor, making sure not to let right hip shift out to the side. With a microbend in left knee, hinge at hips as right leg lifts straight out behind you and lower chest toward the ground. Continue until chest and right leg are nearly parallel to the floor in a straight line. Pause, then squeeze glutes to return back to starting position. Do 1 to 2 sets of 8 to 10 reps on each leg.
Why it works: Single-leg deadlifts improve stability and strength through the posterior chain (your back, hips, glutes, and hamstrings)—which will protect the knee joint—as well your core and ankles. “Single-leg exercises work your balance, are specific to running, and are less likely to overload the body,” says Reuter.
Lateral Banded Walk
How to do it: Loop a resistance band around your ankles. Starting with the feet shoulder-width apart and the knees slightly bent, take 15 steps to the right, then 15 steps to the left. That’s 1 set. Move slowly, stepping wide enough to feel the band’s resistance, and think about pushing the knees out (rather than allowing them to collapse inward). Complete 2 to 3 sets of 30 total reps.
Why it works: You’ll feel these in your glutes—specifically the gluteus medius, which helps stabilize your hips and pelvis while running, which is important for equal transmission of forces from the heel through the knee to the spine during training, says Wittig. “Glute activation is shown to reduce the rate of knee injuries,” she adds.
How to do it: Start in a standing position, then step to your left foot way out to the left, send hips back and bend left knee until hamstring is about parallel to the floor as right leg stays straight. Push off the right foot and return to the starting position, then repeat on the left. Complete 20 total reps, alternating legs. Do 1 to 2 sets.
Why it works: Runners move in the sagittal plane (forward and back), but training in all planes of motion decreases the risk of overuse injuries, says Wittig. “Lateral lunges train the frontal (or side to side) plane of motion while strengthening the muscles around the knee,” she explains. They also “put less direct load on the knee joint compared to traditional squats and lunges.”
How to do it: Stand in front of a step or bench. Step up with right foot, then drive the left knee up toward your chest so hip and knee form a 90-degree angle. Return to start. That’s one rep. Do 8 reps on each side. Repeat for 3 sets total. Add a set of dumbbells for an extra challenge as you progress.
Why it works: Another compound movement, step ups—when controlled with a slow lowering (or eccentric) movement—are key for building deceleration of the leg for the running gait cycle, says Wittig. “This is the job of the posterior chain, including the knee joint,” she explains.
How to do it: Stand a foot or two in front of a bench, box, or step. Reach right foot back and place the toes on the bench. Bend left knee to lower as far as you can with control. Push through left foot to return to standing. Do 2 or 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg.
Why it works: This kind of resistance training for the knee and hip joints moves you beyond the range of motion that you generally move through while running while challenging your stability and strengthening your lower leg muscles, says Reuter.
Photos by Julia Hembree Smith.