I love trail running and have been asked by many people if trail running is better for your joints – or if it makes knee pain worse.
There are a lot of conflicting opinions when it comes to trail running. Many people complain of knee pain after a bout of trail running. On the other hand, many people, like myself, have never experienced joint pain when hitting the trail. So what’s the answer?
Typically, trail running is not bad for me. In fact, if you have the right form and the right shoes, trail running can actually reduce the risk of knee pains and arthritis. However, if you have muscle imbalances or improper form, it can result in injury to your knee joint.
Moving forward, we will take a look at why trail running is better for your joints and how it can reduce the risk of joint injury. We will also find out why some people’s knees hurt when trail running and how to protect your joints when performing this activity.
As a trail runner, I have sustained many minor injuries when trail running, like trips, scrapes, falls, and sprains. But I have never had any pain in my knee or hip joints. I can help you understand why that is.
Trail Running is Actually Easier on the Joints
Trail running is an excellent alternative to running on concrete or asphalt surfaces. Pounding on the very smooth and unforgiving concrete or asphalt surfaces can cause a lot of pressure on your knees. Unless you consciously keep your feet and ankles loose, the repetitive and predictable motion of your legs can lead to weary joints over time and can result in chronic injuries like IT band syndrome, patellar tendonitis, and knee and ankle injuries.
On the other hand, unpaved trails are much more forgiving for your knees since they have widely different terrain. Trails are much softer than road or pavement surfaces, so they give less resistance to every step you take. Every time you take a stride, your feet will slightly sink into the softer surface and absorb some of the force of the impact.
In addition, the varied surface means you won’t be putting pressure on the same tendon, ligament, and muscles, reducing the chance of tissue injury.
When your knee joints experience less impact, jolts, and pressure, you will have much more fun and safer running experience.
There are a lot of reasons why trail running is better for your joints and can help you improve your overall knee health:
- Trail running provides your knee with a variety of movements. The uneven terrain of the trail prevents the motion from becoming repetitive and transfers stress to other muscles and tendons as well.
- Unlike pavement running, trail running engages the muscles in your legs in a better way and develops various muscle groups simultaneously, ensuring a stronger and more stable knee.
- Since the ground is relatively softer than cement-based surfaces, it will be able to absorb some of the impact of your stride, reducing the risk of knee and ankle injuries.
- The elevation and descents during trail running will ensure you will develop other muscle groups in your leg, which you cannot do when running on a flat surface.
- When running on a trail, you meet many obstacles and rough terrain, which forces you to slow down, reducing the strain on your knees even more.
- Running on trails will strengthen your knees and ankle over time by stabilizing both minor and major muscle groups, making it a more complete workout than pavement running.
Is Trail Running Associated with Arthritis?
People who do not run believe that any sort of running can cause arthritis in the knees. However, this is simply not true. Running, particularly on the trails, will not cause arthritis.
However, if your meniscus – the rubbery cartilage that absorbs the shock between your shin bone and thigh bone – is worn or if you already have arthritis, running might exacerbate the condition.
However, that does not mean you can’t go trail-running at all if you have arthritis. But, it is a good idea to consult your doctor and find out what he recommends before you decide to hit the trails.
On the other hand, if you do not have arthritis, trail running can actually reduce the likelihood of arthritis or at least put it off for a few more years if you are genetically predisposed to the condition. It will help you remain active through your middle and senior years as the action of running itself allows more lubricating fluid to flow within your knees and helps them remain flexible.
Why Do Some People’s Knees Hurt After Trail Running?
Some people find out that their knees hurt after they hit the trail. However, many times, the ache is not because of the impact of the ground on your knee; rather, it is due to muscle fatigue or muscle imbalances that developed over time and altered your running form and joint alignment.
If you love to run downhill, you may also feel pain in your knees after a run. This is because downhill trail runs can do a number on your quads which can result in quad fatigue or tightness, which explains the knee ache.
Your knee pain can also be caused by IT band syndrome, which is the inflammation or tightness of the IT band caused by repetitive flexion of the knees. This is caused by muscle imbalances or a weak hip or gluteal muscles.
This type of pain is known as “runner’s knee” since it develops most often in professional or recreational runners due to the repetitive nature of the activity.
The good news is that simply strengthening your gluteal muscles can correct muscle imbalances and fix your knee pain.
As you can see, there are various reasons why you may have knee pain after running on a trail. However, it is not the act of running on the trail itself that is necessarily the cause of this.
How to Prevent Injury to Your Knees When Trail Running?
There are several ways you can protect your knees from injury when running on the trail. Keep in mind, though, that some of the tips below will need to be performed on a regular basis to be effective.
Let’s take a look at some of the best practices for protecting your knees:
- Incorporate knee strengthening and flexibility exercises as part of your workout regimen to stabilize the muscles around the knees.
- Make sure to do some dynamic warm-ups before hitting the trail.
- To prevent muscle fatigue and pain, add post-run stretching exercises after every run.
- Identify poor form and correct muscle imbalances so you can run in a stable and safe way.
- If you are not very fit or have not attempted trail running in a long time, it is a good idea to take it slow; otherwise, you will risk muscle fatigue and tendon tear, which can result in knee pain.
- Wear the right trail running shoes. Trail running shoes come with rock plates placed between the midsole and the outsole of your shoes. This prevents your foot from being bruised by stones and rocks on the trail. Your trail running shoes will be a lot stiffer than your ordinary sneakers, but this added protection is important when you are hitting rougher or more complex trails. In most cases, your trail running shoes will also have a hard rubber toe bumper which will protect your toes from the rocks.
The best practices above are quite easy to do; however, you first need to learn how to do them correctly. That is why I recommend you consult a trainer or a running coach who can help you identify muscle imbalance and show you the correct techniques to resolve them.
Is Trail Running a Good Exercise for Me?
If you are looking for a better alternative to road running, then trail running might just be your thing. However, you need to keep in mind how technical terrains can affect your body. Without the right shoes or form, trail running can increase the stress on your ankles and knees, so always be careful of wearing the right gear and making the correct form.
Ease your way gradually into trail running. This will give your muscles time to strengthen and make them more equipped to absorb the impacts of rougher trails.
Also, keep in mind that the ascents and descents of a challenging trail can actually increase the stress on your knees. So if you have a knee injury or arthritis, it is best if you don’t go on an exhausting trail run.
About THE AUTHOR
I’m a hiker, backpacker, and general outdoor enthusiast. I started hiking out of college while working for the National Forest Service, and have been hiking ever since. I’ve been solo hiking and leading hiking groups for two decades and have completed hundreds of small hikes and some majorones such as the Appalachian Train and the Pacific Crest Trail, and hiked on four continents. I’d love to share some of my insight with you.Read More About Peter Brooks