Runners Knee by Marco Cheung (Physiotherapist)
Coming into 2021, I’m sure the new “COVID-normal” has many people brainstorming ideas to keep fit. One way that has increased in popularity over the past year is recreational running. There are numerous health benefits to running, most commonly stronger bones, stronger muscles and improved endurance.
As with any sport, a balance needs to be struck between keeping active and over-training. One common consequence of overuse in running is pain around the knee. This is broadly defined as “Runner’s Knee”, otherwise known as Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS).
What is Runner’s Knee?
Runner’s Knee is commonly classified as an overuse injury. Despite its name, it can also occur in athletes that need to bend and straighten their knee frequently. This means cyclists and soccer players are also frequently affected. Pain can come about from irritation of the kneecap on the thigh bone (femur). It can be caused by many things, like increasing your running distance too fast, uneven running surfaces or even improper training and footwear. The pain experienced can vary, from a dull ache all the way to a sharp shooting pain. Pain generally arises around or underneath the patella (kneecap) with this injury, and can get worse with knee bending, climbing stairs or walking on uneven surfaces. Other common signs noted are swelling and crunching within the knee joint. Patellar tracking (how your kneecap moves) can be one of the contributors towards this.
What should you do?
If you encounter this, the best way to manage an acute flare-up of knee pain is to follow these steps over the first week:
Rest: It is important to avoid repetitive overuse and stressing of the knee. This can be completed with relative rest – you may reduce the running distance to one where there is no flare-up of knee pain after the session. Additionally, reducing exercises with significant knee bending like lunges and deep squats can reduce the stress placed on your knee joint.
Ice: This helps reduce localised pain and swelling, Apply an ice pack onto your knee for 30 minutes at a time, and ensure it is wrapped with a towel to avoid ice burns.
See a Physio!
Physiotherapists can assess and get to the bottom of what exactly is causing this knee pain. Due to its nature, risk factors that affect patellar tracking and load bearing around the area can increase the incidence rate of Runner’s Knee.
Some common risk factors are:
- Weak Quads: Your thigh muscles are responsible for straightening the knee, and are an essential muscle group to help load the knee appropriately. Weakness, particularly of the inside quads, can also cause the kneecap to track along the outside of your knee. This further contributes to knee pain.
- Tight Iliotibial Band: The ITB is a thick fibrous layer of fascia that runs along the outside of your thigh, attaching onto the lateral aspect of your knee. It normally assists in knee stabilisation and movement of the lower extremity. However, if it gets too tight, it can pull the knee cap laterally, thereby influencing knee pain.
- Loading changes: Sometimes, changes to intensity and volume of your training can contribute to knee pain, especially when combined with insufficient recovery. The best thing to do with loading changes is to only change one variable (eg. Speed, duration or frequency), and ensure a gradual change instead of a rapid increase.
- Knee Cap position: Patellar positioning is different on each individual. Some are more predisposed to knee problems due to where it sits. If it sits to far to the side, this can increase contact with the groove, and hence knee pain. A good method to counter this is to train the muscles around the knee and optimise the patellar positioning.
How can we treat it?
Physiotherapy is an evidence-based, effective treatment for Runner’s knee. There are many ways we approach treatment and prevention of this:
- Education: Discussing the nature of your injury and how to prevent recurrence is a crucial component of your treatment. Reflecting on your training and loading is the first step in reducing your pain.
- Taping: Taping or bracing can help relieve pain in the short term, and may allow a continuation of running. This is because the tape helps the patella track more on the inside, helping reduce its contact with bony grooves and therefore reducing pain on running.
- Exercise: Targeted strength and activation training is needed, given the dynamic nature of running. This will likely involve work with the glutes and quads. A common example of an activation exercise is VMO activation. The VMO is the inside quad muscle, and plays a role in keeping the kneecap in place. A common sign in people with Runner’s Knee is weaker VMOs, so strengthening this muscle may help improve pain and biomechanics of running as well. Other exercises can target different muscles, movement patterns or muscle activation. These include single leg squats and lunges. It is important to ensure you work within a tolerable threshold, as pain can be a big barrier to training.
- Soft tissue work: Many people present with tightness in their major muscle groups in their legs. This can be worked on with stretching or soft-tissue work. Additionally, foam rolling or kneecap and ankle mobilisations may be of some benefit. However, the main contributing factors are more likely to be related to strength and motor control. Therefore, soft tissue work is considered a short-term form of treatment, and unlikely to resolve your Runner’s Knee for long.
If you are pulling up with increased soreness, and it is interfering with your everyday life, book an appointment with our expert practitioners. Most of the time, one or more of the above causes can contribute to your Runner’s Knee, so we can help tailor an appropriate treatment plan for you to achieve your goals.