Isn’t all that training bad for your joints?

A diagram showing the structure of the knee.
Image from Wikipedia.

“How can an athlete best protect the joints while training?”

This is a great question – and one that comes up quite frequently.

Our joints are those areas where bones come together, which may be cushioned by cartilage, and supported by muscles, ligaments, and tendons (depending upon the type of joint). Regardless of the type of joint, there are lots of fleshy bits that need protecting when we engage in activities that require repetitive motion and/or that impose a forceful impact on the body.

Most people are concerned about running, in particular, and the effect it might have on hips and knees. But, any sport that requires repetitive motions, such as swimming or cycling, will also have repercussions for our joints.

This post offers a few tips to consider to keep your joints healthy and injury free. It is very important to note: those with pre-existing conditions that affect the joints, such as rheumatoid arthritis or cartilage loss, need to be especially conscious of how their daily exercise regimen may affect their joints. In these cases, a training plan should be created in consultation with their doctor, preferably one that specializes in sports medicine.

We break these tips in three key areas: 1) Training tips, 2) Equipment tips, and 3) nutrition tips.

Training Tips for Joint Health

  • Gradual adaptation. One of the key, underlying principles of a good training plan is a slow and steady building of duration, volume and intensity. This gives the body time to adapt to training stress. Typically, we think of this adaptation as important for our muscles and our cardiovascular systems. But, it’s also necessary for the fleshy bits that hold our joints together. Tendons and ligaments are perhaps even more susceptible to sudden increases in training, and so we need to be cautious in how quickly we build volume and intensity in our training.
  • Warm up and Stretch. Warming up your joints and preparing them for the day’s efforts is important to keeping them healthy. We strongly recommend using dynamic stretching as opposed to traditional static stretching. Dynamic stretching incorporates functional movement while elongating and contracting muscles. Ideally, you would do a short warm-up of about 5-10 minutes, then do 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching prior to beginning the main set of your workout. After you are finished, you can cool down with another 5-10 minutes of dynamic stretching.
  • Bio-mechanical efficiency. The barefoot running movement has helped to return popular focus on the importance of form to prevent injury and boost performance. But proper form isn’t just for running. Bio-mechanical efficiency is important in cycling and swimming as well. Furthermore, throughout the day, maintaining good posture is also healthy for our joints by keeping them in proper alignment and avoiding strain.
  • Functional Strength Training. In addition to swimming, biking and running, athletes should work on developing their functional strength, through exercises that are sport-specific and that emphasize the core (abs, hips and glutes). A strong core is the key to a healthy athletic body for many reasons – and joint support is one of them.
  • Recovery. If you have a particularly troublesome joint area, be proactive in your recovery and ice the area after especially hard or long workouts to help reduce any inflammation. While some may recommend taking
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    NSAIDS (such as ibuprofen), we do not recommend this as an everyday strategy. Additionally, elevate the joint (such as your knees) as much as possible (given the nature of the joint and your life’s schedule).

Equipment Tips

  • img_2343-e1331318593171-1024x932-5174563Bike fitting. A proper bike fit is an important component of ensuring that your cycling form is efficient. For example, improper seat height can place undue stress on the knees or hips, leading to pain in these joints, as well as other conditions such as ITBS (iliotibial band syndrome). We STRONGLY recommend that you get a professional bike fitting at least once a year, or when anything changes in your bike set up, such as shoes, saddle, or if you get in a crash.
  • Proper shoes. The selection of running shoes is a hotly contested issue. While John and I have our preferences, those preferences are based on the type of runners we are. So, we recommend getting a shoe fitting at a running shop, where they will look at your form, the arch of your foot, and so on. Regardless of the type of shoe you wear, you should replace them regularly, as running shoes tend to wear out somewhere between 300-500 miles.
  • Running surface. When running, select soft surfaces as much as is possible. You can run on trails, or even the grassy sections next to sidewalks. If this isn’t possible, then try to run on asphalt rather than concrete as much as is possible AND safe with respect to traffic.

Nutrition tips

  • Eat foods that support joint health. In this category, the research finds that foods rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, anti-oxidants, Vitamin E, and minerals such as calcium and manganese are good for our joints by reducing inflammation, restoring collagen, fighting free radicals or stimulating tissue repair and growth. Joint-healthy foods to consider adding to your diet include wild-caught salmon, almonds, broccoli, kale, papaya, apples, black beans, and ginger.
  • fish-oil-3340350Vitamin supplements. Glucosamine and Fish Oil (with EPA/DHA) have been found to help with joint stiffness and pain in various medical trials. (For e.g., see this report of a study about the benefits of Fish Oil for those with RA or osteoarthritis.) The research suggests that these supplements work by reducing inflammation, which may also allow those who regularly take NSAIDS to reduce or stop their dose. For vegan readers, there are vegan-friendly versions of supplements that feature benefits similar to glucosamine (made from fermented corn), as well as vegan friendly ways to consume Omega3’s, such as Flaxseed oil or algae-based supplements.
  • Weight loss. For people who are overweight, losing weight can reduce the amount of pressure our joints take with impact, and as such can help us have healthier joints. One study found that losing 11 pounds can reduce a woman’s likelihood of developing osteoarthritis by as much as 50% (as reported here.)

Despite the warnings about the stress of swimming, cycling or running on our joints, we believe that you have much more to fear from sitting on the couch than by getting up and moving. Even so, we do need to be mindful of our joints as repetitive motion and impact can lead to problems if we aren’t careful. In this spirit, we hope these tips are useful to you.


Isn’t all that training bad for your joints?
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