Runner’s Knee Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Workouts — a Physical Therapist Explains Why

PSA: you don't have to put away your sneakers because you're dealing with runner's knee.

As long as you have the go-ahead from your doctor or specialist — this is important — you can continue to exercise with some important modifications.

To help you navigate the world of working out with runner's knee, we chatted with a doctor of physical therapy about how your running routes might change, strengthening exercises to incorporate into your routine, low-impact workouts to try, and more.

First things first, what actually constitutes a runner's knee injury? Though a common running injury, there's no formal diagnosis for runner's knee. Dr. Kristi Fata, PT, DPT at Bespoke Treatments NYC, said it's used as a diagnosis of exclusion.

"Runner's knee or in fancy terms, patellofemoral pain syndrome, is pain that occurs in the front of the knee that typically occurs in the active population," Dr. Fata said. "It is typically described as a dull or annoying pain that occurs in the front of the knee and is exacerbated by activities that load the knee joint with a bent knee. Often times it can be attributed to overuse in running, jumping, cutting, and pivoting sports, which basically means in all physical activity, but the true cause remains unknown."

If you think you have runner's knee, the first step is reaching out to a medical professional, like a doctor of physical therapy, for an evaluation and an individualized recovery program.

While Dr. Fata said rest is usually recommended, especially if you're running long distances, you might not have to completely pump the breaks on exercise.

"Although stopping exercise may seem like the solution and will temporarily relieve your pain, it will not solve the problem and it may resurface days, weeks, or months later," Dr. Fata said. "So alter your intensity of training, incorporate some strengthening exercises, and get strong and come back feeling better than ever!"

In terms of intensity of training, Dr. Fata said that if you typically run 20 miles per week and you notice that your knee pain increases after mile 10, you might reduce your mileage to only 10 total for the week. Then, you might follow a program — again, specific to you — to build back up.

Strengthening exercises are essential, because oftentimes runner's knee is due to weakness throughout the leg.

"Strengthening muscles like the hamstrings, hip flexors, and glutes can reduce symptoms down the leg and into the knee," Dr. Fata said. "Combining this with your new frequency and intensity of running can greatly reduce painful knee symptoms and prevent them from returning."

To avoid pain, Dr. Fata suggested adding banded hip thrusters, step-ups, and some form of deadlifts into your routine. Your PT or a trainer can help you figure out the right amount of reps and sets to perform based on your injury.

If you want to add other supplemental exercises into your routine, Dr. Fata suggested swimming and cycling.

"These are both great options because [they] decrease the amount of force that is loaded and absorbed through the joint, especially with the knee in a bent position," Dr. Fata added.

Can't beat the running bug? Try underwater running instead.

"Overall, there is less load on the joints while the person can also increase strength due to the resistance that water provides."