Osteoarthritis in one or multiple joints is extremely common in older adults.
While we often hear about osteoarthritis in the knees and hips, it’s possible to have osteoarthritis in any joint.
Based on the movements involved in running, runners are usually most impacted by osteoarthritis in the knees, hips, ankles, spine, feet, and shoulders.
But, can you run with osteoarthritis? Can you go running with spinal osteoarthritis? Are there any tips for running with arthritis to help reduce pain and prevent disease progression?
This guide will discuss running with osteoarthritis in any joint or multiple joints and strategies for reducing the discomfort associated with running with arthritis.
We will cover:
- Can You Run With Osteoarthritis?
- Does Running Cause Osteoarthritis?
- Will Running Make Arthritis Worse?
- 13 Tips for Running With Osteoarthritis
Let’s get started!
Can You Run With Osteoarthritis?
Many runners assume that a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in the knee, hip, or another lower-body joint would be an absolute contraindication to running, but in most cases, it’s possible to continue running with osteoarthritis.
Running with osteoarthritis can be uncomfortable, though it’s not necessarily impossible, depending on the severity of the degeneration of your joints, the number of joints involved, and your overall health, body weight, pain tolerance, and your biomechanics.
For example, a runner with a high BMI with severe end-stage osteoarthritis in both knees may not be able to continue running without getting a knee replacement due to the severity of pain and crepitus in both knees.
Runners who are overweight or have a high BMI may have additional difficulty when running with osteoarthritis because even more force is put on the joints.
On the other hand, a runner may be able to go running with spinal osteoarthritis with just a few modifications to their training if their condition is mild to moderate.
Given the wide variations in the physical location, characteristics, and severity of the condition and the characteristics of each individual runner, running with osteoarthritis may or may not be possible.
You should discuss your interest in running with your rheumatologist, general healthcare practitioner, or physical therapist to get clearance and specific guidance for your personal situation.
Does Running Cause Osteoarthritis?
It used to be a given that in any room full of people, at least a handful would adamantly assert their belief that running causes arthritis and joint damage, particularly to the knees and hips.
Even medical professionals and researchers have long believed that high-volume, consistent running will cause premature joint wear and tear.
However, research has shown that runners don’t seem to be at any higher risk of developing osteoarthritis than non-runners, and in fact, running may reduce the risk of osteoarthritis, according to some studies.
A study that followed runners and non-runners over a period of 18 years found that there was no discernible difference in radiographic evidence of arthritis in runners compared to non-runners.
Other research has shown that marathoners and long-distance runners may have healthier knees than sedentary age-matched peers.
Studies have also found that running can improve the health of the spine.
Will Running Make Arthritis Worse?
Although you should discuss running with your doctor because your needs may differ, there’s evidence to suggest that running does not exacerbate arthritis.
A recent study that followed runners with knee osteoarthritis over a 4-year period found that not only did running not worsen clinical arthritis symptoms nor radiographic evidence of arthritis on x-rays, but running also seemed to help alleviate subjective measures of knee pain.
According to the Arthritis Foundation, running can even be a healthy way to manage symptoms of osteoarthritis.
13 Tips for Running With Osteoarthritis
Depending on your presentation of osteoarthritis, history as a runner, and goals, running with arthritis may or may not be limiting.
For some runners, running with arthritis might be little more than something that occasionally flares up and requires a little extra icing and a reduction of mileage, while for others, osteoarthritis can necessitate fairly significant modifications to your training.
Here are some tips for running with osteoarthritis:
#1: Run On Soft Surfaces
Running on softer surfaces like grass, trails, gravel, cinder, tracks, sand, or even the treadmill is more forgiving on joints than running on hard asphalt or concrete.
The ground reaction force, or how much force is transmitted from the ground into the feet and legs, is lower when running on these softer surfaces, reducing the stress on your joints.
This can reduce the pain you will feel and can also potentially reduce the exacerbation of your arthritis.
#2: Shorten Your Stride
Increasing your cadence and shortening your stride reduces the impact stress on your joints, making for a more pain-free running gait.
#3: Get the Right Shoes
Speak with your doctor or physical therapist about the best type of running shoes for your feet.
Generally, a running shoe with ample cushioning and support will alleviate some of the stress on your feet.
Another good practice is to replace your shoes more frequently so that the materials are always in good shape to provide the cushioning and rebound you need.
For example, most running shoe manufacturers recommend getting new running shoes every 300-500 miles (500-800 km), but if you have osteoarthritis, it’s better to err closer to that 300-mile mark.
#4: Warm Up
It’s always important to do a warm-up before your workout, particularly when you’re running with arthritis.
Warming up can involve doing gentle aerobic exercise and dynamic stretching before your run.
Many runners with arthritis also find that using a heating pad to actually warm up the joint before that warm-up is also a great way to increase circulation.
#5: Pay Attention to Your Pain
It’s always important to pay attention to your body and listen to the signs and signals it gives you, but this is particularly important for those who are running with arthritis.
There may be certain days when your body just isn’t up to running.
It’s also critical to be discerning about your discomfort.
There’s a tendency to blame every discomfort on your arthritis, particularly if it is in the same vicinity.
However, runners with arthritis are just as prone to developing running injuries as other runners, so not every niggle or ache is unilaterally attributable to your arthritis.
Consider a scenario of a runner with knee arthritis who has a general achiness and stiffness in the right knee pretty much every run because of arthritis.
This pain might be a 3 on a severity scale of 1-10.
Then, one day, a new pain develops more along the side of the knee, and it’s a sharper 5 out of 10.
The runner should be able to distinguish this as a separate and concerning issue—perhaps the early stages of IT band syndrome.
This new problem would need to be addressed specifically.
#6: Watch the Weather
Although not all runners with osteoarthritis are affected by weather, many runners find that certain environmental conditions can increase swelling or exacerbate arthritic pain.
Examples include high humidity, rain, or freezing temperatures.
These days, running indoors on a treadmill may be more comfortable.
#7: Ice Your Joints
Icing your arthritic joints after your run can reduce swelling and pain.
Unless otherwise recommended by your healthcare provider, do not ice right before you run, as this can cause stiffness.
#8: Consider a Brace
A brace or sleeve can potentially reduce discomfort and provide a little extra support and warmth to a painful joint.
#9: Strengthen your Core
A strong core can help ensure you’re running with great posture and efficiently transferring energy and movement between your upper and lower body.
The better your alignment, the more biomechanically-appropriate the stresses will be on your joints.
#10: Wear Recovery Footwear
The importance of wearing cushioned, supportive running shoes garners most of the attention when it comes to common recommendations for running with osteoarthritis, but the footwear that you wear for the other 22-23+ hours of the day when you aren’t running is equally important if not more so.
The better you can facilitate recovery between your runs, the faster your body will bounce back.
Rather than shoving your feet into tight heels, loafers, or flats that provide zero cushioning or support, wear orthopedic shoes or recovery sandals like Oofos.
These shoes can optimize the positioning of your foot, increase circulation, and, most importantly, alleviate stress on your joints.
This will promote recovery after your run and keep your arthritic joints as healthy as possible.
#11: Cross Train
This isn’t to say that you can’t run 5-6 days per week every week, but one strategy for running with osteoarthritis is decreasing your running days and supplementing with low-impact cross training like cycling, deep water running, swimming, elliptical, or rowing.
Consider running every other day and alternating with other types of exercise that are more forgiving on your joints.
#12: Leave the Ibuprofen On the Shelf
Unless otherwise recommended by your doctor, do not take ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory medications before running.
Though the temptation is understandable—as these drugs can reduce pain and swelling to make running more comfortable—taking ibuprofen before running can increase the risk of GI bleeding and kidney strain.
Speak with your doctor about whether Tylenol (acetaminophen) would be a viable option for occasional use or if there are safer pharmacological or non-drug options for pain management.
#13: Be Flexible
Running with osteoarthritis can be challenging, but it can also be very possible and beneficial for your joints.
However, you should always be mindful of your condition and how your body is feeling.
In many cases, rather than putting your running goals first and foremost, you have to shift your mindset to prioritize what your joints need and how they feel and then adapt your running according to that.
For instance, you may have every intention of running a long, 90-minute run on Sunday, but when you wake up, your arthritic hip might be achy from your track workout earlier in the week.
Rather than popping a few ibuprofen and then doing your run anyway, it’s probably a day to try some low-impact cross-training or a walk or short jog instead.
If you need to exchange some of your running days for cross-training, we have some ideas for you here in our Ultimate Cross Training Guide For Runners.