6 strength exercises to help prevent runner’s knee

6 strength exercises to help prevent runner’s knee

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Runner’s knee is one of the most common running injuries. It causes pain behind and around the knee cap. The good news is there are plenty of exercises to help prevent runner’s knee and reduce the pain.

Every time you take your stride and flex your knee, you add impact to your knee as you move your foot forward, which causes the pain. If the mechanics in your body are off, this can also make the pain worse.

I suffered a lot from knee pain a few years back. I had been running for about three years and one summer I started to feel pain in my knee and it slowly got worse. The point came when I could hardly walk on my knee because it was so painful.

I was devastated because it meant I couldn’t run for a few months. In the end, I took a break from running outdoors for about six months.

In this blog post, I’d like to explain the main causes of runner’s knee and some exercise to help prevent runner’s knee and reduce the pain. 

What causes runner’s knee?

Runner’s knee doesn’t mean structural damage to the knee cap. It is more to do with the muscles in your knee and how they function day to day through repeated movement.

As I found out when I damaged my knee, runner’s knee is caused by abnormalities above and below the knee cap.

For example, if you have weak hips or weak quads, this means the knee has to cope with a lot more weight and pressure. This causes the muscles to in your knee to malfunction, and thus cause the pain.

Another common cause is your footstrike. If your footstrike comes inwards too much, for example, it will affect your knee and other parts of your leg sooner rather than later.

There are a few exercises for runner’s knee that you can do regularly to help prevent this niggling injury.

Strength training is a vital part of becoming a better and stronger runner and, indeed, for runner’s knee recovery.

According to a 2015 study, both hip and knee rehabilitation protocols produced improvements in anterior knee pain, and strength over six weeks. Hip protocols resulted in earlier resolution of pain and greater overall gains in strength compared to the knee protocols. 

As weak hips and lazy glutes are common causes of runner’s knee, these exercises target muscles to help align your hips and knees. They can be purely body weight exercises or you can add weights or a resistant band to add resistance and make them a bit more challenging.

Check out my posts on glute strengthening exercises and hip strengthening exercises for more ideas on what to include in your strength training routine. 

exercises to help prevent runner's knee

6 exercises to help prevent runner’s knee

Clams

Clams are one of my favourite strength workouts and they are one of the best exercises for runner’s knee.

I regularly do two or three sets of clams before a workout in the gym as they are so effective at priming the glutes for exercise.

They are also a great exercise to target the outer thighs (quadriceps), groin (hip abductors and hip adductors) and hip flexors so they are stronger for those long runs.

  1. Lie on the floor, turn on your side and loop a resistance band around your lower thighs. There has to be quite a bit of resistance in the band for this exercise to make it effective, so you’ll need a thicker band.
  2. Slowly open up your legs in a clam motion then close them back again.
  3. Repeat 10-20 times depending on how hard you want to go.
  4. I like to mix it up with hip bridges in between. You can choose to add weights to the hip bridge if you like.

Hip bridges

Spending all day sitting behind a desk is a shortcut to weak glutes and lower back problems. I work in an office Monday to Friday, so I know this very well!

The impulse is often to sit too far forward, which causes your hip flexors to become tight and also results in the glutes effectively switching off.

Activating them as part of your training programme does wonders not only for your physique but for your structural health, and hip bridges are a good way to facilitate this switch.

  1. Lie face up on the floor, with your knees bent and feet flat on the ground. Keep your arms at your side with your palms down.
  2. Lift your hips off the ground until your knees, hips and shoulders form a straight line.
  3. Squeeze those glutes hard and keep your abs drawn in so you don’t overextend your back during the exercise.
  4. Hold your bridged position for a couple of seconds before easing back down.

You should feel the burn in your glutes and your hamstrings if you’re doing it correctly.

The hip bridge is also great for improving hip mobility and strengthening your lower back, two things that any desk-bound worker can really benefit from.

exercises to help prevent runner's knee

Donkey kickbacks

Donkey kickbacks are simple and effective and are great for targeting the back of your thighs (hamstrings) and your bum (gluteus maximus).

  1. Start on all fours, shoulders over wrists and knees right under hips.
  2. Extend one leg up and back, raising it to hip height with foot flexed. Press heel toward the ceiling, making sure back stays flat and knee points straight down.
  3. Lower back to hip height. Hold for a moment at the top of the movement, then lower down and repeat on the same side.

Straight leg raises

This exercise will strengthen your knees, making it one of the best exercises for runner’s knee.

  1. Sit or lie face up and straighten your legs out. Lock out your left leg as you lift it straight up toward the ceiling.
  2. Hold for three to four seconds, then lower back down and repeat.

The key is to keep the leg totally straight. You’ll work the inner thighs with this exercise – it should activate while you lift and hold your leg.

exercises to help prevent runner's knee

Bulgarian split squats

Despite its name, the Bulgarian split squat is a fairly easy movement to master once you get used to it.

This squat is great to improve your single-leg balance and strengthen your thigh muscles (quadriceps) and hip muscles.

  1. With one foot on a low bench, slowly squat up and down.
  2. Keep your shin near vertical and your knee in alignment with your knee (so the front of your knee shouldn’t extend beyond your toes).
  3. You can choose to add a weight to this movement if you’d like something a little more challenging.

Fire hydrants

This exercise is helps to stabilise your pelvis and reduce rotational forces on your knee.

  1. Begin on your hands and knees on the floor.
  2. Put your hands directly beneath your shoulders so they are in alignment, and knees under your hips so they are also in alignment.
  3. Engage your core then lift your leg away from the midline of your body (also called a knee abduction). Your knee should be flexed at a 90 degree angle away from your body.
  4. Maintain stability and try not to move from side to side whilst you do it.

Low front lunges

Front lunges are really simple and flexible. You can either do these whilst standing still or whilst out walking and running.

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and step your left leg forward, bending at the knee and getting into low-lunge position.
  2. Your right leg should be extended straight behind your body.
  3. Lean down and put your fingertips on the ground on either side of your left foot.
  4. Hold for 10 seconds, return to the original position, repeat 2–3 times and switch sides.

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Caroline Geoghegan

Caroline Geoghegan (aka Run With Caroline) helps people become faster and stronger runners. She started her blog in 2018 to share her passion for running. Caroline is a UK Athletics qualified Run Leader and Run Coach and NASM qualified Personal Trainer.

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