At the risk of offending my fellow-runners, especially seasoned (a gentle way of saying aging) runners, I’m going to make an outrageous statement: Runners have something in common with politicians. Before you navigate away from this page, hang in there a little further and follow my reasoning.
Politicians are often accused of selectively using and skewing information to suit their needs. Runners are no different. Runners will search to the end of a desolate ten-mile trail in the middle of nowhere to unbury information that supports their position. You know it’s true. The realization hit me over the head like a Louisville Slugger when I went to my orthopedic surgeon for a torn meniscus and he found what he described as, “more arthritis than I like to see,” in the MRI. After he performed an arthroscopic procedure he advised me to abandon the marathon and consider shorter races, like the half-marathon or 10K.
I didn’t respond well to the news. Instead, I ran ten more marathons before my second procedure. Then I was over-zealous rehabbing and was back for a third procedure six month later. The final time, Doc just shook his head and warned me to find other forms of low-impact aerobic exercise to entertain myself or I’d be looking at a knee replacement in the future.
I came to my senses and sprung into action researching for information to justify my dogged obsession with distance running. I hit the mother lode when I found a study conducted by the Stanford University that suggested, “Long-distance running may not be associated with increased progression of osteoarthritis in the absence of knee injury, obesity or poor muscle tone.” I found the analysis unique and compelling because the study population was large and it was long-term. Researchers started out with a sample group of 1,000 runners and non-runners, none of which had arthritis when the study began, and tracked them for eighteen years. When researchers tabulated the data, they found runners’ knees were no more or less healthy than non-runners’ knees. Naturally, I locked in on a final comment in the study, “Long-distance running or other routine vigorous activities should not be discouraged among healthy older adults out of concern for progression of knee osteoarthritis.” Aha, I was encouraged not to be discouraged.
Motivated by the Stanford study, I continued my research with the persistence required in the final miles of a marathon. Next I found a 2007 study of 1,279 elderly residents in Massachusetts that concluded the most active people had the same risk of arthritis as the least active. Then I came across Australian researchers who reported in the journal Arthritis and Rheumatism that people who exercised vigorously had thicker and healthier knee cartilage than their sedentary peers. A common observation I found was that running strengthens the muscles around the joints, and makes the cartilage thicker and healthier, consequently protecting the joints. Some researchers even suggest running in moderate doses may be good for aging knees.
But all of this encouraging news should be balanced by credible research with less-optimistic results. Consequently, I don’t advocate that runners increase their weekly mileage with age. I suggest cross-training that includes low-impact aerobics like cycling and the elliptical. Also, running on softer surfaces will reduce the impact on knees and other joints. A combination of these steps should help runners continue to enjoy the sport they love for years to come.
I like to think of the body in the same terms Newton looked at inertia, “A body in motion stays in motion. A body at rest stays at rest.” The important thing is to keep moving. Two informative articles about running with arthritic knees can be found in Runners World and Time Magazine.