Running with Arthritis
Terry Hailes provides a guide to better understanding arthritis and finding smart ways to run without increasing the risk of injury.
Arthritis is somewhat of a catch-all term that refers to joint inflammation. There are over 100 different types of arthritis that affect the joints of the body differently. Some types, like rheumatoid arthritis, involve the degeneration of important cartilage which helps cushion the joints from the stress and shock of everyday activity. Other types, like gouty arthritis, result when purines build up in the bloodstream and inflame the big toe. Older adults often deal with a type of arthritis called osteoarthritis. A leading cause of disability, osteoarthritis involves the wear and tear of the cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and bones that result in joint dysfunction.
In addition to inflammation, arthritis can present as stiffness and instability in the joints as well as a feeling of joint looseness. Pain, discomfort, and even joint deformity can also occur, making physical activity strenuous and painstaking at times.
Is it possible to run with arthritis?
If you are wondering whether it is possible to run with arthritis, you must measure the risk of incurring an injury or worsening your condition against the benefits exercises has to offer people with arthritis. Research has shown that routine exercise can help arthritis sufferers:
Because running is considered a high-impact sport, however, it can be troubling for people with arthritis in major weight-bearing joints like the feet, knees, and hips. Depending on the specific type and progression of arthritis a person may be living with, their capabilities of safely running will vary.
It is possible to run with arthritis but experts agree that you should check first with your doctor to weigh the pro's and con's and discuss helpful adaptations. You may also want to check with a physical therapist, sports medicine specialist, or local group of runners with experience in running with arthritis.
Smart modifications for runners with arthritis
If you do have the go-ahead from your arthritis doctor to pursue a running programming, you will want to keep these important modifications in mind:
Softer surfaces - the "give" of a trail, unpaved path, or even a treadmill could help lessen the impact your joints experience when compared to running on hard asphalt. A study published in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport  found that a grass running surface provoked less load in the forefoot and rearfoot of recreational runners than running on asphalt. Instead of road running, try trail running, treadmill running, or running on a grassy/dirt path outside.
Shorter strides - the length of your running stride affects everything from your biomechanical efficiency to your running form, speed, and more. When it comes to protecting your joints, research shows that overextending your legs in an attempted longer stride actually increases the twist on the of the spine and hips, aggravates the hamstring, and stresses the shin muscles that help support the knee. When in doubt, shorten your stride.
Cross-training - cross-training can play an important role in helping runners achieve their exercise goals while incorporating more low-impact activities into their training routine. Cycling, swimming, yoga, and even dancing can complement a structured running schedule and help people with arthritis engage different muscle groups and enjoy a variety of physical activity.
Wearing a pedometer - a 2015 study from the American College of Rheumatology (ACR) found that people with rheumatoid arthritis who were given a pedometer to measure their steps and a diary to log their steps each day not only increased their steps by 125% each day but also experienced a significant decrease in fatigue. More awareness in the form of data backing up your running habit could have even more positive effects outside of simply promoting good health.
Practicing good form - the proper running form will lessen the stress on your joints, decrease your risk of injury, and ultimately, make you a better runner. You can learn important tips like how to lead with your chest, efficiently hold your arms at your sides, and make the perfect foot strike with the ground from running specialists or a physical therapist. Orthotic running aids like hinged knee braces and compression sleeves may also help stabilize and support your joints to promote good form.
Complementing your training with an anti-inflammatory diet - anti-inflammatory foods have long been touted as an effective way of addressing inflammation associated with arthritis (think ginger, turmeric, and plant-based foods with natural antioxidants). Pair your running program with a healthy diet that eliminates processed foods, incorporates moderately cooked or raw vegetables, and possibly includes supplements that deliver lots of vitamins and minerals, like vitamin D, for your body.
Warming up - whether you have arthritis or not, warming up prior to a run is always a good idea. Unlike static stretching, a dynamic warm-up involves moving your entire body, i.e. in a brisk walk or with jumping jacks. Warming up is key to mobilizing your joints as well so they are not as stiff and stressed once you start running.
Picking the right footwear - the right shoes are going to be your most important piece of gear when it comes to running. For people with arthritis, some running shoes like minimalist or trail running shoes with rock plates might not be the best idea. In the same vein, running shoes that are old (have logged over 800 kilometres) and worn out can also alter your running form with detrimental impact. Talk to your doctor about the best running shoes for your type of arthritis and get sized correctly for the best fit.
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About the Author
Terry Hailes is the Outreach Manager with Your Best Brace.
The following Sports Coach pages provide additional information on this topic: