One of the most frustrating myths I encounter as a physio is that running is bad for you. Even worse, this myth is often repeated by GPs and consultants, which means I’m not just having to battle misinformation spread online, but also from sources trusted by my patients.
Where Did This Myth Come From?
The basis of this myth is that running, especially on hard surfaces like concrete – which is an inevitability for many of us in London – is detrimental to the health of our joints, causing both acute trauma and gradual deteriorative conditions like osteoarthritis.
If you look at the data with an uncritical eye, there does seem to be evidence for this: running injuries are very common, and if you hurt yourself when you’re running, it’s probably going to be your joints and tendons that suffer.
But the more you look into the data, the less the idea that running is bad for us makes sense. If this was true, we’d expect elite, long-distance marathon runners to have their knees absolutely destroyed by the amount of running they do. However, a recent study showed that they have a lower frequency of osteoarthritis than the general population.
Not only that, running can actually make your joints healthier, as it increases the flow of synovial fluid, which strengthens cartilage. The impact of running can also strengthen your bones by promoting the removal of old tissue which is replaced by fresher, stronger tissue, which is why load bearing exercises are a central component to many of our osteoarthritis treatment programmes. This is without even mentioning the benefits to your cardiovascular system, muscle strength and metabolic health.
So, if running is actually good for us, what’s to blame for our aching knees and twisted ankles? The answer – like it is for many health problems – is the desk job.
A Desk Body is the Opposite of a Running Body
As I’ve written about before, extended periods of sitting absolutely wrecks our bodies. The human body is highly adaptive, smartly shortening and lengthening, strengthening and weakening our muscles and tendons to meet its demands. Exploiting this adaptivity is how we train to be stronger, faster and more flexible, but this adaptivity can also cause serious problems if all you demand of your body is for it to be sat at a desk all day.
In fact, the way your muscles and tendons adapt to sitting is the exact opposite of how they adapt to walking and running: lengthened, weak glute muscles; short, tight hip flexors; weak external oblique muscles; the list goes on and on. The result of all these maladaptations is a body that can no longer run or even stand properly.
This is why running injuries are so common. People expect that they can throw on some shoes and run around like they did when they were children, but trying to run with a body that’s no longer made for it overloads muscles and tendons that were never meant to take so much load, while the muscles and tendons that are meant to do the hard work don’t pull their weight.
Even people who have been running for years can gradually develop issues due to uncorrected poor technique, particularly wear and tear on joints that aren’t moving how they’re supposed to – hence the myth that running is bad for your joints.
How to Tell if You Have a Desk Body
A tilted pelvis is the most obvious indicator that your posture has been negatively impacted by excessive sitting. You can assess this yourself by standing side on to a mirror. If your belt line is tilted forward, this means that you have a downwardly-rotated pelvis. Basically, your body is so used to sitting that it continues to pull your pelvis into a sitting position even when you’re standing.
If your pelvis isn’t straight, then your knees, feet and back won’t be either. Trying to run with a body configured this way puts you at high risk of injury.
So, there you have it: running doesn’t deserve its bad reputation; it’s our desk-bound lives that are to blame. If you want to learn how to reshape your body into one made to run, watch out for my blog on going from couch (or desk) to 5k being posted next week.
Of course, if you ever need any help making the most of your body, feel free to get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org or book an appointment by calling 0207 937 1628 .
Kam Sowman BSc (Physio) MCSP MHCP
Musculoskeletal and Sports Physiotherapist