Runner's knee is a kinder, gentler name for a very painful problem: patellofemoral pain syndrome. Infamous for the dull ache that can develop behind, below or alongside the kneecap, this bane of runners is frequently caused by tight, short leg and buttock muscles. For this reason, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons suggests stretching before and after exercise. Whether you're trying to avoid the dreaded diagnosis or are looking for ways to cope with your condition, lengthening the muscles that control knee movement can help keep you moving.
Prep your muscles with a 10-minute cardio warmup; take a brisk walk or jog lightly in place. Progress to dynamic lower-body stretches, such as traveling lunges, butt kicks or high knee walks. Use a foam roller to loosen up stiff, tight muscles, including the calves, hamstrings, quads, IT band and piriformis, which is deeply situated behind the glutes. Sit or lie on the floor, place the roller under the muscle you're working and gently, slowly roll back and forth over the roller to increase circulation and work out tough knots.
Stretch the backs of your legs, including your hamstrings and calves, from a standing position that won't strain the lower back. Stand facing a chair or low wall and place your right heel on the surface of the object. Straighten, but don't lock, both knees and flex your right foot. With your head aligned over your shoulders, hinge forward slightly from your hips until you feel light tension along the back of your right leg. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Release the stretch and repeat up to four times. Switch to your left leg.
Transition into a standing quad stretch; quad flexibility helps keep the kneecap tracking properly in its groove. Stand facing a chair and grasp the chair back with your right hand. Raise your right foot behind you and take hold of the instep with your left hand. Pull the foot gently toward your left buttock, keeping your knees together. Hold for up to 30 seconds. Release the foot and repeat the stretch up to four times. Switch to your left leg.
Stretch the iliotibial band, a tough band of fiber that spans the area from your buttock to your knee. Stand to the right of a stable chair with your left leg crossed behind your right leg and your left foot on the floor next to your right foot. Grasp the back of the chair with your right hand and lean your torso to the right. Raise your left arm overhead and reach it to the right while pressing your left hip to the left. Hold up to 10 seconds. Repeat up to 10 times and then switch to your left side.
Stretch the piriformis. Find a surface that is the same height as your groin, such as a table or counter top. Bend your right knee, raise the leg in front of you and rotate it outward at the hip. Place the right side of the thigh and calf on the table, angling the leg so the knee is directly in front of your right hip. Keep the knee bent at 90 degrees. Keep your spine and standing leg straight as you hinge forward from the hips. Hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Release briefly and then repeat up to four times. Switch to your left leg.
Items you will need
- Foam roller
- Firm, stable chair or low wall
- Perform stretches at least once a day. If you're looking for greater flexibility in and around your knees, consistency is vital.
- Breathe easily and at regular intervals to achieve a deeper, more effective stretch.
- Take other measures to prevent runner's knee. Run on smooth, soft surfaces, avoid running downhill and wear proper footwear. Build strength in your quads -- especially the vastus medialis obliquus -- and your gluteus medius.
- Avoid any stretches that cause or increase knee pain. Never bounce or force a stretch, which can cause or aggravate an injury.
- Runner's knee is not the only cause of pain near the kneecap. Other possible causes include arthritis, cartilage damage, kneecap dislocation and fracture. Speak to your doctor if you suspect you might have a condition that requires medical treatment.
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Runner's Knee (Patellofemoral Pain)
- Runner's World: On a Roll
- Runner's World: Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome ("Runner's Knee")
- Run for Life; Roy M. Wallack
- Dr. Pribut's Running Injuries Page: Runner's Knee, The Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (PFPS)
- Prescriptive Stretching; Kristian Berg
- Clinical Guide to Sports Injuries; Roald Bahr, M.D. and Sverre Mæhlum
- National Institutes of Health: Anterior Knee Pain
- Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images