How the right approach to your training can help reduce your risk of joint pain and future injuries.
Whether it occurs during running, lifting, climbing stairs, or sports that involve jumping and twisting, knee pain sucks. So why is it so common? The knee sits at an important juncture between the ankle and hip and is a load-bearing joint, which makes it more prone to repetitive stress injuries from activities like running and stair climbing. Unfortunately as women, we are more prone to knee injuries than men, due to factors such as hip width, muscle development and skeletal structure. This disadvantage puts us at risk for less stability, which means we have an even greater need for strength training. Of course, you already know you need to train your legs—that’s a no-brainer. But here are some tips for preventing knee injuries while doing so.
1. Train with multiple planes of motion. The knee is considered a “hinge joint” because it allows the lower leg to move back and forth (front to back). When your knees are required to move beyond this typical plane of motion, say when changing directions quickly in sprints or sports, it can dramatically increase the stress on the soft tissues. Since most exercises in the gym (squats, deadlifts, swings) use the knees as primary hinge joints, other motions, such as rotations, are missed, leaving the joint unprepared for sporadic movements and susceptible to injury. Simple exercises to train your knees to perform better during various movement patterns are side step-ups, lateral lunges, lateral shuffles and speed skaters.
2. Wear the right shoes. Foot strength is intimately tied to the strength of your legs and hips, and in turn, the knees. The feet are rich with mechanoreceptors—nerves designed to sense movement forces and relay instructions back and forth to the spinal nerves that control your muscles and their actions. Padded or thick-soled tennis shoes, like the ones most people work out in, are like coffins for the nerves in your feet. They change the input received for balance and force transfer, which tells your muscles how to walk, run or do other exercises. For lifting weights, use shoes that are flat and firm, or use none at all. Whenever possible, walk barefoot in your home or outside. For running, make sure you are using well-fitted and appropriate shoes.
3. Strengthen the glutes and core. Having a weak core and glutes means the body must use other muscles and motor patterns to complete movements, even just when walking, much less anything requiring more coordination. To strengthen these areas, think broader than just squats and deadlifts, and train the glutes and core more than once a week. Resistance band walks, hip thrusts, glute bridges, agility and balance drills, lateral shuffles, and single-leg exercises are all excellent exercises for targeting the glutes and firing up the core. Should you experience knee pain during any of these movements, modify the exercise to make it simpler, such as using bodyweight only or decreasing the intensity of the movement.