Joint Health for Runners

Running isn’t bad for your knees; strengthening everything around your ankles, knees and hips will only keep you more durable.

It’s obvious that running strengthens muscles. Much less obvious is that the impact forces from running can strengthen bones, too. Studies have even shown that running actually might be good for your joints, instead of the common notion that it breaks them down. A 2016 study published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology found that a 30-minute run decreased the amount of inflammation in knee joints. You can now hush those friends telling you how running will ruin your knees—or your ankle or hip joints, for that matter.

That said, runners do still tend to experience pain in their joints, on occasion. Reasons range from misalignment due to biological makeup, an awkward gait (or stride), improper footwear, or just too many miles without the body maintenance to support your efforts. 

To address potential misalignment and/or to ensure you’re running with a healthy, minimally awkward stride for your body, enlist the help of a physical therapist or movement specialist who works with runners, specifically.  

Otherwise, here are a few tips and strengthening exercises aimed at fortifying the muscles and soft tissue (cartilage and ligaments) around the major joints you use in running—ankles, knees, and hips—to help keep you durable overall.


Allow Recovery

Whether you’re starting off running, or are a seasoned pro, allowing your body to recover from running efforts is the key to longevity. It’s this work-then-rest theory that works so well for new runners starting off by alternating short bouts of running with walking breaks (throughout an outing). For more experienced runners, recovery days follow the same theory: They allow your joints (and the rest of your body) time to reset before being put through the paces again.

Mix It Up

Running the same loop around your neighborhood can put stress on your joints. The same turns, the same pavement, the same pace: All that repetition strains joints. Mixing up the surfaces you run, opting for dirt one day and pavement the next, helps keep you strong and alleviates repetitive pounding from one (hard) surface. The nature of running on the varied terrain of trails helps strengthen joints—and softer surfaces are more gentle on joints overall.

Warm Up and Cool Down

Since it’s the supporting muscles, ligaments and tendons that contribute to overall joint health, it’s important to warm up for (and to cool down from) your run to keep this supporting cast healthy. Starting out on a hard run, in particular, without a warm-up can cause strains on muscles and soft tissue that affects your joints. Likewise, stopping dead in your tracks and plopping down at your desk following a long run can make muscles tight, and tight muscles can lead to joint strain.


To target specific joints and build up durability, try the following exercises.


  • Balance on one foot. Standing one foot at a time on a wobble board, a pillow, or even on solid ground will strengthen ankles. Try standing on one foot for 30 seconds, then switching legs. Repeat three times. The more wobbly the surface, the greater the challenge.
  • Draw the ABCs. Tracing out the ABCs with your foot will help to increase range of motion and strengthen ligaments that keep ankle joints healthy. While sitting on a chair cross-legged, move the toe of your resting (free) foot to draw the alphabet, spell words, or draw shapes. Repeat with the other foot.


  • Lunges. Standing with your hands on your hips, step forward with one foot and lower your back knee to the ground, making sure your front knee doesn’t cross the plane of your front foot. Lower and rise in control, with a tight core. Repeat on the other leg. This can be done either in place, returning to starting position, or walking and lunging.
  • Step-ups. Standing in front of a bench or box, place your hands on your hips and step up onto the bench or box. Meet your stepping foot with your other foot, then lower back to the ground with the first foot, returning both feet to standing. Alternate feet or do a set of 5 or 10 with one foot, then 5 or 10 with the other foot. Keep core tight and be mindful of steps, landing flat and secure on your footfalls.


  • Squats. Standing with feet hip-width, lower your rear to just below knee level. (Start this motion by sticking your butt back in space while keeping your chest high.) Work to keep knees pointing outward and tracking over your feet; you don’t want knees collapsing inward. Return to standing.
  • Balancing, with a twist. Standing on one foot (like when strengthening ankles), add movement to your free leg by raising it toward your chest, out to the side, and behind you. To increase difficulty, do this on a wobble board or pillow. To add even more challenge, raise your arms over your head while adding motion to your free leg. Repeat on both legs.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.