Maybe you’re thinking of purchasing a knee brace for running. You’re thinking that it’ll improve your performance and shield you from injuries like runner’s knee.
Or maybe you’re considering getting a knee brace because you think it’ll aid you in treating a running injury that you have.
These are all wise thoughts. Of course you want to protect your knees from the strains of running – after all, research shows that the knee is involved in almost 50% of all running injuries and as many as 70% of runners may experience some sort of running injury sooner or later.
But there’s a lot of misinformation out there about knee braces. Everyone’s trying to sell you their merchandise. They’re eager to tell you how much you’ll gain from their product.
So what’s the right information? Do you really need a knee brace for running or is it all a hoax to get your money? Do knee braces even do anything?
What is a Knee Brace?
Knee braces come in many shapes and sizes and they’re made from materials just as varied. They can be made from any number of combinations using foam, elastic material, plastic, or metal. Their functions – depending on how they’re made – also vary. You need to be armed with enough information to make an informed decision – so we’ll quickly go over the basics of the different types of knee braces.
Rehabilitative knee braces are designed specifically for people who are recovering post-injury. What they do is control the movement of the knee so as to protect the injured ligaments from further damage. They’re also designed to allow for swelling. Typically, they’re worn for about two to eight weeks.
Unloader knee braces work to shift weight away from the damaged area of the knees and onto the thigh bone. As you can see from the below image, they force the knee bend a little, so as to “unload” the inner knee of any stress.
Prophylactic knee braces serve to protect the knees of high-impact sports athletes from common injuries like an ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament) tear. They also purport to protect the Medial Collateral Ligament as well as the Posterior Cruciate Ligament.
Functional knee braces purport to aid in recovery after some kind of injury. In other words, you use them post-injury.
What’s the Best Kind of Knee Brace for Runners?
Now you know that there are four basic categories of knee braces. There are also a hell of a lot of subcategories within each of those categories – not to mention custom knee braces.
Runners, like other high-impact sport athletes, generally opt for prophylactic knee braces, which are made with straps, hinges, and bars to totally protect the area around the knee. They’re usually recommended for those runners who are uninjured specifically to keep them that way, but can also be used to relieve pain from minor injuries during activity.
Note: Knee sleeves are not knee braces. While they, too, purport to offer knee support to runners and other athletes, they are a different product. We’ll discuss those in a separate article.
Do Knee Braces Really Offer Runners Knee Support?
Back in the 1970s, Nicolas and Castiglia (of the Lenox Hill Hospital) developed a knee brace for the football player from Joe Namath. Soon after, they became popular accessories for NFL players and other athletes, who scrambled for their own knee braces, believing that they’d provide them with immense performance benefits.
But that popularity has since waned in light of increasing evidence calling into question their actual effectiveness.
The thing is that even that evidence is contradicted by other evidence that argues that prophylactic knee braces do in fact aid in reducing certain injuries having to do with the Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL). There are also many subjective reports emphasizing the benefits of prophylactic knee braces – at the same time, there are plenty of subjective reports claiming the opposite.
The truth is that overwhelming evidence points to the fact that prophylactic knee braces are just not worth the money.
Because while they do actually offer substantial protection to the MCL against valgus stresses, they also limit performance. If you opt for a knee brace for running, you’ll likely end up sacrificing speed and performance. You’re also susceptible to overconfidence that could lead to the very injury you thought you were immune from.
That’s food for thought.
Can a Knee Brace At Least Aid In Treatment For Runner’s Knee?
A review of research conducted by Nynke M Stewart et al. published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that knee braces do not in fact aid in treating patellofemoral pain syndrome, otherwise known as “runner’s knee.”
They found that even if used in conjunction with physical therapy, a knee brace offers no benefit at all. Moreover, the research they reviewed revealed that so-called “functional” knee braces (described above) weren’t any more effective than a plain old placebo knee brace.
That’s the power of marketing; that’s why you need to do your research before wasting time and money on every new fad.
If Knee Braces Don’t Work, What Can I Do to Protect My Knee?
Just to be clear, we’re not discounting knee braces altogether. There are substantial benefits to knee braces in certain instances. People who are at high risk for MCL injuries should consider them, for example. And certain football players can benefit greatly from them (offensive and defensive linemen specifically). Ultimately, you should follow your doctor’s recommendations. As a professional who knows you and your history, your doctor will be better able to guide you.
That said, we don’t recommend wasting money on a knee brace for running, especially if you’re healthy and uninjured. The minimal benefits you’ll gain aren’t worth the cost. Instead, as an alternative, we recommend cross-training, focusing especially on the core and on your hips. Strengthening those will help naturally take some stress off your knees.
And that’s basically everything you need to know about knee braces and running.
If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to leave a comment below.