Running With Arthritis: Everything You Need To Know

Running With Arthritis: Everything You Need To Know

Certain myths seem impossible to shake. One such myth is the idea that running will cause arthritis. Multiple studies have proven this myth false.

But the idea carries on.

Runners diagnosed with arthritis give up their hobby. Non-runners avoid exercise because they think it will inflame their condition. And in some cases they’re right: intense running will cause inflammation in the weight-bearing joints of the lower body.

But, in many cases, running can actually help reduce arthritis symptoms.

Running compresses the cartilage in our weight-bearing joints. These include the knees, spine, hips, ankles, and feet. By compressing the cartilage we circulate our synovial fluid. This is the stuff that brings oxygen to our joints. It also carried out waste products. Synovial fluid is essentially what keeps our joints healthy. People with arthritis have to be more careful about how they cause circulation. But, done correctly, exercise will help reduce the symptoms of arthritis.

Better Safe Than Sorry

As always, people should check with a doctor before they start an exercise program. These check-ins can reduce the risk of injury or complications. This is especially important if someone has arthritis in the joints of their lower body. Or, alternately, if someone has undergone knee or hip surgery. It doesn’t matter if the surgery was recent. The person should consult a doctor before they take up running.

The Benefits

We’ve all heard about the benefits of exercise. Few people focus on the specific ways it can benefit people with arthritis, however. At a base level, exercise can help reduce body weight. A lower body weight puts less pressure on our joints. This, in turn, reduces inflammation and pain. But the benefits are much more far-reaching.

Moderate cardio and weight training will strengthen the muscles around our joints. The stronger these muscles are, the less strain they put on the joints. Exercise also helps us maintain bone density. Better bone health means better joint health. This, coupled with improved balance, means that falls won’t do as much damage. And arthritis in the lower body increases a person’s fall risk. Reducing fall damage is a great way to counter and combat this issue.

Exercise also improves sleep, energy levels, and quality of life. When runners say that their hobby improves their quality of life, they point to several factors. Some runners enjoy getting out of the house and meeting new people. Others feel that running sharpens their senses and is a great new hobby to occupy their time. When it comes down to basics, running connects people. And the more connected we feel, the less overwhelming our pain seems.

The Risk of Not Exercising

Arthritic pain can feel unbearable. And, for some people, the thought of exercising is terrifying. They worry the exercise will increase their pain. Studies show, however, that the opposite is true. Exercising loosens up stiff joints. This, in turn, reduces pain and inflammation. So long as the person doesn’t overdo it, exercise will make them feel better. Sitting still or not moving will make the pain worse, however. Muscles and joints stiffen up when they go unused. This leads to more joint inflammation and more pain.

A little exercise goes a long way. A short walk or a light swim is better than no exercise. And, as they exercise, people may find themselves going further. A little patience will reap big rewards with less pain and lighter inflammation.

For New Runners

New runners should always start slowly. This goes double for runners with arthritis. Warmups are absolutely essential. These should include stretching as well as a slow walk or jog. The runner can then increase their speed if they feel comfortable. New runners also need patience. Our bodies will tell us if something is wrong and we need to listen. It is the best way to avoid overdoing it and injuring ourselves. A new runner may actually be a walker for several months. But once their body adjusts, they can pick up speed to a proper run without fear of injury.

For Established Runners

Experienced runners might have to scale back their training routine. Running doesn’t cause arthritis, but it can aggravate it if done too often. If a runner usually hits the track five days a week, they may want to cut back to three. Or if they usually run on asphalt, they might want to try a dirt trail instead. Softer surfaces are easier on joints which makes dirt better for arthritis than concrete. Established runners might also want to cross train. Instead of running every day of the week, hit the pool a couple of days. Runners should already have dedicated days for weight training as well. But they might also want to involve yoga or pilates to increase flexibility.

For All Runners

Things change when you develop arthritis. It doesn’t matter if you’re a marathon runner or new to the sport. In either case, an arthritis diagnosis means things are going to change. Non-arthritic runners don’t have to worry as much about the surface they run on. They also have a wider range of footwear available to them. And while all runners should worry about their form, it is especially important for runners with arthritis.

Run on the Softer Side

Arthritis in the lower body affects the joints most used in running. This could mean the feet, hips, knees, spine, or ankles. In all cases, softer surfaces will reduce strain on these joints. When our feet strike the ground, our joints absorb the shock. Running on harder surfaces means more shock for our bodies to absorb. So, to avoid extra shock, runners with arthritis should stick to softer surfaces. These include dirt trails, treadmills, and soft tracks. If a runner can only run on concrete or pavement, they should wear shoes with extra cushioning.

Reconsider Your Footwear

Running gear has seen a lot of debate in recent years. Some people swear by shoes with thick soles and defined arch support. Others favor “minimalist shoes” or toe shoes (shoes that are basically gloves for feet). Arthritis, unfortunately, ends this argument for some runners. Barefoot running, minimalist shoes, and toe shoes all have their benefits. But none of them absorb shock during a run. This makes them ill-suited for runners with arthritis. For these runners, more is better. More cushioning to absorb shock and more arch support to avoid straining their tendons.

Check Your Stride

A runner’s stride is almost as unique as the runner themselves. It depends on leg length, flexibility, and a host of other factors. But, like with so many things, a runner’s stride might need to change if they develop arthritis. Shorter strides put less stress on our joints. Staying on the move might mean shortening your stride. Running coaches can help with this, as can other runners. Some physical therapists even offer gait tests. These will not only track your stride but also check in on a runner’s form.

Top Form

Bab running form will put anyone at risk of an injury. Arthritis greatly increases that risk. Runners should work on their form as they shorten their stride. Running coaches or physical therapists can do a gait analysis to make sure the runner is moving properly. They may suggest changes in posture or movement. Or they might suggest new shoes, which just reinforces the importance of proper equipment.

Start with a Warmup

Arthritis makes warmups essential. They could as simple as a short walk or light jog. Or they could involve a brief yoga routine and a little walking. It doesn’t matter exactly how the runner warms up. All that matters is that they do.

Hot and Cold

Most of the tips so far could apply to all runners. They just happen to be more important for runners with arthritis. This tip, on the other hand, is fairly specific to runners with joint pain. Runners can apply a warm towel or heating pad to their afflicted joint for 20 minutes right before a workout. Whatever heat source they use should be warm but not hot enough to hurt the skin. This will loosen up the joint as well as the muscles around it. Looser joints mean less stiffness and an easier gait.

On the flip side, runners can use cold packs for twenty minutes right after a run. These will help reduce swelling and limit any pain the runner might feel. These cold packs always need proper wrapping. This is especially true if the runner uses ice. Ice can damage the skin if applied directly. Nobody wants to deal with skin irritation on top of arthritis.

Try the Low Inflammatory Diet

Some foods cause inflammation. Others reduce it. The Low Inflammatory Diet (LID) promotes foods that reduce irritation while cutting back on others that make it worse. There are countless LID resources online. Doctors and nutritionists can also point runners in the right direction. And, as with an exercise routine, people should check with a doctor before drastically changing their diet.

Switch Up Your Training

Whether a novice or a master, being a runner doesn’t mean that you only run. All runners should make time to hit the weight room. But runners with arthritis need to go an extra step. Yoga or Pilates classes will increase their flexibility. And the more flexible they are, the less likely their limbs are to stiffen. Weight training will keep the muscles around joints strong. And low-impact cardio options like swimming or elliptical machines work the heart without adding stress to a person’s joints.

Runners can also try the run-walk method. This method encourages runners to listen more closely to their bodies. When they feel confident, they can run or jog at a brisk pace. But when they feel stiffer or sluggish, they can throttle back into a walk. As their energy levels wax and wane, they can shift between walking and running. It keeps them on their feet without risking extra damage to their joints.

An arthritis diagnosis doesn’t have to be the end. It might, in fact, be just the beginning. Be patient and listen to your body. Just make sure you keep moving and keep striving!


  1. Arthritis
  2. Mayo Clinic
  3. Runners World