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I have a lot of friends that are runners and many of them talk about runner’s knee. A few had to take time off from running while it healed.
The question I’ve been asked a few times is this – is cycling good for runners knee?
Cycling is highly unlikely to cause or inflame runner’s knee. Cycling is low-impact and is much kinder to the knee joint than running. However, those suffering from runner’s knee through running are recommended to rest until it recovers to an extent before transitioning to cycling.
So, it’s not quite so simple as cycling will cure runners’ knee (official name – Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome). But there are probably two different scenarios:
One, if you’ve had runner’s knee in the past from running, but now don’t suffer from it (maybe you’ve taken a break), cycling will be much better for you for this condition from now on.
On the other hand, if you’re currently suffering from runner’s knee, it would be wise to take break for a while as it recovers, before then changing to cycling.
But why is cycling better for runner’s knee?
In this post, I’ll set out the 9 most important reasons why cycling is better than running for runner’s knee.
1. Low Impact Vs High Impact
The main reason that cycling is better for runner’s knee is that it is low-impact.
A low-impact exercise is one that doesn’t put a lot of force on joints while exercising. There tends to be little jolting, jerking, or twisting.
Cycling is a classic low-impact activity. Some others include:
- Water Aerobics
High-impact activities are things like running, lunging, or jumping. They involve a repetitive impact on the knee. This can cause trauma and wear and tear.
The official name for runner’s knee is Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. It is a sharp pain felt in the region of the knee cap.
Although, it is not just an injury experienced by runners it is called runner’s knee for a reason. One of the most common ways of getting it is continual overuse and repetitive high-impact activity. (Source)
2. Non-Weight Bearing Vs Weight Bearing
Another reason that cycling is kinder to knees is that it is a non-weight-bearing activity. This is unlike running which is a weight-bearing activity.
What does this mean?
Well, in activities like running, your legs have to bear your full body weight. This puts much more strain, weight, and force on your knees.
Cycling is very different from this. Your weight rests on your saddle. Your legs are free of this need to support your body weight, and they are focused on generating the power to cycle the pedals.
The difference between the amount of force going through your knees when smoothly pedaling as opposed to landing and taking off with each running stride is enormous!
In general, non-weight bearing activities are much better for knees than weight-bearing activities. If you’re not sure which activities would count as weight-bearing or not, here is a simple table with some common sporting activities and if they are non-weight bearing or weight-bearing:
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3. You Can Alter Resistance And Intensity
Another advantage of cycling is that you are in control of how intense you want to go, and how much resistance to use.
In the early days, or if you are tentative about a past injury, then you can use the most minimal level of resistance, or even cruise (if you’re cycling on a road).
The thing about running is that you can only really go at a minimum jogging pace without stopping – and that pace requires a lot more stress on your knees than the minimum pedaling stroke.
With cycling you can increase intensity slowly throughout a session, or even build it up gently over a series of sessions.
4. Strengthen Muscles Around The Knee
Another key benefit of cycling in tackling runner’s knee, is that cycling helps to strengthen the muscles around the knee. This is important because enhanced muscles will take the strain directly off the joint, easing any possible side effects like runner’s knee.
Cycling, in particular really builds strength in key muscles that are close to the knee, namely:
- The hamstrings
- The quadriceps
- The Calves
These are three out of the four most important muscles that cycling activates (the glutes being the fourth).
Also, cycling is actually much better at building muscle mass than cycling. This is because the pedaling action acts in a way like weight-lifting. The body is putting a repetitive force against a resistance – and this helps to build muscle.
5. Easier To Warm Up
Another positive benefit of cycling for the knees is that it is easier to warm up as you go throughout a session. It is wise to warm up before both cycling and running, but with cycling, there is also more of an opportunity to go through the gears while you are doing the activity.
So, a session might look something like:
- Perform some simple stretches
- Cycle for 5 minutes at a very low resistance
- Cycle for 5 minutes at a medium-low resistance
- Cycle for 10 minutes at a medium-high resistance
- Warm down by cycling for 5 minutes at a low resistance again
This flexibility of being able to warm up into an activity has multiple physical benefits for knees. It helps the synovial fluid in the knee actually warm up.
This fluid helps the knee function and operate efficiently, and actually acts more positively after being warmed up.
On the other hand, running is very much a one-speed activity (with maybe slight variations over a session).
Here is a great video from Bob and Brad, the two self-proclaimed ‘most famous physiotherapists on the internet’, that shows how to warm up, stretch and use cycling as a way of countering knee pain:
6. Leg Alignment – Posture on Bike
One possible cause in some people of runner’s knee is something is going wrong with your leg, foot, or knee alignment as you walk or run.
Cycling is good at helping this issue, as the legs are taken through a set pathway when pedaling. Any issues with feet landing or the form of your legs are therefore minimized.
It is important for cyclists to have the correct posture while cycling, and for your bike to be the correct size.
Importantly, your legs should not go beyond 80%-90% straight when at their lowest point in the down-pedal. If they are straighter than this, then you risk suffering hyperextension, which can strain the knee (when the leg is too straightened and goes beyond the vertical)
7. Less Strain On Achilles and Ankle
Another key problem with running and runner’s knee is that there is a correlation between the condition and strain on the ankle and Achilles area.
The strain on this part of the body is much reduced in cycling. The foot and ankle only go through fluid and gentle shifts in state. There is no bouncing or jolting.
There is also reduced body weight (because cycling is non-weight-bearing).
8. Less Strain On Hamstrings
Another area of body weakness that can lead to runner’s knee is the hamstrings.
In running, the hamstrings have to hold the full runner’s weight, plus they are continually springing and jolting.
In cycling, the hamstrings have quite a different function. Although the hamstrings are responsible for a lot of the force required in pedaling, there is not the same level of rapid contracting and stretching.
Also, cycling is often better at toning and strengthening the hamstrings than cycling.
9. The Clue Is In The Name
Let’s face it – the condition is called ‘runner’s knee’ for a reason.
Research suggests that up to 30% of female runners and 25% of male runners will suffer from runner’s knee at some point in their lives. (Source)
That’s a significant number. Although knee injuries are also experienced in cycling, most of these can be eliminated by using correct posture, stretching, warm-up procedures, and having a bike of the right proportions for you.