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Keeping your knees healthy while also staying active is not easy. Some cardio activities are definitely better than others where knees are concerned.
If you take cycling and running, is cycling definitely better for your knees than running? If so, by how much? And what are the reasons?
Cycling is a low-impact activity, so is much better for knee health than high-impact disciplines like running. Regarding knees, cycling is also non-weight-bearing, more arthritis-friendly, and helps to strengthen the muscles around the knee joint.
There are a significant number of reasons why cycling is much much better than running when thinking about knee health.
In this article, I’ll take a look at the main 11 reasons why cycling is better for knees than running.
1. Low-Impact Vs High Impact
This is the major winner why cycling is better for knees than running.
Running is a high-impact activity. This means that the joints, and particularly the knees more than any other joint, are being continually impacted over and over. This repetitive action causes wear and tear on the joint, and also potential trauma.
Cycling, on the other hand, is a classic low-impact activity. All knee movements are smooth and fluid.
The only time you might include some small level of high-impact activity into your cycling is when you may cycle over rough terrain. This will include some jolts and jarring of the joints.
However, if you cycle either on a flat road or use a stationary bike indoors, then cycling is very much a low-impact activity.
Low-impact activities are particularly good for:
- Older people
- Anyone with a history of joint pain
- Anyone with muscle issues
- Those with lower back pain
- Anyone with arthritis
Along with these groups, low-impact activities are generally less likely to cause injuries than high-impact for all participants.
2. Full Body-Weight Vs Non-Weight Bearing
Another big difference where knees are concerned is that running is a full weight-bearing exercise while cycling is a non-weight-bearing one.
This may sound slightly complex, but it’s relatively simple to get your head around I think.
Basically, in running your legs are supporting your whole body weight. In fact, much more than that, they are propelling your body weight forward under this weight and cushioning the impact of the full weight on the knees repeatedly.
In cycling, the situation is very different. The saddle supports the weight of your torso. Your legs and knees are not supporting body weight. Instead, they are free to power you forward without body-weight tensions.
Although there are some general benefits of weight-bearing activities, this is not really the case when it comes to knees. Pretty much all non-weight-bearing activities are better.
Along with running and cycling, here are some other popular exercises, and an indication if they are weight-bearing or non-weight bearing:
|Type of Exercise||Weight Bearing||Non-Weight Bearing|
|Some Yoga Poses||X|
3. Strengthens and Tones Legs More
Cycling is more effective at building leg muscle than running.
This has a big impact because it strengthens the muscles around the knee, and this takes stress off the joint.
Running will certainly tone your legs (don’t get me wrong).
But cycling will actually build muscle more quickly. This is because the pedals act as a form of resistance. It is similar to lifting weights, just with lots more repetitions.
Some of the key muscle groups that are strengthened in cycling are those near the knee, in particular:
- The quads
- The hamstrings
- The calves
Muscle mass in these areas reduces stress on the knee joint.
Here’s a short video on how to really add muscle to your legs fast through cycling:
4. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
Let’s get a bit specific now.
There are some knee conditions that runners can be prone to. One of these is patellofemoral pain syndrome. Not that catchy a name it has to be said, so luckily it’s being renamed as ‘runner’s knee’ which seems to sum it up quite well. (Source)
This condition is to do with the kneecap (the ‘patella’ which is of course part of the patellofemoral name.)
Basically, someone suffering from this condition will have a knee cap that is slightly out of line with the joint below. This causes pain in the center of the kneecap.
This is so strongly linked to running that it’s of course acquired the ‘runner’s knee’ name. On the other hand, there seems very little evidence this is a condition that a cyclist might get.
5. Iliotibial Band Syndrome
Another condition that is linked with running is iliotibial band syndrome.
Someone with this condition will feel pain at the side of the knee, that may pass up the thigh (and even as high as the hip). The pain is originating from the iliotibial band, which is a tendon that links the knee with the hip.
Once again, this is strongly linked to running but seldom found among cyclists.
6. Avoid Hyperextension
A classic running injury is hyperextension. This is basically where the straightened leg extends beyond the perpendicular and strains the joint ligaments and tendons.
This would happen where the knee is behind the vertical of the straight thigh and calf.
This can happen often to runners, particularly if they don’t run with the correct form.
It is potentially possible to happen in cycling if you are pedaling a bike that is the wrong dimensions. You must ensure that your leg is not fully straight at the lowest point of your pedaling action.
Ideally, when you are cycling, your leg should be somewhere between about 80% and 90% straight at its straightest point (and never more straight than 90%).
As long as you adhere to this simple rule, hyperextension is not something that you should ever need to worry about.
7. Easier To Warm Up
Another difference between cycling and running is that it is easier to warm up while actually cycling than it is while running.
You can go through the gears on a bike! (literally and figuratively). You can start as slowly as you want, and move through to more strenuous exercise when you feel your body is fully warm.
This is not the case with running. You have to be moving at some level of effort to even start, and there is no opportunity to cruise at any point. You either run or you don’t!
It is in the first few minutes of an activity that your knees are at their most vulnerable. When they are more warmed up and into an activity, they are then less likely to suffer from injury.
This is partly because the synovial fluid in the knees warms up as you warm up. This helps lubricate the joints and keep everything moving smoothly. And if it is warmed it functions more efficiently.
8. Easier To More Lightly Engage Your Core
In general, there is less strain on your core while cycling than there is when running.
What impact does this have on knees?
Well, having a solid core actually means there is less stress placed on the joints. Running requires greater use of the core to retain balance, and this makes the joints work harder to maintain this balance.
9. Different Cycling Types
One of the beauties of cycling is that there are so many different types. And all of them are knee friendly.
This makes it a much more versatile pastime than running.
There is a wide range of indoor cycles around these days. A fantastic one for office workers is the under-desk cycle. These cycles are placed quite literally under desks, and you can cycle on them as you complete tasks from a sedentary position.
These cycles are super knee-friendly, in that the range of knee motion is reduced even from standard cycling.
Here’s a fantastic video from Doctor Jo where she demonstrates the simple action of a desk cycle:
10. Arthritis Friendly
Running and cycling are polar opposites where arthritis is concerned.
Many physios do not recommend running to those suffering with arthritis. Generally, high-impact activities that jolt the joints can have detrimental effects.
Some activities that are not recommended for arthritis sufferers include:
- Jump rope
- Any activity where both feet are off the ground at the same time.
On the other hand, low-impact activities are ideal for arthritis sufferers.
Cycling is ideal as the pedaling motion has such a fluid and gentle motion on the knee joint. Also, it is easy to change intensities, and you can cycle as slowly as you want.
Other good activities for those with arthritis include:
- Tai chi
- Walking in water
- Water aerobics
- Walking on flat ground
It should be noted that the best type of cycling for arthritis is on a stationary bike. This will minimize the jarring and jolting of cycling outdoors on different terrain.
11. Gentle Stretching And Movement
Cycling is an activity that just works more in line with the mechanics of the knee than running.
Cycling helps the knee joint bend and stretch gently. It is a fluid motion, which works well with the fluid nature of the knee.
Running, on the other hand, is just a whole load jerkier and joltier, and this is just not really what our knees were built for. I think this really is the bottom line!
Cycling = smooth. Running = jerky.
Go cycling for knees every time!