Can running actually HELP your knees?

It’s a common truism that runners are all hobbling around with busted pins. Now, we all know That Diehard Runner Person — along the lines of “My foot fell off and was flapping against my shredded shin for 17 miles but I iced it and took 2500 mg of Advil when I got home so I think it’ll be OK.” Also, many folks have tried running and had to quit early because of things like shin pain and kneecap irritation.

As the boomer generation ages, we are treated to more articles about how “fitness nuts” are paying the piper with hip replacements. Many articles in the mainstream media tut-tut over the premise that boomers are not prepared to go quietly into that good night, and are still trying to wakeboard in their silver years.

(By the way, permit me a digression. “Boomers are the first generation that grew up exercising, and the first that expects, indeed demands, that they be able to exercise into their 70s,” said Dr. Nicholas A. DiNubile, a Philadelphia-area orthopedic surgeon, who coined and trademarked the term boomeritis. Ummm the first generation? How about ALL OF FUCKING HUMAN HISTORY?! Almost everyone did some kind of physical activity before the 20th century, for life. If they didn’t, they would go without water, food, income, and getting places. People didn’t have pensions and condos in Boca Raton; they herded sheep, chopped wood, hacked turnips out of the earth, or toiled in factories till they dropped dead.)

Given the data that shows that physical activity declines sharply with age, I hardly believe the hand-wringing: despite some excellent examples to the contrary, the majority of the 60-somethings I see are doing well if they can walk to the store for smokes.

Over 60% of US adults over 65 don’t even meet the mininum requirement for regular activity, never mind accomplishing anything physically significant. Indeed, about one-third of them are completely physically inactive — I mean like “lying in a bloblike pool of their own gelatinously decayed flesh, possibly being fed through a straw” inactive. Sure, there are a lot of greybeards out there ripping Ollies and busting out the black diamond runs, but far too few.

(Shout out to my 83-year-old grandma, who can still walk faster than you on osteoporotic hips; my 63-year-old mom, who’s kicked cancer and multiple surgeries in the nards and is looking pretty damn ripped these days thanks to weights and running; and my 65-year-old post-heart-attack dad, who just recently phoned me up to tell me how much weight he could do on the pec deck and his sprint training.)

Anyway, the message underlying these types of articles is that the boomers got what they deserve. Knee and hip replacements are up, says the press, because boomers expect to be able to skydive and run marathons like they did when they were 20. If boomers would just sit down and shut up, and start wearing a groove into that TV chair, they’d be better off.

Here’s the deal.

First of all, running is one of the few sports that you have to get good at to really survive. If you aren’t a very good cyclist, who cares — you can still ride the bike. If you aren’t a very good salsa dancer, who cares — just try not to kick your partner too much. But running… well, it can take you a year or more to even get conditioned enough to enjoy a serious trundle around the block.

First-time runners generally have two problems: poor running form and overeager progression. They run with lumbering heel strikes rather than light forefoot strikes. (See Michael Yessis’ Explosive Running for more on this — one of the best running books out there, IMHO.) And they do too much, too soon. Right around the 3-4 month mark, newbies’ aerobic capacity is better than the integrity of their connective tissue, and voila, owchie.

There is also a school of thought that argues that the “marshmallow-filled Kleenex box” type of running shoe also does more harm than good, and that we should all be barefoot running. Now, I’m not about to go padding around the dogshit-used needle-broken glass-encrusted sidewalks in my hobbit feet, but there are proposed alternatives such as the Nike Frees and Vibram 5 Fingers.

In any case, the central question remains: Are runners actually worse off? Are they actually injured at higher rates than the general population?

The NYT redeems itself here by reporting on this series of studies that suggests runners’ knees may actually be in better shape. Now, I ain’t saying that runners can’t be stupid as heck. Athletes in all domains can have a tendency to overdo it and ignore small injuries, allowing them to turn into big problems. But injury is not — and should not — be an inevitable consequence of regular physical activity.

If you like running, find ways to be better at it and keep yourself safe. Train hard if you like, but train smart. Don’t let small injuries become big ones. Include proper preventive medicine, use proper form, periodize your program, and don’t be a dumbass. And please, don’t be one of those Type-A newbies who’s all like, “I’m gonna run a marathon in three months!” Just relax, do your wheezing 2k for a while, and enjoy the scenery.