How I Cured Runner’s Knee in 220,233 Steps

If you keep doing sports long enough, you discover your Achilles’ heel: the injury that keeps coming back no matter how long you rest, ice the pain and dose yourself with ibuprofen.

Finally, I think I’ve solved mine. And I want to help solve yours, too.

Runner’s knee (patellofemoral syndrome) first hit me when I was playing soccer in college. One game it was so bad I had to crawl off the field.

Taking a seven-year break from soccer helped my right knee, but when I started up again, so did the pain just below my left kneecap. Sometimes a change of shoes helped, but only for a while. A physical therapist prescribed exercises, but they didn’t make much difference.

Gradually, I gave up running. I rested all week for a weekend pickup soccer game. But as I got into my 40s, I had to cut back to two or three times a month, then twice a month and sometimes take a year off when things got really bad.

I began to get other injuries as well — plantar fasciitis, a strained groin muscle, cramps in my calves. A new physical therapist told me maybe I should think about giving up on soccer. But sitting at the computer all day wasn’t much better. My neck hurt more and more at the end of each week.

Step One: Strengthen Everything

I refused to quit. Instead, I took classes at a gym: yoga, core, circuit training, whatever they had to offer. Living in California, I wondered why anyone wanted to sweat indoors when we could all enjoy the sun and grass and air. Now I realize that you can’t just exercise one part of your body and expect to fix it. Everything is connected.

Step Two: Run Differently

A chi running class at the gym put me on the right track, but a pair of Vibram Five Fingers was what finally made it possible to run more on my forefeet. That took a lot of shock off my knees.

Step Three: Move All the Time

The final piece in the puzzle was the most expensive, and ultimately the most powerful: a treadmill desk. Yes, I’m walking as I type this — on a treadmill specially designed to fit under a desk. The height of the desk is adjustable. There’s a chair next to the treadmill, and when I get tired, I can press a button that lowers the desk to normal height. But I sometimes go whole days now without sitting.

treadmill deskAt first it made my knee hurt even more. But then the pain subsided. One day as I was on the treadmill, my knee crackled so loudly I stopped the treadmill and Googled “knee popping.” “A knee that snaps or pops when you walk, exercise, twist, or turn may be annoying but usually is not a cause for concern if you don’t have any pain and your knee feels stable,” I read on WebMD. (It’s a site I trust, since I’ve done a lot of work for the company.)

The crackling eventually stopped, and the pain has never come back. It’s been almost five months now. I’ve doubled the amount of soccer I play. I’m back to running a couple of times a week. Sometimes I still get that familiar twinge, but I haven’t needed a pain pill in months. I don’t even bother to ice. Maybe all that gentle motion finally broke up some scar tissue. Or maybe exercise — I burn 500-1000 calories a day just on the treadmill doing 2,000 or more steps — has moderated my overall inflammation.

Whatever happened, I’m sure this is not the end of the story. Everything made of atoms eventually disintegrates, and so will I. But for the moment, my 52-year-old knee might as well be 18.

Now, let’s talk about your injury. Most of the changes I implemented came about because I’m a health reporter. I’ve covered medical research for TIME, Reuters, WebMD, Health and lots of other publications. In the course of all that reporting, I keep learning about things that could be useful to amateur athletes like you and me. A lot of it your doctor doesn’t know about.

In this blog, I’ll share what I find out. Maybe something will solve your tennis elbow, or weak ankle or inflamed Achilles’ tendon. Better yet, maybe we can figure out how to prevent all those injuries. That’s my hope.

So stick around.

7 thoughts on “How I Cured Runner’s Knee in 220,233 Steps”

  1. Okay, so I have a meniscus that’s oozed sideways, outside of my left knee. Ortho doc says cortisone and/or hyaluronic acid shots plus a $2900 off-loading brace. Skeptical podiatrist says, Offloading to where, may I ask, outer space? I hike almost every day. What trail do I take?

    1. Wow. So sorry it hear it. Sounds really painful. I assume the orthopedist is proposing to take stress off the knee by shifting the load to other parts of your leg? And what does the podiatrist propose? At the risk of confusing the situation even further, I would probably consult with a physical therapist as well. Let me know how it goes!

  2. Yes, but I don’t know which parts yet, or how. Will consult with him in a day or two, and then see my rheumatologist at the end of the week…to get yet another opinion!

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