Woman roller skating

Knee pain tips: “How roller skating reversed my chronic knee pain after years of running”

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Running has got a bad rap when it comes to knee pain, and often it’s unjustified. But when your joints ache after years of doing an activity as explosive as running, it can be worth exploring other exercise options – as skater Paige Lyman has been finding out.

My running habit started in high school, when I found that I both enjoyed pounding the pavements and got a good deal of stress relief from it. I felt a lot better overall when I started running a few hours a week.

I ran for a total of about two and a half hours a week – around average, according to a Danish report from 2013 that studied 17,000 runners. Despite not running excessively, there was always one issue that I couldn’t seem to navigate: my knees felt sore after a run. No matter what adjustments I made, they ached.

Even after stretching, changing running surfaces and getting a pair of decent trainers, I had knee issues. While it wasn’t knee replacement-worthy stuff, the incessant joint soreness and stiffness was jarring and I eventually chalked it up to inheriting not-so-great knees from my parents. 

Running, as an action, can be explosive and that impact can put a strain on our joints (especially if you’re running long, with thousands of steps). There have been plenty of experts and studies which have found that running is actually great for bone health, but in my case, it definitely exacerbated whatever was going on with my knees.

Samantha Wilson-Thain, academic subject leader in sport and exercise at the University of Gloucestershire, explains that while there may have been multiple factors at play with regards to my knee pain, it’s an undeniable fact that the foot and ankle take a lot of impact when running. That force then travels up the kinetic chain. 

“The hips and legs are doing the majority of the work to complete the action of running, so of course, these take the most burden from a muscle perspective (again there are differences for terrain/uphill/downhill running),” she explains. In other words, you might find ankles, knees, hips all start to ache from running.

Mixing up exercises to help with knee pain

By the time the pandemic kicked off, I had already been thinking about alternative ways of exercising that could help to give my knees a break. I was primarily a pavement or nature trail runner, and I found that by mixing up the terrains on which I ran, my knees were saved from the constant thud-thud-thudding that comes from asphalt jogging.

I wondered if the success of mixing up surfaces might be replicated or increased by mixing up the exercises themselves – particularly in regard to running and roller skating.

According to Joe Dale, a registered osteopath and founder of Victoria Park Sports Medicine, roller skating does work muscles in a different way to running: “Mixing up different types of exercise is always a good idea, as this works the joint in a different manner and engages different muscles. In many ways, roller skating is the perfect complement to running as it stresses the knee in a completely different way (rather than downward force caused by running, roller skating causes sideways stress to the knee joint).”

Dale also notes that roller skating can bring about less pain in the short term. “There is less impact on the knee joint when roller skating, and this may mean less pain is felt in the short term,” he tells Stylist. “However, it’s important to remember that although running may cause short-term pain in the joint, that doesn’t make the long-term effects any less beneficial.”

With the idea in mind, I finally grabbed a pair of skates and set about trying to mix skating into my running week. 

The benefits of roller skating for runners

Roller skating saw a very noticeable revival in 2020. I, like many others, managed to get my hands on a pair of roller skates after waiting for my specific size to come back into stock and I got stuck in.

“The low-impact nature of roller skating means that less explosive energy is required from the calf muscles,” says Dale, who goes on to explain that less strength is required from the quads compared to running (which is when they get recruited to help absorb hefty impact).

A few days into roller skating, I began to see the benefit of switching to lower impact exercise. Where I would normally feel some joint soreness post-running, my knees felt pain-free after a skating session – even if I was pushing at a fast speed or skating for 40 minutes straight.

Wilson-Thain confirms that switching a run out for a skate means less impact going through the knee. “From a joint pain perspective, I would say that it is likely the reduction in impact had the most effect – as well as the different range of motion that the joint is put through during each exercise.” She goes on to explain that when we run, we have a repetitive movement through the toes, versus a fairly fixed skate position.

The reduction in joint pain has convinced me to stick with roller skating. Alongside my knee joints generally feeling much better, there are a host of other benefits that have come from adding roller skating into my weekly exercise – including building stronger leg muscles.

Very quickly, I noticed the benefits of roller skating for knee pain. Even when going at a fast speed, my knees felt smooth and stable.
Very quickly, I noticed the benefits of roller skating for knee pain. Even when going at a fast speed, my knees felt smooth and stable.

”With roller skating, all the major muscles in the leg will be working hard – particularly the quads and the calves,” says Dale. “The real advantage (in comparison to running) is with the more subtle stabilising muscles around the ankles, knees and hips, which are used during roller skating.

“Over time, skating will strengthen those muscles and consequently the stability of the joints. The advantages of this will also carry over into running.”

That subtle stability Dale points out is something I’ve noticed in the changes that roller skating has brought to my legs and knees. My legs feel stronger overall and the general movement in my knees has been much smoother and more stable over the past year. So, if you’re a runner with stiff knees and you’re doing everything right, you might want to see if skating can help.

Strengthen your joints by having a go at our four-week Strength Training for Runners training plan.

Images: Getty/author’s own

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