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The Best Runner's Knee Stretches & Exercises

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT July 30, 2020 0 Comments

Woman Stretching

A carefully-chosen selection of runner’s knee stretches and exercises are a great way to help you overcome that sore and out of sync feeling. Don’t let runner’s knee affect your quality of life. Just below, you can learn more about runner’s knee stretches and exercises for strengthening to help you recover as quickly as possible.

Stretches

A good stretching program is always important for knee injury recovery. Below is a good place to get started.

Laying Down Hamstring Stretch

Start by lying on your back with the knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Grab a stretching strap, large towel, or belt for this one. With the knee bent to start, loop the stretching tool around the bottom of your foot while holding the ends tight with both hands. Then, simply straighten the knee and bring the toes up toward the ceiling until a stretch is felt in the back of the thigh in the hamstring.  Modify the angle of your hip to get the best possible stretch.

Hold 30-60 seconds at a time for up to 3 sets on each leg.

Laying Twist Deep Quad Stretch

Lie on your back with both knees bent and feet flat on the floor and wider than hip-width apart. Keeping your shoulders and spine touching the ground as best as possible, let the knees fall to the ground to one side. As you rotate to the right, you should feel a nice stretch in the front of the left hip and thigh to address both the hip flexors and quadriceps muscles. Switch to stretch both sides.

Hold for 30 seconds on each side for up to 3 sets per day.

Laying Down Adductor Stretch

Grab a stretch strap or belt for this stretch. Loop your foot into the strap. Straighten your knee and bring it up toward the chest as far as is comfortable for your flexibility. Then, keeping the entire trunk steady on the floor, let your leg fall out to the side, keeping the leg straight, until you feel a stretch in the inner thigh. You can use your other leg for counterbalance by bending the knee and letting it fall toward the floor in the opposite direction.

Hold for 30-60 seconds on each side for up to 3 sets.

Laying Down IT Band Stretch

You will start with the same setup and position as the stretch above. This time, your leg will rotate across the body and fall toward the floor until you feel a stretch in the side of the thigh. Keep your spine grounded as much as possible, your pelvis may rotate slightly which is okay. To get a deeper stretch, rotate the toes down toward the floor as far as you can.

Hold for 30-60 seconds for up to 3 sets on each side. The IT, or iliotibial band is notoriously painful and tight in runners, so start slowly with this one. If you need more knee support, consider an IT band strap.

Seated Piriformis Stretch

The hips, particularly the glutes, can often feel tight and sore with knee pain. Stretching the outer hip and butt muscles can feel amazing to address this. Start by sitting on the edge of a comfortable seat. To stretch the right hip, bring the right outer ankle toward the opposite knee and rest it there, creating a “figure 4” position.  Let the bent knee relax and fall toward the floor as far as possible, then keep the back straight as you lean forward. Stop when you feel a deep stretch in the side of the hip.

Hold for 30-60 seconds for up to 3 sets on each side. Alternatively, you can do this same move lying down.

Strengthening Exercises

Choosing the correct leg strengthening exercises can help restore muscle strength, coordination, and overall balance. This helps maximize knee function and minimize pain and injury.

If you are having trouble with tolerance or coordination, consider taping the knee for further support.

Terminal Knee Extension

Grab a strong resistance band for this one and attach it securely in a door or table. Then, place one end of the loop directly behind the knee. Stand facing the secured end of the band and step back far enough that the band will stay in place behind the knee. Stand tall, then bend the banded knee slowly as you lift your heel off the ground and come onto the toes. Next, reverse the move by tightening the thigh as you bring the heel back toward the ground and straighten the knee.

Repeat 10-15 repetitions for 2-3 sets. Adjust resistance as needed. Always focus on keeping the quad tight as you straighten the knee!

Laying Down Clam Shell

This exercise is great for addressing muscle imbalances in the knee caused by lateral hip weakness. Lie on your side with the hips stacked on top of each other and knees bent to about 90 degrees. Tighten your abs as you lift the knee closest to the ceiling upwards. Lift as high as you can go without any rotation in the spine. Hold for 1-2 seconds at the top before slowly returning the upper knee to touch the lower knee again. You will feel a burn in the side of your butt as you continue. To progress, add a loop bandaround the knees for resistance.

Repeat for 10-15 repetitions, 2-3 sets per day.

Squats

The classic squat is a runner’s best friend. Stand with the feet hip-width apart. As you squat down, keep your back flat and weight in your heels as you bend the knees. If tolerated, get your thighs parallel with the floor to achieve 90 degrees of knee flexion. To progress, stand on a softer surface, hold weights in your hands, hold for an extended amount of time at the bottom of the squat, or add a jump at the top of each repetition.

Repeat 10-15 times for 2-3 sets.

Step-Ups

You can use a stairway, free step, box, or even a balance pad for this one. Facing the step, simply place one foot on top of the surface and step up so that both feet are up. Reverse the motion to step back down. Alternate leading with each foot. Focus on good form- keep the knee in good alignment and don’t lean forward with your upper body.

10-15 times on each side for 2-3 sets. Increase intensity with the height of the step, increased speed, or a softer surface like a foam pad.

Single-Leg Stance

Challenge your balance while focusing on your muscle balance and leg alignment. This is a great exercise to build coordination with single leg activity. Shift your weight into one foot and see how long you can hold it. Keep your vision fixed on something stable to help your balance. The goal is to work up to 30 seconds.

Hold for 30-60 seconds for 2-3 sets on each leg. To progress stand on a foam pad, move the head, or kick the free leg out to the side.

Lunges

Start in a comfortable standing position with good posture and the feet about hip-width apart. Then, step one foot forward (how far depends on your coordination, balance, and comfort).  Keep the front knee behind the toes as you bend both knees and bring your trunk straight down toward the floor. Go as deep as you can with good form and then return. Return to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.

Repeat 10-15 times on each leg for 2-3 sets total. To progress take a bigger step, lunge deeper, or step onto a foam pad to challenge your balance.

Benefits

There are many perks to establishing a well-balanced lower body exercise program. These benefits will be expedited when combined with other home remedy treatment options. Best of all, these benefits build on each other to optimize the recovery process.

  • Stretches

    Stretches are a good way to warm up and cool down from exercise, and can be completed in minimal time.

  • Better tolerance for knee range of motion with daily activities
  • Relief of pain due to muscle or connective tissue stiffness
  • Improved joint alignment
  • Swelling and pain management
  • Exercises

    Over time, the right exercises can help build the muscles you need to recover from runner’s knee and help prevent it in the future.

  • Muscle balance with walking, running, jumping, stairs, etc.
  • Improved quadriceps muscle activation for daily activities
  • Increased endurance and tolerance for weight-bearing or higher impact activities like running
  • Increased blood flow to promote healing
  • General overall better joint coordination and function

When and How Often Should I Stretch?

The frequency of stretching with your exercise program ultimately depends on your specific symptoms and needs. Typically, stretching can be started immediately, addressing particularly sore and stiff areas around the knee. Use your pain symptoms as a guideline for how much stretching you can tolerate. Stretching might be uncomfortable but it should never be solely painful.

Note: If you have issues with joint instability or hypermobility, stretching may be contraindicated. Talk to your doctor if you aren’t sure. 

Exercises to Avoid

While there are no specific restrictions for exercises when addressing runner’s knee. There are a few guidelines you can keep in mind to prevent knee aggravation and promote healing. These include:

  • Stop or modify any exercise or move that is causing knee pain
  • If you are having issues with patellar tracking- avoid deep knee flexion, especially combined with internal hip rotation. 
  • Avoid high impact moves initially to allow tissue healing
  • Form and coordination are crucial- if a certain movement feels out of control and leads to excessive “wobbling” at the knee (especially if it feels like it's collapsing inward) it’s best to stop it until you feel ready
  • If you are having trouble with coordination, start with exercises lying on the ground that isolate specific muscle groups. Then, build to more dynamic and functional exercises in standing and on various surfaces.

Safe and Effective Runners Knee Exercises

Occasionally, there may be a bigger issue going on in the knee, especially if overtraining is a problem. This may warrant more rest time and a personalized guided program from a physical therapist. If your symptoms are severe or suddenly change for the worse, seek medical advice immediately.  If you pay close attention to your symptoms and your form with running, your knee will be able to heal and get you back to your normal routine.  If you’re not sure where to get started, you can always contact your doctor or sign up for physical therapy.

Sources:

https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/runners-knee-exercises

https://www.verywellhealth.com/pt-exercises-for-runners-knee-2696583

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Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.



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