When I stopped running for good three years ago, I optimistically thought all my ailing body parts—lower back, knees, and hips—would naturally return to a pain-free, healthy state.
What I forgot to take into that magic-wand thinking: I’m getting older. I thrive on moving my body daily. I still love to challenge myself regularly. Most importantly, my body, like yours, is human; I can’t think of one person who hasn’t had a frozen shoulder or a nervy neck or a knee issue at some point.
To be clear: I’m not in chronic pain anymore. Driving doesn’t agonize me, and neither does emptying the dishwasher. I’m pretty sure the half-full bottle of Advil in my bathroom cabinet has passed its expiration date. All big wins.
That said, I have sore knees. Like really sore knees. And I don’t have a solid diagnosis. Maybe they’re arthritic, maybe they’re overused, maybe they’re not functionally sound—probably a combo of the three. I feel them most when I go down the stairs, which doesn’t bode well for my upcoming hiking adventures this summer.
So I’ve been working with Kit Wren, a trainer/movement specialist, to focus on getting them more functional and less sore. Here are four things that, while not quite abracadabra-quality, have definitely brought relief. If your knees are not feeling spritely, I’d highly recommend trying them out.
#1: Romanian Deadlifts with Dumbbells
My glutes are a lot like my teenagers looking at their phones: you’ve got to YELL at them to get their attention. Romanian Deadlifts do that to my buns; as soon as I hinge at the hips and stick my booty back, all I can concentrate on is feeling those rear muscles working. Yay.
How they help my sore knees: The more my glutes, powerful though they may seem, actually kick into action, the more load they will carry. That means, of course, less work for my knees.
My routine: 3 sets x 8 reps, 3x a week; progressively working up to 100 pounds total.
#2: Releasing My Hamstrings
If my hamstrings were in a fairy tale, they’d be Cinderella before she went to the ball: all work and no recognition. They dutifully bow to the overpowering stepsisters, my quads, and never make a peep. Until my trainer showed me this simple but sly move—and then they chirped louder than a massive flock of bluebirds.
How they help my sore knees: By loosening up my hamstrings, which help stabilize and bend the knee, I’m also making space down the leg for less tightness.
My routine: These days, I foam roll/release six days a week (truly!), usually about 10 minutes at a time. To make sure I don’t neglect what I don’t see, I alternate days. One day, I’ll hit the front of my body: shins, quads, adductors; the next, I’ll do the back: glutes, calves, hamstrings.
#3: Yoga for Sensitive Knees
Any Yoga with Adriene video is pretty much a winner (hi, Benji the dog!), but this one? Sublime. The gentle positions she chooses, along with the way she narrates the asanas, transform my perspective on my knees: instead of two painful joints between my lower and upper legs, they are connected to the arches of my feet, my inner thighs, my pelvic floor. They—and I—feel supported.
How it helps my sore knees: Besides the aforementioned mental perspective, the physical part just feels like magic. The morning after the first time I did the video, I was aware of how quiet my knees were as I walked down the stairs. I’ve done it two more times since then, and both times? The same result.
My routine: Once a week for the past three weeks.
#4: Working on Hip Extension
First, a disclaimer: my couch stretch looks nothing like this video, but I wanted to share the explanation from the source Kelly Starrett, a movement genius.
Kelly and his wife, Juliet Starrett wrote a soon-to-be-released book called Built to Move, and we were lucky enough to land the couple as guests on the Many Happy Miles podcast, which will be out this Tuesday, March 14. Receiving an advance copy, I immediately dove in. There are 10 habits the Starretts promote for optimal movement—tune into the podcast to get all the details—but for now, I’m focused on one that has helped my sore knees. It’s #3: Extend your Hips.
In that chapter, the intro reads, “[Hip extension] is an essential ingredient in good functional movement; it’s what helps you go up and down the stairs…without throbbing pain.” As I mentioned earlier, stairs are not my friend on most days—and I’m definitely not ready to move into a ranch.
How it helps my sore knees: By gently-ish guiding my body back to natural alignment, my knees also fall back in line. I also just love how the couch stretch feels like it puts my whole body back together with minimal effort.
My routine: I have been doing this a couple times a week, for just 2 weeks so far. I double up a yoga mat under my knee, and use a weight bench right now so I can control the angle more easily. I’ve tried the wall as well, but it’s a little too intense for me right now as I focus on the breath and glute activation, as shown in the video. They recommend 3 minutes a side, and I’m not sure I’ve done one full minute on either side yet. Baby steps.
I feel like crying because this is the article I’ve been waiting for! For years, I had no problems with my knees. Now, they are the bane of my existence. Too many runs? Too many falls? Being 51? I don’t know. But I can barely go up and down the stairs or get off the toilet. 😂 thank you for all of these pointers and videos. I can’t wait to get started.
Totally echo your sentiment on the strength training to help with the knee pain, Dimity. I’m basically about 20 mies a week, but when I ran more, I definitely suffered. I think dialing back on the mileage and increasing the strength– particularly the deadlifts and squats (pistol squats with TRX assistance and curtsey, esp) have helped make the other muscles around the knees stronger and decreased the creakiness and pain. I wish I was more religious with the foam rolling– I know it helps, but oy!!
Thank you Dimity!! The past year of big mileage and hill goals uncovered that I have arthritis in my knees – after lots of PT for runners knee. I am sad I can’t run any longer, but hiking and biking are my focus now. These tools are so appreciated! The more I can take care of my knees, the longer I can avoid surgery!
All of these are great tips! Things I know somewhere in my subconscious but forget to implement as a routine. Y’all aren’t going to like this tip – but it truly helps me to take long breaks from coffee and wine. Something about the acidity I guess makes my joints creaky and crunchy. As a part time-coming-back-from-an-injury runner and bumbling yogi, I feel it in my knees, ankles and hips. As a full-time bridal seamstress, I feel it in my fingers as well. I need my joints to be supple and strong to work on the dresses as well as get down on the floor pinning hems and bustles. I do love my coffee and wine, but they cannot be a part of my daily life anymore if I want to move and function well.