Is Trail Running Bad For Your Knees?

I’ve met a lot of people who avoid trail running claiming it’s bad for your knees. I’m a big fan of trail running and I have never experienced any knee injury while doing the sport. So researched if trail running is bad for your knees and here’s what I found…

In general, trail running is not bad for your knees. Most knee injuries are a result of improper running form and muscle imbalances that occur through repetitive motions. It can occur whether you’re running on the road or trail.

Ahead, we will look at some of the reasons why trail running isn’t necessarily the culprit for knee injuries and why your knees may hurt after trail running. We will also talk about best practices for trail runners to protect their knees.

Why Trail Running Isn’t Necessarily Bad For Your Knees

a close up photo of my legs trail running downhill

The constant uphills and downhills, uneven terrain, and occasional stumbles. It’s easy to think that trail running is the culprit when something wrong happens to your knees.

However, like any other exercise, repetitive motion does cause injuries like IT band syndrome (lateral knee pain) and patellofemoral pain syndrome (knee pain). It’s just a normal part of any activity that involves repetitive flexion and extension of the knees.

Trail running isn’t necessarily the culprit but it’s running incorrectly.

But that does mean you should stop trail running? Absolutely not. There are a lot of reasons why trail running isn’t necessarily bad for your knees and could even help your knee health overall.

  • Trail running offers a variety of movements – the uneven surface prevents you from being “too repetitive” which can help transfer the stress to your other muscles
  • The ground is softer which absorbs impact and reduces the load on your knee joints
  • The ascents and descents develop another muscle group that you won’t be able to develop when just running on a flat surface

Why Your Knees Hurt After Trail Running

At some point, you will feel that your knees hurt after trail running.

But contrary to what most people believe, the reason isn’t necessarily the ground impact itself, rather, it’s muscle fatigue, tightness, or muscle imbalances that occurred over time and change your running form as well as the alignment of your joints.

Downhills are notorious for engaging your quads. And when you had too many downhills, your quads can fatigue or can turn into quad tightness which can also cause knee pain.

It could also be an IT band syndrome (pain in the lateral knee caused by IT band tightness) that is also caused by muscle imbalances, particularly weak hip, and gluteal muscles.

These types of knee injuries are common amongst runners due to the repetitive nature of the sport.

In such cases, simple activation and strengthening of the glutes often correct the muscle imbalance resolving the knee pain.

There’s a program by Sports Rehab Specialist, James Dunne, that you can follow to rehabilitate your knees by correcting muscle imbalances and your running form.

It’s a complete program with muscle activation techniques, movement retraining, and strength exercises. You can check out the complete program on his website.

Overall, there are many reasons why knee pain occurred after trail running. But the culprit isn’t necessarily running on the trail itself.

As WebMD puts it, “Running incorrectly is what hurts your knees, not running itself“.

Is Trail Running Better For Your Knees?

Most experts and running coaches believe that trail running is better for your knees for the following reasons:

  • Unlike road running, trail running engages your muscles in different ways, therefore, developing any muscle groups at the same time
  • A softer ground means less impact on the knee joints
  • You are forced to slow down when running on trails reducing the impact on your knees even more

Even so, you need additional effort into making sure your knees are free from pain through a combination of muscle activation techniques, strengthening, and post-run stretching.

How To Protect Your Knees While Trail Running?

There are a bunch of ways to protect your knees from injuries while running.

However, it’s not something you can do once to guarantee zero knee pain.

Rather, it’s a continuous process that involves regularly correcting muscle imbalances through different types of strengthening and flexibility exercises.

Here are some best practices for protecting your knees for trail running:

  • Do dynamic warm-ups before running
  • Incorporate post-run stretching every after you run. I covered how long you should stretch after running on another article. Be sure to check that out.
  • Identify and correct muscle imbalances to fix your running form. This program will teach you step-by-step how to identify and fix poor form before any knee pain occurs
  • Wear an appropriate trail running shoe

Related post: Trail Running Shoes: How Are They Different?

These best practices are very easy to do, but they would have to be done the right way in order to work.

That is why I recommend that you hire a running coach or consult a physical therapist every once in a while so they can provide a specific assessment to identify imbalances and recommend solutions.

Related post: Should You Stretch Before Or After Running?

Final Thoughts

Trail running is a wonderful sport and is a great way to add variation to your running workouts.

Contrary to what some people believe, trail running isn’t necessarily bad for your knees. It’s the muscle imbalances that occur as a result of repetitive motion that accumulates over a period of time that causes most knee injuries.

By strengthening key muscles and stretching tight ones, you can avoid having injuries and protect your knees when trail running.

Nicho Mauricio

Running wasn't always my favorite sport. I was a CrossFit athlete and I loved every bit of it. But since the pandemic began, I was forced to stay away from the gym and train at home instead. Things got boring. That's when I decided to trail run with my friends. I instantly got hooked. So I started training and researching all things running. As a beginner, I want to buy only the best running gear and do only the best practices. This blog is where I share what I've learned in my journey and my experiences as a runner.

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