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How I saved my knees by simply running faster

In November of 2022, I ran two miles. It was excruciating. I’ve always had bad knees (one of the downsides of being a tall kid), and that run sidelined me for three full days. No workouts, no chores – I could barely stand up long enough to fix a lunch. That was a rather extreme example of how running went for me pretty much every time I tried it, even though i was pretty active in other ways, hiking and playing team sports.

Overweight and with bad knees, running never worked for me

A year before that, I tried and failed to train for a half marathon, injuring myself to the point where it took several months before a could descend a flight of stairs without a death grip on the railing. I didn’t even make it 50% of the way through my training plan.

Any time i tried to get into it, running never really worked out for me, and this instance was no different. I was pretty unbothered, though, because I could still hike with enough ibuprofen in my system, and I got pretty passionate about cycling around the same time i was hurting myself trying to run 13 miles. 

Following common running advice led to injury and disappointment

Up until April of 2023, I’d followed the standard advice for beginner running, that tells you to find a pace that is comfortable for your lungs and build from there. For most people, that’s somewhere in the range of a 9:30-11:30 mile pace, and that’s where I was. I ran each mile between 9:30 and 10:00, focused on my breathing, and followed the advice of r/running and Nike Run Club, which can be summarized this way: 

Don’t go too fast – focus on making sure your heart rate stays in an ideal place – don’t spend too much time in zone 4, and slow down if your heart rate gets too high

It’s great advice, and I guess it works for millions of people, but it didn’t work for me at all.

The problem was, because I have long legs, that pace led to an unnatural gait, and the result was excruciating pain in my knees and hips. 

What I changed in my running that finally worked

In April 2023, I moved to a new city and my favorite bike path was suddenly hundreds of miles away. I wasn’t feeling confident enough to start riding on roads I’d hardly driven, but I still needed some cardio. So, I decided to give running another shot. However, this time, I decided to listen to my full body, not just my lungs.

I let my legs dictate the gait, and therefore the pace, of my running. While it was faster than my lungs could handle for more than about 20 minutes, it was the best I’d felt, physically, during or after a run in my life. It was only a mile and a half, but the pace was in the 8:30 range – a full minute faster than I previously believed was my “right” pace. Even better, I had no problems with walking the rest of the day, or the day after. I was completely fine, because I was actually running in a way that was natural for my body, instead of artificially slowing myself down based on well-intended guidance.

Running statistics of a short run at an 8:26 pace

Once I knew that, for me, it was less important to have a low heart rate than it was to simply feel good, I was off to the races.

Fast forward –  10 months and 500 miles later

Since April 2023, I’ve run a little over 500 miles, set multiple PRs for my 5K and 10K, and I’m almost ready for my first half-marathon. My average pace has improved from 8:30 to 7:20, and I’m still getting faster. Below is my 5K PR as of February 2024:

Running statistics of an improved 5K time, 20:53 and a 6:41 pace.

It was a simple change to my approach to running. Instead of worrying about my heart rate and slowing down to avoid overworking, I ran at a pace that my body enjoyed and just stopped when I got too tired. By running 3-4 times per week, and only increasing my distance in tiny chunks, I went from 1.5 miles to 13.1, without ever having to slow down and risk hurting myself again.

My advice to you, if you often feel pain when running

I’m not an expert runner – but I have enjoyed 500 miles of injury-free running in the last year. Adriene Tischler, of Yoga With Adriene fame, uses the slogan “Find what feels good” to encourage yoga practitioners to worry less about perfection and more about what works. That’s the approach that you may want to take to running as well!