Protect your knees – 11 ways to get more steps pain-free

Keeping your knees healthy and happy is key to maintaining or increasing your step count. Pain is the body’s way of getting you to stop and pay attention. As a walker, nothing stops you from hitting your personal step goal faster than sore knees. Don’t feel discouraged though! There are concrete steps you can take to prevent wear and tear on your knees, as well as to deal with knee pain if it does occur.

Of course, if you experience new knee pain or suffer an acute injury, make sure to consult a doctor. It’s important to get your knee properly diagnosed, as serious knee injuries may not heal on their own. It’s still important to get minor knee pain checked out just in case, but there are steps you can take on your own to help feel better and ensure you get your daily recommended walking time in.

Read on to learn more about your knees, how you can prevent knee injuries and what you can do to relieve minor knee pain and get more active than ever.

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Getting to Know Your Knees

Your knee is the largest joint in the human body and is the meeting place of four leg bones, the femur, tibia, fibula, and patella. Comprised of two joints that work together to form a modified hinge joint, this gives the knee its range of motion allowing it to bend and straighten and to swing from side to side. Dr. Andrew Chung of HealthPages.org explains that the knee is susceptible to injury since it has the task of bearing enormous pressure while maintaining flexibility. For example, while walking, the load put on our knees amounts to 1.5 times our body weight. While climbing stairs, this load is equal to 3-4 times our body weight.

Diagram of the knee joint
VectorMine / Shutterstock

In addition to the normal wear and tear of the knee from daily activities, the increased mileage from long dedicated walks can be tough on the knees – especially if you are using improper form.

Your knee is a complicated joint with many moving parts. The lateral, medial and anterior cruciate ligaments (LCL, MCL, and ACL) help to connect the various parts of the knee along with the patellar tendon. In addition to these tendons and ligaments, the meniscus is a pad of cartilage that helps to absorb shock in the knee. All of these parts can suffer injuries – both acute injuries caused by something like a fall or longer-term wear and tear injuries. Unlike your elbow, for instance, your knees take a constant pounding as you move around. That’s why it’s so important to protect your knees and reduce the overall level of wear and tear on them – especially if you’ve had knee issues in the past.

Tips to Reduce Knee Strain

Your Walking Surface Matters

Couple with child and dog walking in field
vvvita / Shutterstock

Walking on hard surfaces like asphalt roads or concrete sidewalks put greater stress on your knees. Although plenty of people take their daily walk or jog on the road, walking surfaces that give slightly will have less of an impact. SportsKnee.com advises choosing surfaces that are softer such as the rubber tread of a treadmill or paths covered in grass, dirt or wood chips. A walking track with its rubberized surface has both give to make it easier on the knees and grip to help prevent slips and falls. The longer your walk, the more your knees will appreciate a softer surface. You might get by during a 5-minute walk, but if you’re trying to burn calories by walking for an hour or more it pays to reduce the impact on your knees. A good walking surface can be hard to find, but many schools have walking tracks that may be open to the public during certain hours.

Too soft of a surface can also be a problem. A surface that gives too much, like a sandy path or beach, can also be damaging because it’s hard to get stable footing. It’s very easy to injure a knee or ankle if sand or dirt suddenly gives away. Uneven surfaces – like a natural dirt trail or woodland hiking trail – can be hard on your knees as well. They increase the likelihood of tripping and falling, and may make a natural walking gait difficult.

If you have access to a treadmill, you can take advantage of a softer walking surface where you can more easily control the speed, incline and more. This can be a great option for many people.

Intense Inclines Are Not For Everyone

Sporty woman jogging uphill
Undrey / Shutterstock

Incline walking or walking stairs are great ways to get more intense and burn calories. They also put more stress on your knees – both walking up and down. If you have a history of knee injuries or soreness, try walking on even, flat paths without sudden changes in terrain or steep inclines. Walking can be a great low-impact exercise if you put a little thought into your walking routine.

Choose Your Shoes Wisely

Close up of walking shoes on a walking path
lzf / Shutterstock

Poorly fitting shoes are no fun to walk on, but they can negatively impact your entire body as you walk. If shoes are not giving you enough support, your knees may end up overcompensating and increasing your risk of soreness and injury. Unevenly worn insoles or soles of your shoes can also affect your gait and in turn cause knee strain.

Find a good pair of walking-specific shoes that cushion and support your feet. If you can, get your shoes fitted by a professional and walk around the store to make sure they hold up to a short walk.

Have Good Form and Posture

woman demonstrating proper posture
Undrey / Shutterstock

Harvard Health recommends the following walking posture tips when walking to prevent injury.

  • Stand tall with back straight, head up and eyes looking straight ahead.
  • Keep your shoulders pulled back and relaxed, not creeping up towards your ears.
  • Focus on your step, rolling your foot from heel to toe and not stepping down flat-footed.
  • Do not stretch your leg out too far in front of you and keep your steps natural and not forced.

Make sure to maintain good walking posture throughout your entire walk. If you feel your posture start slipping, consider taking a break or cutting your walk short. As you focus on your posture, you’ll be able to walk longer and longer using good form.

Take the Time to Warm Up

Woman stretching hamstrings on a running track
HD92 / Shutterstock

In just 5-10 minutes, you can get your blood circulating and warm up your muscles through a simple cardio warm-up routine. Doing some dynamic stretching exercises before a long walk can help to prevent injuries. Target the upper and lower leg muscles such as the hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles. Make sure to start your walk with a light warmup before speeding up into a brisk or faster walk. This can also help loosen up your joints before you get more intense.

Be careful not to do intense knee or other stretches when cold. You’re better off slowly warming up by moving around or walking slowly instead of taking actions that put strain on your knees, hamstrings, calves or other areas. While movies and TV may show people quickly gaining flexibility through extreme stretching, in reality you’re more likely to injure yourself!

How to Manage Your Existing Knee Pain

If you’re dealing with minor knee pain related to your walking routine, you’re not alone. If your pain/strain is minor and you’ve been checked out by your physician, there are steps you can take to ease your pain and continue walking.

Get checked out

Senior man talking to doctor about health
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If you’re experiencing persistent pain, make sure to consult with a doctor. They can examine your knee and do tests to diagnose your specific problem. If you feel a sharp or sudden pain, especially if you hear a “pop,” make sure to get checked out right away. Acute knee injuries can be very serious, and you’ll want to get treated right away.

Know Your Joints

Woman holding her knees after walking
Focus and Blur / Shutterstock

Did you know the weather really can affect joint function and pain? It’s not just folk wisdom, but cold or rainy weather can affect your joints. Doctors are not certain if it’s the humidity, temperature or precipitation. Many suspect it’s related to barometric pressure – the pressure of the air.

Knowing the triggers for your knee pain can help you avoid it and time your steps to avoid hurting yourself worse. Some people feel joint pain in the mornings when their body hasn’t fully warmed itself up. If that sounds like you, walking at night might be in order. Others feel sore and tired after a long day, and morning walking might be better. Find what works best for you and stick with that strategy.

If you’ve had a history of knee soreness, take a little time to understand the various parts of your knee. Your doctor can help in this area. Understanding your joints can help you differentiate between a chronic, overuse injury (like IT band pain on the side of your knee) or a more acute injury like a ligament or tendon problem.

Try Hot or Cold Therapy

Man holding ice pack on outside of knee
Andrey_Popov / Shutterstock

A hot compress can dilate blood vessels and increase blood flow to an injured area. This can be useful in warming up a joint and increasing flexibility. When dealing with new pain caused by inflammation or injury, a cold compress can decrease your swelling and help with pain. As swelling decreases, so will your pain. For longer-term pain and soreness not caused by an acute injury, heat therapy can help to loosen up your joints. If you experience serious swelling, or an acute injury, make sure to see a doctor right away just in case.

Wear a Knee Sleeve or Brace

Knee braces on display
Sergey Ryzhov / Shutterstock

Many walkers use a neoprene knee sleeve, which helps provide stability and warmth to the knee. Knee sleeves can help support weak parts of the knee, while providing warmth and compression to improve blood flow to the area. For more serious knee injuries, your doctor can recommend a larger and more complicated knee brace. Knee braces stabilize the knee joint (often focusing on one specific part) to prevent reinjuring your knee and to support the injured part. It’s always a good idea to consult a doctor before using a complicated knee brace, because an improperly worn brace can actually cause pain or injury.

Give Your Knee a Rest

Athlete resting on a barbell - rest concept
Sjstudio6 / Shutterstock

If your body keeps screaming at you that something is wrong, you should listen. Pushing too hard can cause permanent damage. Take a break for a day or two and see if the pain or swelling subsides. Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep, as sleep is the time for your body to heal and recover. Sleep is important for exercise in general, but even more important when you’re dealing with an injury.

Pain can also be a sign that you’re pushing your steps too hard and not getting enough rest. Schedule some dedicated rest days to allow your knees to heal a bit, and make sure that you increase your step count gradually.

Keep it Consistent

Older and younger woman walking near water
David Pereiras / Shutterstock

Dedicated rest days are important, but the best thing you can do for your physical conditioning is to stay active consistently. If you try to pack in a week’s worth of walking in one afternoon, you will inevitably feel the effects. Rather, try to consistently keep to your walking program day after day adjusting your steps according to your body’s cues.

Taking long periods away from walking and then trying to jump back into your regular routine is an easy way to get injured. If you have to take time away from exercise, make sure to gradually work your way back up to where you were. Having a consistent walking habit can strengthen your legs and keep your joints lubricated and flexible.

Knowing how to prevent knee strain and how to alleviate minor knee pain can keep you moving forward towards better health.

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