Running again with knee osteoarthritis at 79 years old

I have previously contributed to the topic of running with osteoarthritis in many posts on other platforms – here, here and here.

In short, it is a myth that you cannot run with knee osteoarthritis. Some facts:

Understanding, that I want to discuss a recent patient – Neil. He had just completed the GLA:D program under the guidance of physiotherapist Jason Wallis. As a result he had a new found confidence in his knee, and much less pain. However, at the age of 79, he had not met his number 1 goal – returning to running. His comment to Jason, who referred him to me was “this will be a waste of time unless you can get me back to running.”

Neil’s XRay of his left knee

Up until the age of 76, Neil had been a runner. In fact his knee began to become painful during training for a half marathon. Like many people, Neil identified with being a runner and not being able to participate was depressing.

He was assessed by a private orthopaedic surgeon who advised that a joint replacement was not appropriate for him. He was diagnosed with moderate knee osteoarthritis (Grade 3). He received a series of Synvisc injections and diligently completed home exercises to strengthen his quadriceps. His pain was better but any attempt to return to running was unsuccessful due to pain.

Neil refused to give up on running.

In early 2018, he completed the GLA:D program, receiving education and understanding of the many physical and non-physical influences on his pain. His XRay was just one small piece of the puzzle. Neil was also taught that his knee needed more exercise, not less to optimise his joint health. He worked hard at the GLA:D exercise program, improving confidence in his knee, along with his hip and knee strength.

I first consulted with Neil in July 2018. I was impressed by his muscle strength, and enthusiasm to return to running at 79 years of age. We chatted about what running meant to him, and discussed the importance of staying active to manage his osteoarthritis. I explained we did not know whether running again would be good, bad or indifferent for his knee osteoarthritis. But, considering the numerous health benefits and what it meant to him, I would do my best to help him get back.

Neil’s running assessment at the clinic

Following further assessment of his running mechanics and some coaching to improve his technique, Neil began a gradual return to run program. He started with just a few minutes per run, having a day’s break between each run session. The aim was to add a couple of minutes per run each week. Neil also started some more challenging strength and power exercises to improve his ability to absorb the loads of running.

Fast forward to December 8th, and Neil was doing well. There were a couple of small pain flares along the way, but these did not occur during or following running. Neil decided to put a stamp on his return to running by participating in his local Park Run, a great volunteer initiative to help Australians become and remain active.

Neil, Jason and I nervously awaiting the start of Park Run

He completed the event in 34:58, and was understandably very happy. He has been participating in Park Run fortnightly since, pain free.

Neil_at the finish line of his first Park Run

When I last consulted with Neil (February 2019), he was up to 8km for his long run, and planning a 10km race – I wished him luck.

In Part 2 of this blog, I will explain further details about the exercise program and running technique changes Neil used to help get back to running.

  • Written by Dr Christian Barton

    Dr Christian is an expert in the management of difficult to treat, long-term injuries. He possesses a particular interest in the knee, specialising in conditions such as osteoarthritis, patellofemoral pain, and running-related injuries. Christian’s primary focus is providing individual exercise solutions and holistic patient education for people with persistent pain. Christian is recognised as a world leader of running retraining treatment, which is often a key missing element in the rehabilitation of injured runners.