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Good Sports for Bad Knees

Aerobic alternatives for athletes who can no longer bear the pain of running

By Edmund O. Lawler

Running was Mike Murphy’s passion. Starting in junior high, through high school on the cross-country and track teams and onward as a competitive recreational runner, including two Chicago marathons, Murphy ran and ran. It was who he was — a runner.

Then he endured two knee surgeries (when he was 40 and 45, respectively) and a skeletal analysis by an orthopedic surgeon in Colorado. The surgeon discovered that Murphy was not biomechanically structured to be a runner. Murphy came to the agonizing conclusion that his days as a runner had reached the end of the road.

The 51-year-old Chicago money manager is hardly the first recreational or professional runner to be sidelined by injury.

About 70 percent of runners get injured over the course of their running careers, according to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Shin splints, Achilles tendinitis, runner’s knee, plantar fasciitis and stress fractures are among the maladies that afflict runners, who, ironically, are pursuing good health as they pound the pavement.

The Risks of Life on the Run

There is some debate whether running and its impact on the lower extremities leads to joint pain and other problems. But Dr. Stephen Burns, an orthopedic surgeon with Franciscan Health in northwest Indiana, is convinced after more than 30 years of practice that running poses a risk.

“Running can cause injuries,” Burns says. “The surface on which you run can be a risk factor because a runner can step in a hole or slip on water or ice. It also depends on the type of running. If you’re cutting or twisting, like in basketball or volleyball, you’re increasing the risk of knee injury.”

When patients complain of knee or leg pain from running or if they are recovering from knee surgery, Burns urges them to consider a new aerobic activity that puts less strain on already overused joints.

“I like swimming or running in a pool because the water puts a lot less pressure on the joints,” he says. “I’ve recommended circuit weights that allows you to work through different muscle groups while providing a good aerobic workout. There is also an elliptical trainer, the StairMaster and cycling — all of which are lower impact than running. And cyclists can be just as competitive as runners.”

Everyone is different, though, and certain sports that help some people with bad knees can be painful for others.

Embracing a New Sport

Murphy, who’s now as passionate about cycling as he was running, is delighted he traded his running shoes several years ago for a road bike.

“I’m glad I finally stopped banging my head against the wall thinking I could run for the rest of my life,” Murphy says. “Cycling is a great substitute for running. It takes more time, and it costs more money because you have to buy the bike and other equipment, but it’s aerobic, it’s outdoors and it’s as social as you want it to be.” He has not experienced any knee pain since taking up cycling.

To satisfy his competitive drive, Murphy competes in cycling time trails, in which riders race against the clock over distances ranging between 20 and 40 kilometers (about 12.5 to 25 miles). The high-intensity competition produces a rush of endorphins similar to a runner’s high, he notes.

Gail Ditchman-Kosar of suburban Chicago was a serious recreational runner for 30 years, fortunate to have never suffered a running-related injury. But after getting hurt in an auto accident and enduring more than a half-dozen knee and hip surgeries, she found she could no longer run without pain because of severe osteoarthritis.


“My orthopedic surgeon told me that if I ever returned to a gym that I would no longer be his patient,” she says.

The 66-year-old education professor tried aerobic alternatives to running, including swimming and training on an elliptical. But both left her hurting because the activities required her to extend her right leg behind her back. She was at her wits’ end.

Running into Resistance

Ditchman-Kosar’s physical therapist referred her to a Chicago-area trainer who was starting a new aerobic program called Fluid Running, not to be confused with less-demanding water aerobics or aqua running. Tethered to a flotation belt in the deep end of a pool, fluid runners mimic the upright posture and motion of runners. Their feet never touch the bottom of the pool.

“It was a godsend,” she says. “Within 15 minutes in the water, I had worked harder than I had worked in 15 years with my cardio. It’s a different way of creating cardio without fear of injury.”

Jennifer Conroyd began developing the program in 2011 after suffering a torn calf muscle while training for a marathon. She tells people: “This is a running class, but it’s in the water. You get all the benefits you’d get on land. A lot of people can’t run on land because it hurts.”

Participants burn 40 percent more calories than running for a similar time on land, Conroyd said. The program is offered at eight pools in suburban Chicago and in California, Oregon and Colorado.

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Edmund O. Lawler is a Southwest Michigan-based freelance writer and author or co-author of six business books. Read More
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