Easing the Pain of Runner’s Knee

Salvation in foam.

Update 4/20/13: Foam rollers can be useful, but you need to be careful. I believe that overuse of a foam roller caused a nerve entrapment issue that has resulted in some numbness to my right shin. Before using a roller I strongly advice reading Foam Roller–Friend or Foe, a blog post by manual trainer Adam Mentzell. Mentzell goes over possible unintended consequences as well as some common sense rules for using a foam roller.

First off, many thanks for all the suggestions Root Simple readers sent in when I asked for help fixing my runner’s knee (in my case caused by fencing). The comment thread on that post is now, I believe, a very useful resource for dealing with runner’s knee thanks to your contributions.

While I still have a lot of strengthening to do to fix the underlying causes of my runner’s knee, the pain is almost completely gone. Several things helped. First off was rest as suggested by my doctor. Rest does not mean taking long walks (for a person like me, addicted to cardiovascular exercise, walking seems like rest). Rest means, well, actually resting. It means taking the elevator or, as my doctor put it, “not being a hero” when going up and down stairs.

But the real miracle came in the form of a foam roller. Several commentators mentioned it and my friend Elon Schoenholz actually came over with one to show me how to use it. At first I was afraid that it would make the pain worse. But out of desperation I finally decided to give it a try. After two short sessions over the course of three days 95% of the pain went away. As several commentators mentioned, using it is pure torture. But I can’t believe how quickly it worked. A commenter left a link to this video, which shows how to use a roller.

The “RumbleRoller.” Ouch!

I found a tight knot of pain and tension in the iliotibial band (ITB) just above the knee. Rolling this spot, carefully at first, loosened the ITB and, I believe, eased the pain. Elon, in dealing with his knee pain odyssey, has moved on to a more intense RumbleRoller

But my work fixing my patella femoral syndrome is far from complete. I’ve got a lot of strengthening and flexibility work to do. To that end I’ve signed up again at my local YMCA. I had let my membership lapse thinking that I could do weight training at home and save some money. This was foolish. It’s hard, with a home gym, to do lower body exercises. While some people probably do fine hefting logs in the great outdoors, I need the structure and motivation that a gym provides. Plus I really like the mission and ethos of the YMCA.

To sum up these are the four steps that helped with my patella femoral syndrome:

  • rest
  • weight training
  • foam rolling the iliotibial band
  • gym membership

I have a feeling I’ll be running and fencing again soon.

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  1. I would often have knee pain after only a small amount of running until I discovered this http://barefootrunning.com/ (not the website but the running form) Modern running is so very broken for most people, I only run in sandals now (unless its winter). The human body is only harmed by wearing shoes. I always see people heal striking and it always makes me cringe 🙂 Live long and prosper!


    • I completely agree. I’m a barefoot runner too. Barefoot fencing is, sadly, against the rules but when I get back to it I’ll be looking into more minimal shoes.

  2. Eric, this post inspired me to try rolling my muscles again. I have been suffering with what I think is tendonitis in both knees for about a week and a half. I do cross fit and run (mostly hill intervals) and it is my prozac also. I was really discouraged – I had been resting and icing my knees 4x a day but the pain was still there. I have a roller stick and after i read this post yesterday I got it out and found some problem areas. My knees feel so much better today. I thought I was ready to be put out to pasture, so I am really happy! Thank you for sharing this!

    • Trish–sorry to hear about your knee pain. And glad to hear that the roller is working for you. Hope you have a speedy recovery and can get back to cross fit and running soon.

  3. The technique of Chi Running helped me with my knee problems. The idea is to shift your weight forward a bit and let your core muscles and gravity do more of the work than your knees and ankles.

  4. About 7-8 years back, my complaint of “outer knee pain” resulted, after the exam in the sports-med doc diagnosing me with runner’s knee. He recommended a stretching exercise that worked perfectly and continues to work perfectly for me. I try to stretch that ITB daily (among other daily stretches). Yep, to date, runner’s knee has not returned.

    You don’t stretch?


    • Thanks Bill. I don’t stretch enough–it’s one of the things I’m working on. What is the stretch that you are doing?

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