female runner with blonde hair and blue shorts demonstrating the power of stretching during a run

Arthritis And The Power Of Stretching After 40

Full disclosure: I’m not an expert in physiology or an elite athlete. I’m not a licensed physician nor do I play one on TV. I’m not even a very good runner, however useless and subjective that term may be for someone with no Olympic or professional running goals. I hover comfortably around a 9 minute mile, which I find to be the perfect pace because it leaves plenty of room to sandbag my way to a sub-two-hour 1/2 marathon, while not overcooking my legs just in case I become ambitious.

But I digress.

I’m just an average dude with bad knees who has always been lazy about stretching; and now that I’m in my 40’s, I’m finally learning that diving right into a long run on cold legs or crashing on the couch immediately after a 100k bike ride is not the best decision. Especially when one has the “knees of an 80-year-old” as a sports medicine doctor once described mine.

A little backstory…

I’ve never had the best pre or post-workout habits. As a kid I played all kinds of sports right through high school. Coaches would typically have us go through a group warm-up that invariably included some variation of stretching. I often used this time as many kids do, to chat with my friends or, depending on whether or not I got yelled at by coach, just go through the motions.

Midway through my Senior year of high school I was in a pretty serious car accident that left my legs and knees in shambles, so sports were certainly out of the question. I couldn’t even walk for the first two months after the accident, let alone participate in any active movement. Come to think of it, those few months of inactivity were probably the most stretching I’ve ever done thanks to physical therapy. As I got stronger and stronger though, I became lazier about the prescribed PT exercises, and while I’m no expert, I’m fairly certain this had an effect on the state my knees are in now.

In the ten years after the accident despite my legs being fully healed, I remained relatively inactive well into my partying twenties, where I ate and drank my way to a svelte 240lbs. It was then I took it upon myself to start running again, and I remember the exact moment that I made this decision. It was during the suit fitting for my sister’s wedding.

As the tailor read off numbers from his thin strip of nylon tape, I was astonished to learn that my waste measured 38 inches. The tailor further recommended that I wear a “size up” for a “little breathing room”. Defiantly, I informed him that I wouldn’t be caught dead in a size 40 pants, and that I’d shoehorn my fat ass into those 38s even if it killed me. All that death talk was the wake up call I needed to get moving, which I did.

I settled into a good running schedule and cut back heavily on my alcohol consumption. Once again though, when it came to stretching, I was still lazy. I foolishly took my still-young knees for granted, trusting ligaments to work together in harmony as the full weight of my 240lb body pounded away on them three or four days a week.

Into my thirties, I had lost most of the fat guy weight leveling off around 195. I had also taken up mountain biking as a way to take some of the pounding off my knees, and also because I read that it worked out other muscles which complimented the running quite well. Yet despite all the stress I was putting on my legs, and despite mummifying myself in ace bandages and ice wraps as the osteoarthritis set in, I still couldn’t bring myself to do any stretching.

I mean I did try, sort of. At one point I took up yoga with a friend of mine, though I couldn’t quite make a commitment past the 90-day free pass. Then I started working out with another friend, who is a trained martial artist and really good at stretching, but I usually just found myself watching him stretch while I drank coffee, fully convinced that running would naturally make me flexible – A false narrative I would later regret.

As I closed in on 40, I was on a good path. I had a fairly consistent running schedule, I ditched the mountain bike for a road bike (one of the best decisions I ever made), and found a new obsession in the sport of triathlon. I’ve since competed in a number of half-marathons, 10ks, road races, and triathlons including my crowning achievement at Ironman 70.3 in the Poconos.

At this point though, arthritis was a foregone conclusion as my left knee began to swell like a puffer fish after long runs. The first mile or two of each run became a lesson in pain tolerance as I winced and gritted until my ligaments loosened up. The cartilage in my knees was deteriorating and so too was my relationship with running.

This year as I turned 44, I made myself a promise. Two years of facing the consequences for some extremely irresponsible behavior, lots of intensive therapy, and with the help of an incredibly patient support system, I finally came to some harsh realizations. One of these was the fact that my approach to something as simple as stretching before and after a run, which on the surface seems innocuous, actually belies a deeper reflection of my approach to life in general: focusing more on the result than on the process, skipping right to the punch line, or quite simply, lacking preparation.

As I contemplated my resolutions for 2020 I thought of this quote from Abraham Lincoln:

give me six hours to chop a tree and I shall spend the first four sharpening the axe.

It was then I decided that my resolutions for this year would have to be part of a larger set of goals and not just ambiguous “eat less, spend less” cliches. One of the goals I set was to finish an Ironman before I turn 50. Given my experience in distance events to this point, it’s not unrealistic.

Still, in order to be successful, it would require some real planning. So, one resolution I attached to that goal was learning how to stretch properly and be more diligent about the warm-up/cool-down process in order to strengthen the tendons around my knees for increased flexibility, and to hopefully minimize arthritis pain. If anything, it at least sounds good.

Three Months In…

It’s now March, and while I’m still logging some lazy winter miles which as most athletes will attest, includes indoor bike rides and treadmill runs, it’s been quite productive. I bought myself a smart trainer for Christmas which has meant harder Zwift sessions, and the weather has been generous to outdoor running. But enough about that, this is about my stretching resolution and how it’s been going.

My foam roller has been my best friend so far. Before and after each workout, I perform about 20 seconds of rolling on each of the following pain points: hips, IT bands, quads, knees (sides and backs), lower back, hamstrings, and calves. I also spend about 10-15 minutes performing some static stretches at the end of my workouts, focusing on the same areas but also stretching my upper body as well.

I must say, it’s made quite the difference

My hips feel much looser these days. What I’ve learned is that the tightness in my hips causes me to overcompensate by putting much more stress on my knees during the early miles, which contributed to the stabbing arthritis pain. They are still tight first thing in the morning, but I’m finding myself doing more and more movements to loosen them up even beyond the foam roller. I’ve incorporated bands and other activation stretches to keep them loose when it counts.

As for my knees, so far so good as they say. Most notably, I feel little to no pain during the early miles, and that’s a huge improvement. As a result, my legs feel fresher and they don’t fatigue as easy on long runs. Still, the longest I’ve ever run was 16 miles, so we’re still in the first inning of a nine-inning game. Plus, I didn’t run that 16 miles on the back-end of a 112-mile bike ride.

It’s not all wine and roses either. My knees still swell after runs so I’m experimenting with different combinations of ice and compression. For example on recovery days, I might wear compression socks or a knee sleeve for additional support. After all Arthritis is arthritis. It won’t ever go away, and the pain will always be annoying. I can however, try to prolong the health of my knees so that I can keep running, and reach my own goals. As the sports medicine doctor put it:

“think of your knees as car tires. You can only put so many miles on them before they need replacing. How you use those miles is up to you”.

Inspiration

One needn’t go further than YouTube to find a free master class on endurance training. Pro athletes of all sports offer great tips and tricks of the trade. My personal favorites: Lionel Sanders and Eric Lagerstrom are great for workout ideas while GCN (Global Cycling Network) and GTN (Global Triathlon Network) both provide good how-to videos, but when I want to focus on correct form and technique, I always look to pro women.

I learned through playing and watching golf in high school that pro men tend to focus primarily on generating power through club head speed. As a result, they adjust their swings accordingly, which typically means no two swings are alike. Pro women on the other hand tend to focus on proper form and technique to generate power. This is the approach everyone should take in my opinion, especially when first starting out.

I applied this same theory to running and triathlon. Most recently, I’ve been following runners like Emma Coburn, Colleen Quigley, and Gwen Jorgensen – who’s one of the best. Here’s a dynamic warm-up workout that I found from Gwen Jorgensen and Colleen Quigley.