Given the high-impact nature of running, it’s no secret that knee injuries are prevalent in the community. Along with runner’s knee and IT band syndrome, patellar tendonitis is one of the most common knee issues seen in the sport. The affliction is commonly referred to as “jumper’s knee” because it’s often seen in jumping sports such as volleyball and basketball, but runners are highly susceptible to the injury under the right (or wrong) conditions.
These expert tips can help treat, and ultimately avoid, the pain associated with patellar tendonitis.
What is Patellar Tendonitis?
The patellar tendon is an important part of your leg structure, connecting the kneecap to the shinbone. It also plays a key role in keeping the kneecap in line as the leg bends and straightens during each step.
Although the name may sound complicated, patellar tendonitis is simply an inflammation of the tendon surrounding the patella (which is just a fancy word for kneecap). Contrary to popular belief, patellar tendonitis is not an overuse injury, but it’s instead a result of misuse of the leg chain while running and jumping.
According to experts, misuse of the leg structure is largely caused by poor running form, which can exacerbate any weaknesses in the body — in this case, the knee.
“The knee is the weakest joint in the lower body,” says Denise Smith, an injury prevention specialist and owner of Smith Physical Therapy in Crystal Lake, Illinois. “So when something is off in the chain — either from the ankle up or the hip down — the knee (and everything around it) has to work overtime.”
This means that even though you feel pain in your knee, the issue likely lies elsewhere (such as your hips or feet). As the body continues to be subjected to less-than-perfect running technique, the weakest point (your knee) will become irritated and inflamed from being overworked.
Treating the Pain
If you feel a pinching or burning sensation underneath your kneecap in the beginning stages of a run or after you’ve completed your miles, you could be suffering from patellar tendonitis. And according to Smith, the quickest way to relieve the pain is to get rid of the inflammation.
“Anti-inflammatory medications are a good way to reduce the swelling,” she says. “You can also perform an ice massage on the area.” If you’ve cleared it with a physical therapist, she adds, you can help ease the pain with massage.
Taking time to stretch the areas surrounding your kneecap — including your hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors and calves — can also help to keep the joints and muscles flexible, relieving some of the pain. Foam rolling the area can increase muscle flexibility and ease pain, as long as you’re doing it correctly. Smith recommends angling your body 45 degrees so that you’re targeting the area where the IT band meets the hamstring.
Is it Avoidable?
Luckily, patellar tendonitis can be avoided with a number of proven prevention tactics. As we alluded to above, the first thing to address is your running form to avoid putting excess stress on the knee joint. In the case of the patellar tendon, you want to focus on your hips, lower back and ankles, creating a strong and supportive lower body chain. Running technique specialists or physical therapists can analyze your form and provide expert advice on perfecting it.
Strength training is also a crucial part of the equation, as proper running form will be impossible to maintain if your muscles aren’t strong enough to support the movements you’re asking of them. To strengthen key muscles, Smith recommends single leg glute bridges, standing clamshells and hip dips. She also prescribes squats and lunges to her clients, but only to those who have correct form, as these exercises can be difficult to master.
Balance, flexibility and mobility exercises should also be incorporated into your cross-training routine to round out your body’s ability to move efficiently.
“Yoga and Pilates are great ways to work on your balance and stability,” says Smith. “It can really help your muscles learn to fire together and work as a single system.”
As with many running injuries, overstriding (landing with your foot too far in front of you) is also linked with patellar tendonitis. To shorten your stride, focus on landing directly underneath your body, instead of in front of your hips. A quick cadence can also help shorten your stride. Count the number of steps you take in one minute, and try to work up to 180 steps per minute.
As a final prevention tactic, Smith stresses the importance of finding the right running shoe and replacing it when the shoe starts to lose support — usually after about 300 miles.
Without a strong support system (both internally and externally), your body struggles to keep itself in line and has to work overtime to compensate for these shortcomings. Fortunately, paying attention to form, strength and shoe choice can have a real impact on staying healthy and injury-free for years to come.