Knee Strengthening Exercises For Runners

Here are the best knee exercises for injury prevention and rehabilitation

I’ve found that there are a two main reasons that runners search for knee strengthening exercises.

Ideally, injury prevention should be the first one. Every athlete should have exercises programmed into their routine that target the knees. Stronger muscles, tendons and ligaments will prevent injury.

The other reason is rehabilitation. Maybe you recently ramped up the mileage and it’s taking a toll. Maybe you were jogging on uneven terrain and twisted your knee. Or you’ve developed runners knee from years of pounding the pavement and you’re living with chronic pain. You want the pain gone, for running to be enjoyable again.

Or maybe your knees just feel weaker than they should and you want to make them stronger.

5 Exercises To Strengthen Runners Knees

5 Knee Strengthening Exercises You Can Do At Home

There are many good exercises to choose from. They need to target your weak areas, so a little trial and error will be needed to see what will work for you.

The exercise should not cause pain.  It won’t necessarily be easy. And if you have weak knees, there may even be a certain amount of discomfort in the beginning. But if any exercise causes unusual or sharp pain, then it’s off the list for you.

The exercises also have to fit into your routine. If an exercise requires equipment you don’t have access to, then choose a different one. I recommend experimenting with this list of exercises and choose 2 or 3 that will work for you. Change up your routine every month or so and choose 2 or 3 different exercises. This keeps things interesting and also targets your knee in a different way.

The idea is not to overwhelm your knees and you don’ want to create an unrealistic program that you can’t stick with.  

Ok, enough chatter. Let’s look at what knee strengthening exercises you can do at home.

Spinning

Light spinning must be one of the best ways to keep exercising with a sore knee. It gives you a chance to keep moving without putting a lot of pressure or impact on the knee.

Ideally you’ll use an indoor cycling trainer, but you can also use a bike out on the road as long as you take it easy. 20-30 minutes a day of light spinning can make a world of difference. It will help stimulate the blood flow in your knee which is great for healing and recuperation. Light spinning will loosen the muscles, tendons and ligaments.

You want to go easy, no mashing on the pedals. A nice light spin 3-4 times a week is good enough to get you started.

One important thing to note – make sure your seat is the right height. A seat that is too high or too low will only make your knee problems worse.

Walking Lunges

Lunges are a great exercise to strengthen your knees, legs and glutes.  They are more of a power exercise so I think they fall in the injury prevention category. If you already have an injury you might want to wait until your knee has healed up a bit before tackling these. 

I like to keep my hands on my hips for balance.  My chest is up, spine straight, and chin level looking forward. Step forward. When you plant your front foot, bend your knees until your front thigh is parallel with the ground and your rear knee bends until it lightly touches the ground. Then straighten back up and step forward with the other foot. 

You can do these by stepping forward and all the way through with each step. Alternatively, when you lunge forward, bring your feet together. Then lunge forward with the other foot. Make sure that your knee does not go past your toe with the forward foot.

Once you become stronger, you can increase the intensity by adding dumbbells.  Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms hanging at your side and perform the lunges. A more advanced move is to perform weighted lunges with the dumbbells over your head. This requires more balance which works all of your stabilizer muscles, as well as contributing to some upper body work as well.  

I’ve been doing lunges for many years, so for me, 2 sets down a 100 meter track usually does the trick.  If you are just getting started, try doing 2 or 3 sets of 10 steps per leg.

Ice Skaters

Ice skaters, also called curtsy lunges, are a great way to build your thighs and glutes.  But we are doing them because the nature of the exercise and foot placement works all the stabilizer muscles surrounding the knees. 

Start with your body erect, your feet shoulder width apart and hands at your side. Put your weight onto your right foot. Start lowering your body into a lunge position by bending your right leg. Move and extend your left leg back and behind your right leg and touch your left toe on the ground. Your right thigh should be parallel with the ground when your left toe touches. It should look like you are doing a curtsy. Move your arms to the side to help keep your balance.  Then reverse and do the other leg.

I don’t use dumbbells with these, though you could. The nature of this exercise puts the knee at a bit of a dynamic angle, which is great for building side-stability in the knee.  Still, I’m careful when I do them. They are great as a preventative or power building exercise. If I’m using them for rehab, I only lunge deep enough until it feels uncomfortable, then I straighten back up.    

Once again, 2 or 3 sets of 10 steps per leg until you feel your conditioning has improved enough to do more.

Wall Sits

Wall sits target the muscles surrounding the knee joint so they are a great exercise for knee health.

Depending on how tall you are, stand about 2 feet away from the wall.  Keep your feet shoulder width apart.  Lean back against the wall, and slide your back down until your thighs are parallel with the ground. Your ankles should be at a 90 degree angle

Try to hold for 30 to 60 seconds. These are an isometric exercise and require a little mental fortitude as well.  The first time you do these you may find yourself looking at the stopwatch while your knees shake.

 2 sets and you are ready for the next exercise.

Box Jumps

Okay, you aren’t going to be doing these if you have a knee injury. But if your knees are healthy and you’re trying to make them even stronger, box jumps are great. They are an explosive plyometric exercise that not only increases muscular strength, but tendon and ligament strength as well.

If you don’t have a plyo-box handy, you can just jump on and off of a step. I personally just jump on and off my patio for these. And if you are a beginner, choose a lower box or step.

Stand with your feet shoulder width apart about a step in front of you. Bend into a squat position. Now jump explosively up and forward onto the box. Use your arms for balance. Bend your knees as you land on top of the box.  Step back down and repeat.

Once you get stronger, you can increase the intensity by jumping backwards off of the box. Make sure to land into a slow squat to soften the impact.

3 or 4 sets of 10 reps

FAQ – Should I keep Running With Runners Knee?

We’ve all trained with pain. I usually ask myself – how much pain am I in? On a scale of 1-10 where am I? Can I continue or do I need to stop? Is the pain getting worse or is it staying the same? Does the pain return when I start running after a few days of rest?

Does this feel like fatigue, over-use soreness, or does it feel more serious?  Are there sharp jolts of pain or clicks? Does it feel like there’s something grinding?   

If it’s anything sudden, sharp, or a pain that’s out of the ordinary, you need to stop.  If the pain doesn’t subside, it’s time for a trip to see a physician. 

Even if your knee isn’t obviously injured, but it’s swollen or tender, stop.  Rest.  Take 2 or 3 days off and assess its condition.  If you continue pushing it, a knee that’s just a little inflamed from a bit of over-use can turn into chronic injury.

A couple of years ago I wanted to shake up my training program. I have asthma and from time to time I really struggle with my lungs. I decided to try Dr Phil Maffetone’s Maximum Aerobic Function (MAF) training. To put it simply, MAF training is low intensity – high volume training. I was hoping that a 3 month block of MAF training would improve my lung capacity and lessen my asthma symptoms while running.

To get the full benefits out of MAF training you have to put in the time. My normal daily runs of 30 – 40 minutes were out. 90 – 120 minute daily sessions were in. But with the increased mileage came knee pain. 

The increased load was too much too soon and my right knee started paying the price. At first the pain was dull, but on longer runs it became a searing pain. It got so bad that I was ready to give up on MAF all together.

I gave myself a few days rest and regrouped. I was going to have to build the training load up a bit slower. I was also going to have to make my knees stronger. That meant adding some exercises that specifically target the knees.

Final Thoughts

Every dedicated runner will likely come up against knee problems at some point in their life. Preparation and prevention is always better than trying to heal an injury.

Listen to your body.  Your knees will usually let you know you are pushing things too hard. It took me a few months of careful rehab strength work before my knee was ready to go again. And I was much more careful about how fast I ramped up the training volume.

Add a few knee exercises to your routine. Mix it up and keep it interesting.  Do some stretching and foam rolling too.

As runners, our goal is to run. To become better runners we need to be running. That means taking care of our knees.

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