The real reason why your joints hurt during cardio

Many people experience joint pain during popular forms of cardio, such as running, boot camp, and HIIT training.

With all of this in mind, today I wanted to discuss some of the reasons why you might experience joint discomfort or pain during higher impact forms of exercise and what you can do to troubleshoot this and prepare your body for these activities.

Why your joints might hurt during high impact movements, such as running or jumping.

High impact and high intensity movements, including, but not limited to running, air squats, box jumps, burpees, and plyometric lunges involve a lot of forces being placed on the body.

Pain, injury, or joint discomfort often occurs when we are unable to control how forces are transmitted through our joints OR when forces are repeatedly transferred through the same joint in a repetitive manner. However, if you are strong enough to control these forces in your joints, then you are less likely to experience pain during higher impact exercise!

Being prepared for high impact exercise requires more than just general strength. It actually takes a number of things, including:

  • Joint stability: The ability to sense and control movement through a joint
  • Joint mobility: The range of motion that you have access to in a joint during movement
  • Strength: The amount of force that a muscle group can exert against a form of resistance (e.g. a dumbbell during a bicep curl or your bodyweight in a push-up).
  • Power: The ability to generate force/strength with speed!

Or to put it another way…

Mobility gives you the ability to move through all your joints, so you don’t overload any one joint during exercise.

Strength and stability give you the ability to create power, so you can control the forces in those joints.

This is also why the higher the load or impact in a given activity or exercise, the more mobility, stability, and strength you need to do it well and without joint discomfort. It’s also why something may hurt if you don’t have enough mobility, stability, and/or strength!

This is why walking might feel fine, but running or jumping might hurt your ankles or knees. Why? Running has more force placed on the joints and you need more strength and control to do it well. In short, stability, mobility, and strength are the building blocks of power. However, when we jump into cardio exercise, we don’t consider that we missed these foundational pieces.

How to apply this to exercise, so your joints don’t hurt during cardio

As mentioned above, the ability to control the forces in your joints during higher impact exercise comes from having good stability, mobility, and strength.

When you progressively develop strength over time, your muscles and tendons adapt to these stresses and forces in a good way. This paves the way to be able to practice movements faster and more explosively (aka power). This is why your ability to run or jump will often improve from strength training, even if you weren’t practicing running or jumping during this time.

The challenge with cardio is that sometimes your cardiovascular system (aka your ability to do something without getting winded) is ready for you to run or do higher intensity exercises, but your muscles, tendons, and joints are not. Enter ankle, knee, or hip pain during running.

So how do you fix this? You dial back the impact (for example, do a run walk program instead of running OR do weighted squats instead of box jumps) and TRAIN for higher impact exercise.

How to train for HIIT and running

Here’s an overview of what you may want to consider when training for these activities, so your joints don’t go motherf#cker whyyyyyyy?????????

1. Train mobility.

Key areas to pay attention to:

  • Your ankles
  • Your upper back, which is also called the thoracic spine (can it rotate well? You need that to run efficiently!)
  • Your hips (The ability to generate power in when running comes from your butt. The ability to control your knee alignment also comes from your butt. Want to be better at cardio. Train. Your. Butt.)

2. Train stability.

Key areas to pay attention to:

  • Your lower back/core (can you stabilize through this area to transmit the movements generated in your lower body to your upper body to efficiently propel yourself forward OR to control how movement happens when you jump?)
  • Your hips (This part of your body is complicated. Can you control where it is without having to think really hard, because this will affect how forces land in your knees and lower back?)
  • Your ankles (Do you have control here during push off and landing? For most of us the answer is absolutely not, because we’ve never trained for it and modern shoes + life does not do good things for ankle stability).

3. Train strength.

Key areas to pay attention to:

  • Your lower legs (Are your feet and ankles strong enough to drive your body off the ground when running and jumping + take in impact when you land? Probably not.)
  • Your glutes/quads/inner thighs/ect. (Strength is the prerequisite to power. #legdaybitches)

And really your whole damn body. You don’t need to be able to do a pull-up to run efficiently without knee pain, but like it helps to be strong in your upper body too. For instance, don’t have the stamina to hold yourself upright when running or jumping? Your neck and shoulders may feel like crap. I’m just saying.

What might this training program look like in terms of exercises?

Well that depends. The short generic answer is a full body strength program that also builds in some exercises to address those stability and mobility pieces.

The long answer is that depending on what you have going on, some very specific exercises may be helpful, but a key take away is to be able to do things well with LESS load or weight first. Add MORE weight or load as you get stronger. Then add SPEED once you’ve mastered that!

Finally, because the foot and ankle are a key area to train AND an area where many of us have pain during exercise, I’ve filmed a video tutorial for you with specific exercises to help you develop strength in that area, which may reduce foot, ankle, knee, or hip pain during walking, running, or bootcamp classes.