If you???ve been running in New York for any time at all, you???ve probably run your share of stairs. The city is home to several sets of challenging stairs, including a set of 130 steps at 187th Street and Overlook Terrace, just south of Fort Tryon Park and not too far from Riverside Park, another great spot for trail running. In Brooklyn, you can make like Rocky (yes, we know he ran in Philly) and run up the steps at Fort Greene Park on the outskirts of Williamsburg. You can get an idea of what they???re like by watching this video.
Of course, in rainy weather, outdoor stairs get slick and slippery, which means it???s easy to fall and hurt yourself. No worries ??? New Yorkers are an innovative lot, and today many runners embrace the increasingly popular sport of tower running ??? essentially running stairs indoors. The Empire State Building has hosted several tower running events, but even modest buildings ??? maybe your workplace or apartment building ??? can offer plenty of challenges.
Or, if you???re not crazy about running inside buildings, you can hit some metro stops. The Roosevelt Island Station stairway has 159 steps for your climbing (or descending) pleasure, and the station at 53rd and Lexington offers a similar challenge (limit your headaches and avoid being sworn at by hitting the steps during off hours).
In addition to improving your strength, stamina and cardio health (and burning loads of calories), running up and down stairs is also an effective way of identifying potential problems with your knees while those problems are still in their early stages ??? and therefore easier to treat.
Runner???s knee is a common complaint among runners, especially those running in city environments, so understanding what causes it is really important. Here are a few of the most common causes:
- Overuse: These injuries occur from repetitive activities like running, bicycling or, yes, climbing stairs that place prolonged or repeated pressure on the knee joint. Over time, the knee can become inflamed and irritated. Resting the knee, applying ice a couple of times a day and taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication like aspirin or ibuprofen may provide relief (you may want to ask your doctor about taking any OTC drug, especially if you???re already taking a medication). You may be able to avoid future overuse injuries by doing strength training exercises like squats or calf stretches once your knee feels better.
- Running on concrete: Remember those stairs we mentioned on the outskirts of Williamsburg? They???re great for cardio, but again, not so great for the knees. Concrete surfaces don???t absorb any of the impact when you step down, which means your knees (and the rest of your leg) take the brunt of each step you take. That???s true of any concrete surface, not just steps.
- Prior knee injury: If you???ve already injured one or both knees, studies have shown you may have an increased risk of re-injury. That???s because a knee injury, even once healed, can leave residual weaknesses that can make it easier for you to injure the components of the joint. Even minor injuries ??? for instance, a slight twist ??? has a greater risk for causing injury if the joint has been subjected to an earlier major injury. A physical therapist or your orthopedist can give you tips on protecting the joint during exercise following injury.
- Poor form: Lots of people make the mistake of thinking that all there is to running is putting on running shoes and hitting the trail. But just like any other exercise, running has a form that you need to follow. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out how to follow that form ??? especially if you???re wearing over-padded shoes. Sure, they may feel great when you???re pounding the paths in Prospect Park, but over time, improper form is going to wreak havoc on your knees.
- Weak thigh muscles (a.k.a., quadriceps): Your quadriceps attach to your kneecaps, and if they???re weak or not toned, they won???t be as able to absorb the impact from running, which means that again, your joint will bear most of the brunt of that impact.
- Not stretching before and after exercising: OK, this one cannot be overemphasized. Stretching prepares muscles for exercise and it also increases circulation to the muscles, which helps muscles work more efficiently. Stretch and warm up before exercise, and stretch and cool down afterward.
No matter what the underlying cause, if you start to feel discomfort in your knees, have it checked out right away. Then scope out some of the city???s steps ??? outdoors and indoors ??? and add a new dimension to your running routine.