How To Protect Your Joints While Working Out

  • By Performance Lab
  • 6 minute read
How To Protect Your Joints While Working Out

Getting in shape can be a challenge – and it only gets harder if you injure yourself on the way.

Joint injuries have the combo of 2 factors that make them pertinent: they’re debilitating and extremely common.

So, today, we’re going to look at how you protect your joints when running or working out. These are the most popular ways of getting fitter and healthier, and getting them right matters. We’re going to look at a few key questions you might already have about joints and exercise:

  • Why is joint injury a risk?
  • What factors do I need to look out for when it comes to keeping my joints healthy?
  • Is it safe for me to start running or working out – for example, at a gym?

Pain: joint injury as a problem

Joint injuries are sadly common: most of us are going to deal with at least one of them this year.

Joint injury is any sort of damage or loss of function in your joints. These can develop in any of the tissues of the joint – and we see them most commonly in the load-bearing areas:

  • Connective tissues – like ligaments or tendons
  • Muscles themselves
  • Bones – especially bone-on-bone areas
  • The joint capsule (or acetabulum)
  • Bursae and cartilage – the “pads” that help support smooth movement

These are the main areas that we’re going to talk about when we discuss joints today.

You could also develop other issues – like in the nerves or blood vessels – but those are a whole other issue. If you’ve got problems there, it’s time to talk to a doctor – the MD kind, not the PhD kind!

These tissues play nicely together in healthy joints. However, if you’ve experienced joint issues or you’re exercising improperly, they can sustain damage.

Obviously, the result is pain, loss of function, and it could be a recurring problem if you’re not careful.

Understanding: risks and how it happens

We put injuries into 2 categories based on how they occur – which is going to be important:

  1. Acute injuries which develop from a single instance like a fall, trip, or rolled ankle
  2. Chronic / overuse injuries, which develop by putting more stress on joints than they can recover from

Acute injuries are easy: that time you rolled your ankle and couldn’t put weight on it. Overuse injuries are more subtle – because they sneak up on you over time and might just feel like soreness or even nothing at all until one day they become debilitating.

One recent study found that among 230 people with no actual symptoms, 97% were dealing with abnormalities or structural damage in the knee joint1. This is how overuse develops: slowly, patiently, and maybe even without you knowing it’s happening.

Fortunately, it’s not all doom and gloom. You can prepare your joints and avoid injury if you’re smart, and you put the time into preparing them.

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However, that means understanding how they happen for endurance and strength training, respectively – then you can develop a defense against them!

Endurance: repetitive stress and wear

Running and other types of endurance training are cyclical and repetitive. You’re doing the same thing again and again. That’s why the injuries at-risk here are repetitive impact and repetitive strain.

When you’re running, for example, the repetitive striking of your weight against the floor can be a significant injury factor.

You’re also moving muscles like the hamstring through their full range of motion, which can produce repetitive strain injury in unprepared muscles.

This is how overuse injuries occur – and they tend to show up as a ping or a tweak in the joints, or in the muscles that support them.

Strength: joint loading and control

Strength training is all about adding extra load to muscles and joints, which makes them stronger as you recover.

Injury risk increases when these extra loads are applied improperly – either through poor technique or bad management of weight choice/progression.

Risks in strength training tend to develop from continually loading the wrong part of the body, such as in a poorly executed squat where we load the medial meniscus too much.

Alternatively, progressing weights faster than your tendons can adapt can lead to wear, tear, and degeneration.

Hope: fixing it

Get strong – but smart

Getting stronger is one of the easiest ways to reduce your injury risk. The key is that you have to do it in the right way.

Smart, patient training in strength and endurance both build the strength of the tissues in joints. This only works if you’re letting your body recover and adapt after workouts, however.

Stronger muscles can absorb shock and repeat actions more often (like a running stride). Tendons and ligaments become more elastic and more resilient with training and recovery. Bones themselves remodel and develop in response to exercise.

Your body was built for this – you just have to take it at the right pace and give yourself proper recovery!

Proper loading: managing stress

Outside of those freak accidents like falls and missteps, overuse is how injuries happen.

You put your joints under more stress than they can recover from – time and time again – until you reach a threshold of stress where the real damage and pain happens.

The most obvious and important way to avoid injury, then, is to not do that. Properly managing your exercise stress is the #1 way to reduce your injury risk.

This means 2 things: choosing appropriate loading and progressing at the right pace.

Whether endurance or strength training, you need to be realistic about your experience level and perform workouts that are appropriate to that experience. Rushing ahead of what you’re accustomed to is an easy way to over-stress your body, under-recover, and get hurt.

Equally, the amount you progress your strength and endurance volume matters. This refers to the amount you’re doing: adding 20% mileage each week to your runs or 30 reps each workout is going to lead to over-stress and injury rapidly.

Start with the causes, not the symptoms: be patient with your workouts and you’ll be able to make sustainable gains and avoid the worst of the injury risk.

Prioritize Your Recovery

The time between workouts is more important than anyone gives it credit for. It’s where the progress happens – it’s the time when your body is recovering and growing in response to your workouts.

Recovery is one of the most important factors for managing injury risk. Every day you’re not resting is another stressor and this can add up quickly. There are a few factors: physical rest (no hard exercise), good nutrition, plenty of high-quality sleep, and reducing your mental stressors.

Recovery is a huge factor in injury risk: something as simple as being sleep deprived can double your risk of injury risk during strenuous exercise and sports.

Recovery isn’t how you get injured: but lack of recovery is one of the key factors in both immediate and chronic injury risk. Put time into the less-glamorous stuff, and it will contribute to stronger muscles, better tendon strengthening, and improved bone density.

Summary & Key Points

Exercise can carry some increased joint risks, but it’s the most important and effective way to prevent joint injury in the long-term. What matters most is being sensible with what you’re doing and how you’re progressing your exercise.

We all want to make progress, but the best way to do that over the months and years is to stay healthy and not get injured. Nothing you do today is going to out-weigh the value of a good few months of pain-free exercise.

Whether you’re running or lifting, joint health comes from preparation. Being deliberate with your movements, patiently building strength, and making sure that your exercise is helping your joints rather than harming them.

Key points:

  • Manage your volume – don’t do too much too soon
  • Choose exercises that make sense for your experience and familiarity
  • Load appropriately – don’t go to failure
  • Focus on control and deliberate movement
  • Train the full range of movement wherever you can
  • Practice exercise variety
  • Work on pauses and tempo if you need a nudge
  • Running mileage should be your guide: watch the 5-10% rule
  • Consolidating gains are key – not just pushing the obvious numbers
  • Focus on personal issues – injuries, weaknesses, etc. – first and foremost

Proper exercise is a give and take between your strength and endurance.

Smart training is patient and sustainable, and that’s how you take care of your joints: you provide them with appropriate loading and perform movements with safe and effective technique.

Select exercises that you’re comfortable with and can develop patiently: rushing exercise is the fastest route to injury and disappointment. Your joints will be safe – and get stronger and safer if you take this mentality to working out.


  1. Horga, L. M., Hirschmann, A. C., Henckel, J., Fotiadou, A., Di Laura, A., Torlasco, C., . . . Hart, A. J. (2020). Prevalence of Abnormal findings in 230 knees of asymptomatic adults using 3.0 T MRI. Skeletal Radiology, 49(7), 1099-1107. doi:10.1007/s00256-020-03394-z