Best Exercises to Fix Knee Pain

Knee injuries are the most common running injury. They make up about a third of injuries from running yet many runners are “muddling through” knee pain without addressing underlying root causes, setting themselves up for potentially longer term damage.

Thankfully there are easy ways to prevent or cure knee injuries.

Many treatment options exist and – spoiler alert – improvements in running form is one that is proven to help.  This post is based on contemporary research and leans heavily on this scientific review of current literature on treatment options.

Types of knee pain from running

The three most common types of knee injuries are  patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) a.k.a. “Runners knee”, iliotibial band friction syndrome  (ITBFS) a.k.a. “IT band syndrome” , and patellar tendinopathy (PT).

  • Out of these Patellofemoral pain syndrome, commonly known as “runners knee” is the most common. If you gradually feel the onset of knee pain under load at the front of the knee , around the kneecap you may experience this.
An runner grabbing his knee, highlighted in red to indicate runner's knee
  • Iliotibial band friction syndrome (ITBFS of often “ITB” or “IT-Band” syndrome) is also common among runners and describes pain at the outside of the knee. The knee typically presents itself as the knee extends during loading and push off, when tested when moving from 90 to 30 degrees or when walking stairs up or down. The cause for this pain is still debated among researchers but most believe it is related due to friction and compression the strong, thick IT band causes with surrounding bones, tendons and tissue. 
  • Patellar tendinitis causes pain just below the kneecap after running or when landing from a jump,when going up and down stairs or when squatting. Patellar tendonitis is caused by tiny tears in the tendon, which happen if too much stress is placed on the tendon too soon, before it can strengthen. The body aims to repair the tears, causing inflammation and weakening of the tendon.

All three conditions are often caused by training errors – such as increasing volume or intensity too much too soon, instead of a gradual build up. (1) 

Other causes include muscular imbalances and insufficient muscle strength at the knee, hip or quadriceps, lack of flexibility and  poor running form.

How to fix knee pain from running?

For any acute pain, that does not go away after a day or two of rest see a physiotherapist or doctor! It is the most prudent choice for an individualized in-depth assessment and treatment plan. This article is a summary of relevant research but we are not doctors and this is not medical advice for your specific situation!

Short term fixes: Rest, Ice, Taping, Elevation, Anti-inflammatories

To take off the edge of immediate pain 

  • rest,
  • icing,
  • elevating the injured leg,
  • anti-inflammatories,
  • and taping 

can all be effective. 

A male athlete icing his knee illustrating a common running injury and short term treatment for runner's knee

Mid-term fixes: Massage, myofascial release

Once the immediate pain is taken care of then massage, myofascial release and dry needling can bring relief and relax and prepare your muscles for recovery and strengthening. 

For Patellar tendonitis shockwave therapy is sometimes used with mixed results, whereas infrapatellar strapping show more consistently improvements of the condition.

Long-term fixes: Running form, Strength training and flexibility

Adresssing knee pain with running form

Interestingly enough for all three conditions the same improvements in running form are effective to improve knee pain: 

  • Increasing your cadence gradually by 5-10% will decrease impact forces. 
  • Avoiding overstriding and landing closer to your body (with a more vertical shank angle) and moving towards more of a mid-foot or for-foot strike will also take impact forces off your knee.

If you are unsure about your running form our analysis at will visualize your run form and show potential for improvement.

There is also a strength and flexibility component to fixing knee pain, so read on for the best exercises to fix knee pain.

Exercises for Knee Pain from Runner’s Knee (patellofemoral pain syndrome – PFPS)

For PFPS these exercises are a great, evidence based starting point. For all stretches try to hold stretches 60-90 seconds and repeat them 4 times.

  • Hip flexor stretch 
  • Quadriceps stretch
  • Hamstring stretch (with the help of a towel or brand if flexibility does not allow you to grab your toes)
Hip flexor stretch, Quadriceps stretch and Hamstring stretch illustrated with photos of athletes doing them to address runner's knee
Strengthening: Progress through these exercise 

Phase 1

  • Side plank
  • Fire hydrant
  • Lateral step down from a box
  • Straight way leg raise
  • Side Leg raises 

Phase 2 (as pain subsidies to less than 3/ 10 and strength increases)

  • Single leg squats
  • Split squats
  • Step ups
  • Side lunges
  • Luges

Phase 3 (Plyometric)

  • Double leg squat jumps;
  • Double leg box jumps up/down;
  • Single leg hop downs;
  • Single leg forward hops.

Exercises for IT band syndrome (iliotibial band friction syndrome  – ITBFS)

For IT- band issues try these exercises to fix knee pain and the underlying causes:

Phase 1:

  • Clamshells;
  • Mule kicks 
  • Single-leg bridge;
  • Side-step with band proximal to knees.

Phase 2 (as pain subsidies to less than 3/ 10 and strength increases)

  • Standing on one leg next to a wall while pressing the bent, lifted leg into the wall
  • Hip hikes
  • Single leg squats
  • Single leg deadlifts

Phase 3 (May coincide with restarting a running routine)

  • Bilateral lands off of step followed by sitting back in a chair. Focuson a soft-landing. The chair element will cue hip activation. Progress to single-leg landing;
  • Single leg lateral hops while focusing on pelvic and hip control. Progress to single-leg hops in multiple directions.
  • Combine single leg hops with squatts
Strength exercises for IT Band syndrome illustrated by athletes

Exercises for patellar tendonitis (PT)

For Patellar tendonitis start your strength regimen with isometric exercises in Phase 1:

Phase 1

  • Flex your knee slightly with foot flat on the ground and hold for 5 sets of 45 seconds Repeat 2-3 times a day. The other foot hovers just above the ground.

Phase 2

  • Use a leg press or squats to perform 15 reps, extending for 3 seconds and contracting for 3 seconds. Slowly progress towards a 90 degree bend over time and progress from one to up to 6 daily sets.
  • Once comfortable doing the exercise with both legs progress to single leg variants.

Phase 3

  • Progress through the jumps below. Perform 15-20 reps and increase to up to 6 daily sets.
  • Double leg jumps
  • Single leg jumps
  • Single leg jumps in all directions.
Exercises for patellar tendonitis

After a break due to a knee injury increase your training volume gradually. Loosing weight can also help to lower the risk of injuries and knee pain for higher weight runners. Surgery is a final option for knee injuries but only needed in rare cases if no improvement is seen after multiple treatments and many months of no improvement.

As always prevention is better than cure: Increase your training volume and intensity slowly, be mindful of your running form and maintain strength with regular exercises – with this you maximize your chances to avoid knee injuries altogether. Check your running form with a Movaia run form analysis today and find out if you are at risk for injuries.

Sources & further reading