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On the Run: The ABCs of knees

Friday - 4/12/2013, 8:15am  ET

Paula_on_the_run512.jpg
WTOP's talks with Mike Hill, director of Sports Performance at Georgetown University, about ways to prevent knee injuries. (WTOP/Natalie Plumb)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - My knees have always haunted me.

My grandmother had really bad knees and used a walker by her 60s. I adored Nana Glick, and it broke my teenage heart to see her move ever so slowly across a room.

I decided then and there that "bad knees" would never happen to me. I began weight training and then cycling (6 a.m. spin class anyone?).

Finally, I turned to running, much to the consternation of my cousin Phil, the rheumatologist who swore that pounding on the pavement would only hasten the family curse.

It did and it didn't.

No sore knees. Not ever. But there was a messed up right hamstring, not to mention a strained iliotibal band on the same thigh that no one could quite figure out.

No one, that is, until I met Mike Hill, the director of Sports Performance at Georgetown University. I originally went to interview him about ways to prevent knee ligament tears in young female athletes .

Mike asked me to jump off a box about the size of a milk crate: once, twice… and then a diagnosis.

My right knee turns in when I jump. It turns out this rotation is pretty common among women, although most women bring both knees inward, not just one.

In fact, this phenomenon is a big reason why a teenage girl who plays soccer is more likely to tear an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) than a teenage boy. It's also the reason an adult woman is more likely to one day need a knee replacement than an adult man.

Blame it all on biomechanics.

It turns out every time I ran a mile -- not to mention a marathon -- I took thousands of little jumps the wrong way. It's easy math: one stride is equal to one jump. No wonder my thigh hurt with all that pressure.

The world's best 16-year-old -- at least her dad and I think so -- is a natural athlete who is registered to run her first half-marathon. And while I can't wait to cheer her on, I now worry a bit about her risk of knee injuries.

So I asked Mike for some things all us gals -- young and old -- can do to strengthen and protect our knees. What he told me can be used as a basic mother- daughter training plan.

Strength

Start by doing the one exercise that is the gold standard for knees: squats. Do them with a weight in each hand or with an exercise ball against your back. If you are not in the best shape, practice slowly sitting down and getting up. Remember: Do it slowly.

Agility

Ever play hopscotch as a kid? Well, bring out the chalk and mark-up the pavement. Hopscotch is a great way to work on your agility. It will also give your kid a great giggle when she sees mom trying to keep up.

Balance

If you really want to see her laugh, Mike suggests a variation on something called the one-legged Romanian deadlift. Balance on one leg, bend forward and try to touch the ground. I'm sticking with my favorite balance exercise, which is to stand on one leg while I brush my teeth. It's simple and it works.

Take it to the box

Once you have these exercises under your belt, it's time to take it to the box. Learn the proper form for a jump and landing (a trainer or physical therapist can help with this) and practice it on that box. Women especially need to focus on jumping with their knees bent directly over their feet, not beyond them.

Girls are able to do this exercise more naturally than adult women -- after all, adult women have had a lifetime of moving the wrong way. And while there is no way to totally prevent knee injuries, you can significantly reduce the risk for you and the female athletes in your life.

Hey Shannon, that means you! What do you say we bond over a little hopscotch?

WTOP's Paula Wolfson receives knee exercises from Mike Hall. Video by WTOP's Natalie Plumb:

Editor's Note: WTOP's Paula Wolfson writes about athletic pursuits and the challenge of mixing family, work and fitness in our busy lives "on the run."

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