Why do I have knee pain when I exercise or play sport?

Published September 1, 2017

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It’s common to experience knee pain during exercise – but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored. In many cases, knee pain caused by physical activity can be easily resolved by changing your technique, building up strength in surrounding muscles or taking measures to improve your joint health. If your knee pain is a result of mild osteoarthritis, it’s important not to give up on your exercise routine – instead, find ways to work out safely whilst supporting your joints.

In this article we identify some forms of exercise which may trigger knee pain, alongside simple ways to help keep your knees safe and your exercise regime pain-free.

Exercise: Basketball, volleyball and sports which involve jumping

If you play sports which involve a lot of jumping, you’re a prime candidate for jumper’s knee. Pain typically radiates from the bottom and front of your kneecap and is generally a result of overuse.

Fix: The key is to build up the supporting muscles in the legs and around the knee in order to take the pressure off your knee joint. Focus on exercises which strengthen the muscles in your quads and hamstrings, while avoiding exercises that place undue stress on the knees.1 Always warm up properly before a game and include plenty of stretches to help maintain joint flexibility and mobility.

Exercise: Soccer, football and activities which involve running

Long distance runners, and people who participate in high impact sports like soccer and football may experience ‘runner’s knee’. This pain is commonly due to cartilage wear from repetitive stress on the knee joint, and can cause inflammation and pain at the front of the knee that can sometimes be felt deep in the knee.2

Fix: Having runner’s knee does not mean you need to give up your favourite exercise, you just need to know what activities trigger the pain. If you find the pain gradually getting worse when running, it’s important to take time to rest from these activities and apply ice to relieve any swelling. Retraining and strengthening the quadriceps will also help to support the knee joint.

Exercise: Yoga, pilates and step class

Exercises which involve squatting or lunging movements like yoga, pilates or step class are great for toning your legs and glutes, but can affect your knees if you don’t use the correct technique. If your knees buckle in towards each other during a squat, it places unnecessary pressure on your kneecaps which may lead to knee aches and pain.

Similarly, overdoing yoga poses and forcing your knee into positions that are beyond your ability level can place undue stress on your knee joints. In some stretches, it’s tempting to “lock” your knees into a straight position to access a deeper stretch – but this hyperextension actually places pressure on your joint instead of using the supporting muscles to do the work.3

Fix: Always check your knee alignment in squatting and lunging poses (think chair pose, warrior one and crescent lunge). The knee should be at a 90 degree angle directly over the ankle. If you can’t see your big toe, you’ve gone too far over. If your knees naturally want to collapse towards each other, it could mean you lack strength in your glutes: try incorporating some more glute-strengthening poses into your practice like bridge pose.


  1. C. Novelli, J.B.V. Costa, R.R. Souza; Effects of aging and physical activity on articular cartilage: a literature review, Braz. J. Morphol. Sci, 29 (1) (2012), pp. 1-17
  2. http://www.nevdgp.org.au/info/murtagh/pdf/akp010928.pdf
  3. https://www.gaiam.com/blogs/discover/4-yoga-mistakes-that-can-cause-knee-pain

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