Here’s How I Returned to Racing After Knee Replacement

A lifelong runner finds new satisfaction in running—and opens his surgeon’s eyes to the possibilities.

knee replacement

When I was wheeled in for partial knee replacement surgery in 2011, at age 71, I was convinced I would never run again. I could walk or cycle, the surgeon said. Anything more jarring would wear the prosthesis or loosen it. 

I didn’t disagree. I didn’t disobey. I just sort of forgot. Recovery went well because I had kept fit beforehand by biking. While walking one day, three months after the procedure, I tried a little shuffle-jog of 10 paces. Nothing hurt, nothing seized up, so I did it again a few days later. Soon, I was “running”—very short jogs, interspersed with walking—every fifth day, for caution, with the bike still my main exercise. Slowly, slowly, I increased, still running only every four days. 

Soon I had the idea of adding one minute each run. It’s amazing how the total goes up. On the one-year anniversary of the surgery, I ran one hour nonstop for the first time, and felt as if I’d done a lifetime PR in the marathon.  

In the second year, I tried a few races, still walking any downhills or uneven footing, and came in dead last, one time behind some women chatting as they walked with strollers, and another time after losing a memorable duel with a nine-year-old girl. Things slowly improved. I went through some of the usual injuries—achilles tendon, calf muscle when I first tried intervals. But the knee itself never gave any trouble. When people asked if it hurt to run on it, I said, “No, it’s made of metal and ceramic. It doesn’t hurt, but the rest of me hurts like hell.” 

Do You Have to Stop Running After Joint Replacement?

Before the surgery, I ran competitively from 15 to 55, but knee arthritis had limited me in my 60s, and I hadn’t run a step for several years. So I was an improving beginner, as well as a lifetime runner. I worked up until after four years I could train hard, run for up to two hours, and win or place in my age-group. I was leaner, healthier, and happier than I had been for a decade. It was an unexpected late-life bonus, one of the best feelings I’ve ever known. 

“It’s not often in this world that we can enjoy dawn at twilight,” I wrote. 

I scrupulously had Russell x-rayed every two years. No wear was evident. I conferred with the now retired surgeon Russell, who was fascinated and changed his views, hunting out research suggesting that impact exercise may benefit the stability of the prosthesis by increasing muscle strength and bone density.  

Roger Robinson runs the Dutchess County Classic 5K in 2016, five years after knee replacement.
Roger Robinson
I named the knee “Russell,” in tribute to the surgeon, Russell Tregonning, who installed him, and sometimes when I was speaker at races I introduced Russell to the audience by pulling up my pants leg and revealing him with a happy face drawn in felt pen. “He’s happy because last week he ran a lifetime PR,” I would say.     

By 2016, five years after the surgery, now 78, I’d finished first in three American championships and logged PRs of 22:16 for 5K, 36:01 for 8K, 47:38 for 10K, 1:12:09 for 15K, and 1:46:57 for the half-marathon. 

I wish I could end this story there, but suddenly in December 2016, without warning, the other knee hurt and swelled badly—just like that. We suspected a meniscus problem, but an MRI revealed there wasn’t any—any meniscus, that is. Just white space. How I ran so well those three years is a mystery, but I’m not complaining. Would I have desisted if I’d known I was damaging the other knee? Probably not. And who knows whether arthritic decay is “caused” by running or is simply a symptom of age. 

Soon Russell will have a brother. I will be back at square one. Probably the surgeon will warn me that I won’t ever run again. Which will probably be true. But maybe it’s not.   

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