Pain felt on the patellar tendon (soft spot just below the kneecap) is known as “jumpers knee”. This is a common injury among basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, gymnastics, track and field athletes because of the frequent jumping, landing, and changing direction. These movements can cause strains, tears, and damage to the patellar tendon from of the constant strain on their knees. Sometimes it sneaks up on the average person who takes a step and feels sudden knee pain for no apparent reason. They never banged or tweaked it, so they lean on the preferred excuse of “Damn, I’m getting old”. While it’s true that aging can bring on joint pain, it’s also a function of what we do (or fail to do) as we age to keep the aches and pains at bay.
Jumper’s knee is an overuse injury caused by muscle imbalance, which means the overactive muscle is telling you it’s time to activate the other muscle(s) that help it perform its job optimally. You probably suffer one or both of the following: a) an overactive IT band (the tendon that runs along the outer side of the thigh), or b) an overactive VMO muscle (teardrop shaped muscle above the knee). Both lead to pulling on the kneecap and in turn irritates the patellar tendon. Also, in both cases the hamstrings and glute max are under active muscle groups. It can seem like a minor injury but make no mistake–jumper’s knee can get worse over time and ultimately need surgery unless treated properly.
Your first step: aggressively foam roll both areas. The VMO is fairly easy to dig into and release any knots and adhesions. Digging into a tight IT band can be more difficult probably requires more aggressive options. I strongly recommend Thai yoga massage or similar form of deep tissue massage to inhibit the overactive tendon. It’s painful as hell because the IT band can be as tough as thin piece of steel, but believe me, you’ll be thankful you dealt with it when the pain is gone. Your second step: activate and strengthen the under active hamstrings and glute max with floor bridges, ball bridges and weighted ball bridges. Your third step: incorporate integrated movements such as squats, lunges, deadlifts, and box jumps.
To prevent recurrence, be sure to keep good exercise technique. During the deceleration (lowering) portion of both squats and deadlifts, if your knees initiate the move, change your technique. Focus on initiating the move with your hips instead by sticking your butt out as you begin the move, then flexing the knees shortly thereafter. When jumping, perfect your landing technique–stick your butt out further as you land, which allows the hips to absorb the brunt of impact, giving the knees a much needed break.
Happy running and jumping!