1. Did you try to stay in a completely "pain-free" zone for as long as you could? Or did you look for the point of little pain that marks the edge of your ability so that you push it further? (not sure if I wrote that clearly enough)
2. Could you share some of the exercises you did that worked (beside walking)?
I’ve answered these questions in places before, but from time to time, I like revisiting certain subjects, figuring some people have arrived at this blog for the first time.
On #1 -- Is there such a thing as good, or at least acceptable, pain? Should you expect to live with a certain amount of pain to “edge your training,” so to speak, in recovery? And how to figure out where to draw the lines?
Great, tough questions. What’s somewhat surprising: I’ve yet to find much in the way of answers either, in my wanderings on the Internet. What follows are my opinions, based on my own research and experience.
If you have a “pain-free” window each day, try to enlarge that window.
Which generally means: Stay in the “pain-free zone” as much as possible. So, very short bursts of walking may be better than long walks at first. Gradually re-introduce your bad knees to the rigors of daily living (long periods of sitting, climbing stairs).
What’s a pain-free window?
Well, if you’re lucky (as I was), you do wake up each morning with your knees feeling better. Someone once described this as “It’s like I wake up with a brand new set of knees each morning.”
But you really don’t because those knees wear down all too quickly -- in an hour, two hours, three -- because they’re not that strong.
Anyway, that pain-free window, of a few hours or however long it is, is what you want to try to enlarge, in my opinion.
If you don’t have a pain-free window, you want to work toward getting one.
If you’re always in pain, a good plan for recovery becomes more complicated (see here). In that case, if you’re too focused on avoiding all pain, your tendency is to move less -- which isn’t good. So you have to very very very slowly work on healing those knees: using some experimentation, quite possibly creativity -- and lots of patience.
Swelling is pretty much always bad.
That’s my opinion anyway. Swelling seems to me to be your angry joint screaming, “You overdid it, doofus. Now I hurt and can’t move through my normal range of motion!” If, however, the swelling isn’t mechanically induced, but caused by say an autoimmune disorder, the analysis about how to prevent it changes -- because it’s much less clear to me how you deal with that kind of problem, unfortunately.
You don’t necessarily need pain to “edge your training” when healing bad knees.
Again: my opinion. But joints aren’t muscles. After a hard run, during your preparation for the local 5k, maybe your muscles burn, in a good way that signifies you’re getting stronger. That same “burn” in your joints after a hard hike, because you’re trying to strengthen them, isn’t a good thing. In my opinion.
I got better by pushing my knees to do more, sure. But I pushed slowly, and carefully. To me, the ideal recovery is one in which you improve, and steadily push your knees to do more, while experiencing as little pain as possible.
As for that second question, about what other exercises I did: I have spent little time talking about them because, honestly, I don’t think they mattered much in my recovery. But here are my three favorites:
The “monster walk” (I call it the “crab walk,” which is think is more descriptive.) Knot the ends of a Theraband together, roll the loop up over your ankles, then walk side to side, against the band’s resistance. This exercise didn’t put much strain on my knees, I found.
Unloaded forward knee bends (Doug Kelsey describes these here.)
UPDATE: There's a great comment below by "Knee Pain" that I urge everyone to read. It adds a lot to the discussion.