Ankle, knee, or lower back issues during and after running
Getting back into exercising following recovery from a past injury
You are brand new to running (or exercise in general)
If any of these three statements describes your situation, it is likely that completely converting to a low impact alternative to running or implementing low impact exercises into your routine will benefit you greatly. Running as a sport and an exercise is inherently rough on your body and is likely to cause complications at some point throughout your experience whether it spawns as the infamous ‘runner’s knee’ or is causing other pains due to consistent impact. During my small series on barefoot running and its advantages to your running routine, I explain that the primary reason for injury when running is simply poor form. This is not isolated to running though. Nearly every sport or repetitive activity including weight lifting, cycling, swimming, and others will cause injury overtime if your form is poorly executed. Therefore, if you experience complications when running, it can be very beneficial to incorporate low impact alternatives into your routine.
The following is a gathered list of low impact exercises that can complement or replace running for a short while, as your body recuperates or as you and your muscles adapt to running and learn the proper form.
1. Swimming – Aqua-Jogging – Water Aerobics
Swimming is not everyone’s friend and in many cases it is the last resort when thinking about alternate exercising methods, but ‘swimming’ does not need to mean ‘swimming’. Swimming in its own respect is an extremely beneficial exercise and is also completely different from working out in a medium filled with air. Swimming actual laps (yuuuup…) involves nearly every muscle in your body working together to move through the denser medium. It is the most fundamental ‘resistance exercise’ available, and is a great way to increase muscular strength and tone in a low impact method. Apart from increasing your heart health and your flexibility, probably the largest benefit of swimming that will translate directly to your running ability is the ability to learn proper breathing techniques and increasing your lung capacity.
Now, on to the benefits of swimming without actually ‘swimming’. For a real translation between the road and the water, aqua-jogging is your best bet. It allows you to very closely simulate the same movements and muscle stimulation when running on pavement, but in a much lower impact form. You may have heard of the aqua jogging in the past and have probably associated it with either older people with brittle bones or those working to rehabilitate their body, but you will quickly learn that it is actually a fantastic method of exercise.
After attaching a flotation strap to your lower stomach (or back) area, simply jump into the pool and begin running the same way you would on pavement. You will notice that the quicker your legs move the higher the resistance is, so find a sweet spot and keep that pace as you would on any other run. Because your body feel weightless, you will not directly notice fatigue until you exit the pool. Take a look at the video below for a good example. (Although you may not want to lean that far forward)
The third low impact alternative to running is also a form of resistance exercising. If you enjoy working with groups, water aerobics may be perfect for you. Water aerobics can be performed on your own and a routine can be changed to include more intensive exercise than what is generally offered in a rehabilitation aerobics class. The basic idea is to move your body in a way to induce aerobic activity in waist deep or slightly deeper water. This includes jumping, running in place, using an underwater weight, etc. Although it is not the ‘go-to’ alternative, it can be beneficial to incorporate water aerobics into an aqua jogging workout for variation.
2. Cycling – Stationary
Although not all alternatives are as impact reducing as swimming, they are still worth consideration and are probably more preferable. Road cycling is a very popular low impact alternative to running because it allows you to stay on the road and it adds an adrenaline factor due to high speeds and feeling the wind in your face. Although cycling can be considered an alternative to running, it does not work the same muscles as running, therefore it is generally worked into a running routine or along with other low impact alternatives. It is also true that you will have to bike much further to attain the same cardio workout that you would expect from running, so pick a longer route and stick to it. You can use applications such as Strava or fitness trackers such as the Misfit Shine to better predict how long and far your ride should be to compare with your past running workouts.
Another popular alternative is the stationary bike, the boring yet customizable alternative to road cycling. In both cases, you are primarily working your hip flexors, quadriceps, and hamstrings which are important to focus on but are not the only muscles used when running. Therefore it is important to include other alternatives if you plan on staying low impact for a long period.
The stationary bike offers an even lower impact alternative compared with road biking due to the predictability of the exercise. You have full control over the resistance, the type of ride, and the length of the ride, therefore you can set a goal and reach that goal without complications. Although this is the case, it is also easy to cheat and hop off the bike for a bit or change the setting to something with lower resistance. Feel the burn, set a goal, and reach that goal in a low impact way. Low impact does not necessarily mean lower quality workout.
Stationary rowing (on a rowing machine not rowing in the sense of strength training) offers a great full body workout. It is low impact and offers a different type of exercise many people are not used to – even though it is stationary. Minus the fun and adrenaline rush that real rowing or kayaking involves, the stationary rower offers many of the same options that the stationary bike offers.
Although it does not primarily excite the muscles in your legs, the rowing machine may be a better place for many runners looking for low impact alternatives to start. Besides poor form, many people who begin running and are overweight do not have the proper muscle base to take on the extra impacts that running adds to your body. The rowing machine is a great way to strengthen your back muscles, arm and shoulder muscles, and abs while also strengthening your legs. Once you start you will instantly notice that the rowing machine causes cardiovascular strain and tests your stamina.
4. StairMaster – Walking
The StairMaster and walking are different from the other low impact alternatives to running mentioned because they involve your whole body working against gravity in the same way that running does. If you are interested in a directly functional alternative to running that will work nearly all of the same muscles, the StairMaster (or even walking/running flights of stairs) is perfect. Depending on your complication due to high impact cardio, the StairMaster offers a great cardiovascular exercise and allows you to monitor and change the workout to your liking (like all stationary machines).
Okay… yes walking is an obvious one ‘if you can’t run then walk’. I don’t necessarily mean take you ordinary running route and turn it into a walking route, what I mean is find a long hill or a flight of stairs and walk up. This is much lower impact than running and can help strengthen issue areas. A great way to strengthen your butt and your calf muscles is to walk backwards up a long hill. Trust me, after a little while you’ll feel the workout.