Running is a high-impact sport, plain and simple. The constant pounding on the asphalt takes a toll on our bodies, especially our joints.
Most of us runners tend to overdo it as we become more and more addicted to our sport as time goes on. We want to train harder, longer, improve our speed, endurance, and form, and reach a point where we need a break.
Hopefully, this realization comes before any serious injury occurs. Still, whether you are coming off an injury, want to spice up your training plan, or just need a break from so much running, we are going to give you some great alternatives to choose from.
In this article, we are going to discuss:
- The difference between high impact and low impact cardio
- The benefits of low impact cardio for runners
- 5 different low impact cardio options
- 5 specific low impact cardio workouts to try out for yourself
Let’s jump in!
What is the difference between high-impact and low impact cardio?
High impact cardio involves jumping and landing, such as running in plyometric exercises.
Yes, this type of exercise does provide excellent benefits such as strengthening your muscles and bones, improving your coordination, balance, and stability, and of course, your cardiovascular conditioning.
However, there are several risks that come along with high-impact cardio we need to watch out for. High-impact exercise puts a lot of strain on joints. It can lead to overuse injuries such as stress fractures if not properly combined with other training.
Our bodies can put up with high-impact work but need a break from it every once in a while. Working in some low impact cardio training into your program will help rest your body a bit and give it time to recover from training even better the next day.
Low impact cardio consists of gentle movements that don’t stress the joints. Usually, at least one foot is on the ground during these exercises. When exercise is “no impact,” both feet are generally off the ground, such as in swimming.
The most significant benefit of low impact cardio is the decreased impact on your body which can help reduce the risk of injury or help you recover from one. And you don’t have to worry; low impact cardio still works your cardiovascular system and improves your conditioning just as much as high-impact cardio.
There are plenty of low impact cardio exercises that are similar to running that you can use to complement your training. Taking one day off per week from pounding the pavement can give your body the break it needs to perform even better and spice up your training program to make it a bit more varied.
Let’s look at five different types of low impact cardio and how each can contribute to your training.
5 Low Impact Cardio Workouts
#1 Aqua Jogging
Aqua jogging emulates running in every way, from the position and posture to the muscles used. It’s great for runners recovering from an injury but still want to simulate running.
Aqua jogging, also known as deep water running, is when you mimic your running form by running laps back and forth in the deep part of the pool. A buoyancy belt is often used around your waist to keep you above water so you can focus on the workout and not on whether or not you’ll sink!
Because aqua jogging is done in the water, it provides extra resistance making it quite a workout for those legs, especially your hip flexors.
The effort you need to put into it will raise your heart rate as your running-specific muscles will remain activated the entire time. The great news is, you’re still running, just without the impact.
If you don’t have access to a deep pool or a buoyancy belt, you can run in the pool’s shallow end. However, since you are touching the ground, this slightly raises the level of impact and, for most, is usually more challenging.
In my sample workouts, I have used easy, moderate, and hard effort levels. To get a better idea of how those effort levels should feel, check out our rate of perceived exertion article here.
Sample Aqua Jogging Workout
10 minutes easy
30 seconds hard
2 minutes easy
Repeat 15 times
10 minutes easy
An elliptical is a stationary exercise machine that simulates cross-country skiing. It is an excellent alternative to running if you want to give your knees, back, and hips a day off. Since your feet don’t launch or land, it resembles the movement of running but without the impact.
You can practice several running skills while using an elliptical such as cadence and running form. Program the resistance to a level that allows you to use a high cadence, similar to the one you use when you run.
Quick tip! Do not hold on to the side handles while using the elliptical. That’s cheating! You want to simulate running as closely as possible, so stabilize yourself without the handles and swing your arms gently back and forth just as you would when you run.
You can do your time-based running interval workouts just the same on the elliptical as on the road.
Sample Elliptical Workout
10 minutes easy
2 minutes hard
3 minutes easy
Repeat 5 times
10 minutes easy
With cycling, we have a lot of options to choose from.
We can cycle outside on the road, in the mountains, head to the gym, choose from one of the stationary bikes there, or even better, join a spin class.
Cycling works all of the same running muscles and improves leg strength and power. It can also improve your running cadence.
Cycling is an excellent source of cardio without much impact. Still, you need to work harder to maintain a moderate effort level and keep your heart rate up.
When cycling outside, downhills provide rest, but sometimes too much rest. If you cycle in a hilly area, consider that rest, as you may need to extend the total workout time to be equivalent to your running workout effort.
Another tip to keep your heart rate up is to pedal as much as possible, including slight downhills. Just because you roll doesn’t mean you don’t need to pedal. As long as it’s safe, pedal away!
If cycling outside isn’t an option because of a lack of the required equipment, choose to jump on a bike at the gym or take a spinning class that will ensure a high-intensity cardio workout.
This next workout is geared towards outdoor cycling and hills!
Sample Outdoor Cycling Workout
15 minutes easy on flat terrain
On a moderately inclined hill:
5 minutes hard uphill
Roll back down to the starting point
Repeat 4 times
10 minutes easy
#4 Power Walking & Power Hiking
Even though there is contact with the ground, walking has a lower impact on the body than running. There’s no jumping involved which eliminates some of the pounding. Walking and hiking also give you a chance to enjoy the scenery which we would have otherwise flown by and missed running.
You can still do interval training while power walking and power hiking. It’s just a bit more challenging to keep your heart rate up if you are used to running. The workout I have shared is based on a hilly course to increase cardiovascular benefit.
Sample Power Walking Workout
Hill Power Walks
Choose a route that has rolling hills that will take you 45-60 minutes to complete. It could be on the road or on the trails, whichever you prefer.
Power hike all uphills at a hard effort
Walk the downhills easy
It’s as easy as that. Your heart rate will spike on the uphills and recover on the downhills. Taking the descents easy will make them easier on your joints and limit impact.
A rowing machine can be found in most gyms and, as the name infers, simulates the sport of rowing by using a sliding seat. This exercise is a total body workout as it engages your upper body, core, hamstrings, glutes, and quads!
As for benefitting running, rowing can help improve your posture and overall body strength without the impact.
As with the previous exercises, we can take an interval running workout and convert it to this machine. Let’s see how I adapted a progression run to a rowing workout.
Sample Rowing Workout
10 minutes easy
5 minutes easy
5 minutes moderate
5 minutes hard
Repeat 2 times
5- 10 minutes easy
Low impact cardio is a great way to give your body a break, recover from an injury, or spice up your training in general.
The next time you want to switch it up, try interval training on a bike, rowing machine, or elliptical, or power hike your way through a lovely trail. If you are truly ambitious, try out aqua jogging.
No matter your situation, alternatives are available for you to keep moving and stay in shape for when you’re ready to hit the pavement again.
For more cross-training inspiration check out our ultimate cross-training guide: