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Leg injuries are the curse of the active – particularly runners! You might develop them because of a weakness in the muscles or something about the way you move, because you overdid your workout, trying to go too far, too fast, too soon – or, simple bad luck, you tripped or slipped on something causing damage. Sometimes, you don’t know why you’re hurt – but, it’s so frustrating when it happens.
However, a simple shift in mindset to thinking about what you can do within your new reality (rather than what you can’t) can help keep you fit, focused and sane while you recover.
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How I Realised This
I admit it took a while…
A while back I met one of the most inspiring women I’ve ever been fortunate to encounter.
Her name was Linda and back in 2014, a boating accident had meant she’d had to have the lower half of her right leg amputated below the knee. But, Linda decided not to let the injury stop her returning to her old job – as a fitness trainer.
At the time Linda’s story and determination blew me away – and then, the other day, she did it again.
A picture of her appeared on my Instagram feed sitting on the floor. legs either side of the back of a stationary bike, hands on the pedals spinning them madly.
Turns out she’d injured her other leg and it was in a support boot needing rest – but, rather than give up on cardio altogether she’d got creative and thought about what she could do to get her heart rate up by finding cardio that doesn’t involve legs… and this was her solution.
That’s an amazing ability to have.
Why We Focus on The Bad Stuff
Whenever I talk to psychologists about the way we think they tell me that the brain is commonly set to think the worst – it’s called negativity bias in psych speak.
It’s pretty obvious why we do this if you think about it – if we focus on the bad things they’re less likely to hurt us.
But focusing only on the negative can also leave you stuck. It’s pretty hard to think of solutions to a problem when you’re focusing on the bad side
I know, I’ve been living it for a couple of years!
To cut a boring story short, I’ve been battling pain and leg problems for four years now – and while I can still exercise I’m limited to how often, how fast or for how long I can workout without flaring things up.
I’ve spent so much of that time though thinking of what I couldn’t do – how I couldn’t run, I couldn’t row, I couldn’t jump up and down etc rather than what I could do – but after seeing that amazing picture of Linda I decided enough was enough.
It was time to think of solutions, not focus on problems, and so I made a list of all the things I could do with my current limitations – and, as I was doing it, my whole mood changed – everything seemed so much more possible.
And I decided if that could work for me, it could work for you too – and so, I went further and thought of absolutely every way to get your heart rate up even if you have an injured leg – and the list is below.
Don’t Be Daft Though
Of course, I do have to add a few caveats before you get to it – working with an injury is careful balance between being positive and being stupid. It took me a while to learn that too!
If your injury is super new, then maybe don’t read this – take a week to just rest and let things settle and if they don’t seek advice about what’s going on rather than just trying to fight through it.
If you have a longer-term injury, remember, exactly what you can do from the list below will depend on whether or not you can put weight on your leg, what angle and intensity it’s safe to work at – and a few other factors that I am definitely not qualified to talk about.
Cardio with knee injury might look very different from cardio with an ankle injury or cardio with a foot injury when you can’t put any weight on it at all!
Listen to your body, your commonsense, or, if you have them, the physio, osteo, sports doctor or other professional working with your care, about what you should or shouldn’t do and pick wisely. And if it hurts – stop!
Right, enough waffling – let’s get to the bit you came here for…
16 Ways to Do Cardio With A Leg Injury
Some of them might be obvious – others perhaps not so much, but all of them will get your heart rate up.
1. Elliptical training
Also known as the cross-trainer. This works your butt and your hamstrings at the same intensity as running, but without any impact.
2. Rowing machine
Works the whole body, again with no impact on your legs – watching your knees though.
3. Anti-Gravity Treadmill
These let you run with far less impact than a normal treadmill.
They’re also a bit more complex to use – you have to put on a special pair of shorts which are then zipped into a cover on the treadmill.
The machine then adjusts to hold your weight so you’re running at about 20 per cent of normal impact.
It’s a seriously weird sensation like you’re bouncing through a field – I described as running like a girl in a shampoo advert.
The only actual gym I’ve seen one of these in is the Equinox in Kensington London, but you can often find them at physiotherapists or specialist running rehab gyms.
If you want to try it, AlterG who make the treadmills have a list of locations by area. Click here to find it.
4. Be Like Linda
And work those bike pedals with your hands instead. She kindly let me use her picture to illustrate the exercise and you can also head on over to her Instagram to see it in action.
5. Try an Arm Ergonometer
This is the upright version of Linda’s exercise.
It’s a machine you sit on and the pedals are at shoulder height. You work them with your arms.
This is probably one of the best cardio exercises with a calf injury as it totally takes the pressure off your lower leg while it heals.
You can also buy arm ergometers that sit on a high desk or table to use at home – just be careful that you put them at the right height or you might end up causing more problems than you solve.
6. Medicine Balls
These are used for strength training, but, if you use them fast enough they can deliver a pretty good cardio workout – virtually on the spot.
Try doing ball slams – get the medicine ball, and literally slam it to the ground and catch it as it bounces back.
Or ball lifts – stand, legs apart and knees soft, tummy held in and lift the ball up above your head 20-30 times.
If you don’t feel like this much of a workout, alternate between slams and lifts.
7. Speed Bag
You might not be able to do the bouncing and weaving that’s part of boxing training, but you can hit a speed bag hard and fast to get your heart rate up.
These weighted ropes are brilliant no-impact upper body cardio.
Just grab the end of one in each hand and either slam them to the ground or wiggle them in a wave formation. Ideally, alternate the two.
Whether it’s outdoors or on bikes at the gym, cycling is another low impact exercise that you might be able to do even with a leg injury.
Oh, and if your issue is with your knees, you might want to try a recumbent bike. These are the ones you sit in with your legs out in front of you.
According to ISSA (the International Sports Science Association) the position these put you in are better for people with knee or back pain.
You can also do one legged cycling – but ask your physio or a trainer for advice on form just to make sure you don’t twist while you’re doing it.
The water takes the weight so there’s no impact on your injury – although, you might still have to find the stroke that works best for you.
I can’t breaststroke without pain, but I can do front crawl. And, when I get tired of swallowing the pool doing that, then I can hold a float and propel myself up and down the pool with just my legs!
11. Water Walking
There’s a reason this is prescribed as rehab – the weight of the water on your muscles makes them harder than doing the same exercise on land does.
It’s easy to do – literally walk up and down the shallow end of the pool (aim for water at about waist height) as if you were walking down the road – but trust me, it’ll be harder than the same move in land.
12. Aqua Jogging
If you want to move a bit faster, get yourself a buoyancy vest or belt (the best known are the ones by Aquajogger).
Now, head to the slightly deeper end of the pool so everything except your head is under water and start running without touching the bottom of the pool.
13. Water Aerobics
If you normally like aerobics or circuit training, try water aerobics – it’s similar moves but the water takes some of the weight off your joints making it kinder to injured limbs.
14. Kayaking or Canoeing
You just need to be able to paddle with your arms. Admittedly, if you have weak glute, hamstring or back muscles you might find sitting in a kayak a bit uncomfortable – in this case, try adding a seat back. It really, really helps.
15. Chair Dancing
Weirdly, I discovered the joy of this not when I was injured but when I was super fit.
Then I used to do things like train to run a half marathon followed by a marathon in a weekend (no comments about this being possibly why I’m now broken). But at the time, I also went regularly to an Indie club night on the night after my long run.
Not surprisingly, if I’d already run 30km that weekend, my legs couldn’t handle dancing properly all night too, but I could sit on a chair and boogie from the waist up!! And so can you – and you can do it at home. You don’t need to be in a club!
16. Spinning Class
Cycling is boring, spinning is fun (opinion me!)
Just make sure you tell your instructor that you have an injury, and what it is, before the class as moves like standing in the seat might not be suitable for you.
Also, make sure your bike is set up correctly so you don’t put pressure on your knees or use your butt incorrectly. This post on making spinning more comfortable gives you some guidance on that one.
What to Read Next
If you are suffering from pain, you might also want to add a technique called TRE into your workout plans. This easy shaking technique helps relax muscles that can contribute to aches and pains – find out more in our longer post looking at TRE here.
It could also be a good time to book some sessions of EMS training which originated as a rehab technique. In the sessions you’ll wear a suit that uses gentle electrical pulses to work the muscles harder that you might be able to manage when you’re injured. Find out more about EMS training here.
If your problem is associated to shin splints, have a look at our shin splint test which shows if this might just be a one off, or, if there’s a reason that you’re more prone to them
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster, and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail, and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.