Much of an athlete’s training regimen involves placing strategic stresses on the body to adapt and steadily increase one’s ability to withstand more work and to perform at a higher level.
But there are times when the body needs a break from the excessive forces it endures during a consistent training regimen.
A low impact workout allows athletes to still train specific variables such as strength, power, or the focus of this article, cardiovascular endurance, while ensuring that the supportive structures of the body are not overworked.
This article will explain what low impact means for athletes, how impact affects your body, and the best low impact cardio workouts to maintain and improve your cardiovascular fitness.
Low Impact vs Low Intensity
It is important first to distinguish light cardio workouts in terms of impact, from low-intensity cardio workouts.
Impact is defined by the stresses or biomechanical forces placed through the body. In contrast, intensity refers to the amount of work required by the body to perform at a certain threshold.
For example, intensity in strength or resistance training can be achieved through adjusting the load (amount of weight lifted) or the volume (number of sets, reps, or workouts for a particular muscle group in a given time).
With cardio, intensity is usually measured by some metric of the cardiorespiratory system, like heart rate, oxygen uptake (VO2 max), or even by ‘feeling’ - called rate of perceived exertion.
Having made this distinction, you can see that lower intensity workouts don’t necessarily have to be low impact - a light jog that barely gets an athlete’s heart rate up could still be a high impact on the joints.
By the same token, a low or even ‘no’ impact cardio session such as a 1km freestyle time trial in the pool can be very high intensity on the working muscles and the cardiovascular system.
So how exactly does impact affect the body during athletic training?
Impact Forces in Weight-Bearing Joints
Impact forces affect the bones through what is called Wolff’s Law. This principle states that the strength of a bone will be directly proportional to the forces placed upon it.
An example of this would be that the lower limb bones of a basketball player always jumping - think shooting, rebounding, blocking - will be thicker and stronger than those of a sedentary person.
So high impact can be a good thing for athletes. However, high impact activities also place stress on the weight-bearing joints of the body - mainly the spine, hips, knees, and ankles.
Impact forces place significantly higher pressures through the tissues of these joints, which can lead to injury.
In the lower back, the intervertebral discs and facet joints that connect the spinal segments are subject to higher stress with impact forces, especially when in forward flexion or axial rotation.
Here are a few examples in the joints of the lower limb of how much force can be placed through your joints during a high impact activity; in this case running (click each joint to see the associated study):
To use the knee as an example (being a common site of injury for athletes), for a 70kg runner that’s 350kg of force going through the joint with every step!
Hopefully, you can see now why low impact cardio is a useful tool for athletes to give the joints and other body tissues a well-deserved break. Now we’ll look at who can benefit most from low impact exercise, and when to use it in your training regime.
When to Use Low Impact Training: The Benefits
Low impact cardio can be beneficial for athletes from all walks of life. This method of training has a relatively low injury risk and can be used as a form of active recovery as well as a higher intensity part of a training regime.
Low impact activities are beneficial for many groups; from pregnant women to the older population. It helps prevent fatigue in those suffering autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis so they can stay active, and it helps preserve bone mineral density just as well as high impact activities in populations such as menopausal women - without the injury risk.
Here are some great ways to add low impact cardio into your routine - be sure to try something different if you’re already using some of these! Remember, low impact doesn’t mean low intensity - these forms of training can give you an intense workout, while being kinder to your joints.
9 Low Impact Cardio Workouts
Cycling and spin classes
Ride to work, train up for a triathlon, or ride to some pumping tunes in your local spin class. The bike is a great way to get your heart pumping and improve the strength and endurance in your legs.
This is as low impact as it gets, even removing some of the weight of gravity on your joints. Swimming is an essential part of a training regimen for athletes who are feeling ‘beaten up’. If you’re lucky, your local Olympic pool will even be heated. Try some of these swimming endurance workouts for all fitness levels.
A staple at most gyms, these machines can offer a great low impact workout. Various models include fan driven or even water resisted, offering a more natural feel. Try a 2km time trial for a high-intensity cardio hit!
Exercise in the water has been used as a training method for rehabilitation or for training those with limited mobility. As mentioned, the water significantly reduces the forces placed on the joints. Join a class or simply jump in a walk or jog laps for a great low impact alternative. Try submerging to waist depth or shoulder depth for different resistance.
The advantage of this machine is its utilization of upper and lower limb movement. Having to provide oxygen to the working muscles of the arms and legs against resistance makes your cardiovascular system work overtime! This machine is the definition of low impact but high intensity.
Another great cardio and leg strength workout, perform this exercise on any staircase, hill, or stepper machine you can find. Be mindful to always keep one foot planted squarely on the ground to ensure this activity stays low impact, as stomping upstairs quickly can still place compression forces through the knees and ankles.
Get out to enjoy the sunshine, or watch your favorite Netflix series on the treadmill (my personal preference is to ramp up the incline while playing solitaire). A great low to moderate intensity cardio workout. This is strangely one of the higher impact activities on this list, so an extra tip to reduce the impact is to stick to the grass over the pavement, or ensure you have appropriately cushioned walking shoes.
Use some dumbbells or the pin-loaded machines in your gym to make your cardio workout! Simply take some of your regular resistance exercises and perform them for time instead of reps, and keep the rest breaks to a minimum while you move from one exercise to the next. Check out an example:
Similarly, use your body to combine moves like push-ups, squats, sit-ups, and bird-dogs to get your heart rate up while cycling through muscle groups to avoid muscular fatigue.
We hope this article has helped explain what low impact cardio is and how it can be a useful part of your training plan.
Let us know your favorite low impact exercises below!