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Alternatives to Running

Posted by Ian Pentland on 2016-04-08

It happens to the best of us.  Knees. Hips. Back. Feet.  Eventually something will put a halt to our running career.  One only needs to Google “effects of running…” to find a long list of articles with excruciating detail regarding the negative effects of long distance running on the body over time.  The repetitive motion and constant impact on the joints takes a toll.  Or… maybe you just don’t like running. ;)

So now what? You want to exercise, but your body is telling you otherwise.  If you’ve found yourself in this situation, it can be frustrating.  Those who enjoy running will have a very difficult time transitioning to another form of cardiovascular exercise. Psychologically this can be an almost insurmountable wall.  Only the underlying desire to pursue a healthy lifestyle at all costs will overcome this.  

There are many alternatives in cardiovascular exercise, each with pros and cons for the "retired" runner…

Elliptical Cross Trainers…

Most runners will require some form of non-impact training once their injuries became too much to bear.  Elliptical Cross Trainers have dominated this segment of the market for many years. Originally introduced by Precor in 1995, these machines offer exactly this.  In most cases with the added bonus of an upper-body exercise component.  Some elliptical trainers feature adjustable stride length (e.g. Octane Q47) and others offer an incline adjustment (e.g. Precor EFX models), and even seated models (e.g. Octane XR6).  The fixed motion and moving handles make these machines very user-friendly and appealing to new users.  Every brand of elliptical trainer has a very distinct and proprietary motion.  Due to this, those who are new to these machines may have to try several models to find the one that feels right for them.  For a more comprehensive explanation of how to shop for an elliptical, please refer to this Buying Guide.  Many retired runners find these machines difficult to adjust to from a psychological standpoint.  Due to the relatively short (20-26 inches) and fixed stride, they typically do not replicate a true running motion, however…

User Defined Motion Machines…

This is a new category of fitness machines, of which most people are not yet aware.   These machines strive to replicate a running-style motion with no impact. Until recently, this type of machine was only available in commercial products, and while a vast improvement, frankly were only aproximates running. (e.g. Precor AMT)  Machines that replicate a full running stride are now available for residential use, with pricing comparable to higher quality treadmills.  (e.g. the Octane ZR7 Zero Runner and the Octane ZR8 Zero Runner.)  Unlike elliptical cross-trainers that have a fixed stride and motion, these machines allow the user to dictate the motion.  This results in a very natural feel and replicates a running motion almost perfectly. (Up to a 58 inch stride length!)  The workout is very intense and is an excellent non-impact alternative to running. Depending on the injury, many retired-runners will be able to enjoy “running” again!

Rowers…

Rowing has become one of the most popular forms of cardiovascular exercise in recent years.  Due in part to the popularity of some gym facilities that feature rowing as their main form of machine-based cardio, the health benefits of rowing have really stepped into the limelight.  One of the few full-body cardio exercises, rowing targets major muscle groups that are often overlooked by traditional cardio machines. Muscle Groups that are essential for overall health and wellbeing.  Namely the back, core and arms, while being an amazing leg workout!  Rowers can be categorized into two main groups: Wind-based resistance, (e.g. Concept 2) and Water-based resistance (e.g. Water Rower).  Both provide similar benefits to the body and both do not require plug-in power.  Rowers tend to be very low maintenance and have an almost non-existent occurrence of break-down.  Even commercial-grade rowers typically cost a fraction of the price of other major cardio machines.   

Exercise Cycles…

Life Fitness GX Indoor Cycle

This is one of the few machine-based forms of exercise that translates seamlessly from indoor to outdoor training for weather-dependent climates.  This can be very appealing to the former outdoor runner!  In general, there are three types of indoor exercise cycles:  Upright, Recumbent, and Indoor Cycle.  Upright Cycles are a traditional form of exercise cycle that have been around almost forever. Uprights are similar to an outdoor bike in the sense that the user is in an upright position, however this style typically lacks the physical adjust-ability of a road bike. (i.e. seat adjustments only)  Uprights typically offer work-out programs on the built-in console, with varying degrees of technological features that integrate with your hand-held devices. Some will even use Google maps to recreate the sense of riding along an outdoor route anywhere in the world! This category also includes Wind Cycles (e.g. Assault Bike and Schwinn Airdyne) which uses wind for resistance and offers the advantage of an upper-body component.   Recumbent Cycles are typically reserved for those with physical restrictions that would not allow them to otherwise use one of the other types of cycles.  They feature a back-rest (like a chair) which supports the back while in use.  This focuses the work-out primarily on the legs.  Despite this, exercisers of all levels can get an excellent work-out on this style. Recumbents also feature the same electronic features as Upright Cycles.  Spinners® & Indoor Cycles  are a popular style in classrooms in gym facilities. (i.e. Spin Class)  These bikes are highly adjustable (both the seat and handlebars adjust up and down, fore and aft), and typically very sturdy.  They are the closest of the three types to an outdoor road bike. Originally all of these cycles featured a very simple twist knob-controlled friction-based resistance – but the trend is now toward magnetic resistance.  Magnetic resistance offers the advantage of tracking your workouts on a quantifiable level.  The drawback of this style is that they do not typically feature any electronic programming, and so work-out must be self-motivated.  These bikes offer the highest level of intensity of the three styles, and so would likely be the best choice for a former runner.

Body-Weight Training… 

This can be an excellent alternative to running in that you can achieve the same sort of exhaustion and “runners high” associated with high intensity training.  Exercises such as plyometric jumps and burpees (squat thrusts) are amazing at improving cardiovascular health.  They can actually be superior to running in that they will engage many more muscle groups and contribute more to overall health.  Unfortunately many exercises of this type can have the same negative points as running in terms of their effects on already compromised joints.  In order to achieve this feeling, typically some form of jumping is involved.  If you can’t run because of your joints, you likely can’t jump either. 

Resistance Training… 

(i.e. weight lifting) This may seem counter-intuitive.  Most people envision a body builder when they hear this, however, those who do resistance training will tell you that when done with sufficient intensity, it can provide a superior cardiovascular effect than most forms of exercise.  Resistance training, and specifically Functional Training has the 2-prong effect of building muscle, AND raising you heart rate.  Where most cardiovascular forms of training only raise your heart rate, the added bonus of building muscle makes your body a much more efficient machine.  Strength, enhanced fat burning, body composition, joint stability, are only a few of the many advantages of resistance training.  Functional Training can be added to any exercise routine to make it more complete, and can be tailored to any age and level of ability.

Where do I start…?

So if your doctor has looked you in the eye and delivered the bad news that it’s time to give up running, don’t despair!  Better specialty fitness stores will have all or most the aforementioned products available for you to try. These stores employ fitness experts that will help you find the right solution for you!   

Ian Pentland  CPT, NWS, NLP – Web Division | Fitness Experience

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