Fitness Articles

8 Exercise Options for Runners Who Can't Run Anymore

For those who have never tried running before, a common fear is, "I won't be able to run."

Then, as they conquer that first mile, then the second, then the 10th, the fear is the same, yet very different: "I won't be able to run."

If you've been bit by the running bug, you know how addictive the sport can become. For many runners, it's much more than just a means of burning fat and calories—it's an opportunity to relieve stress, boost energy and get the endorphins flowing. More a way of life than a workout, running can involve competing in local races, exploring park trails and connecting with like-minded friends. And then there's the feel-good factor that comes with knowing you're doing something to benefit your health and longevity.

Many runners report a feeling of euphoria and mental clarity as the miles peel away, but is the "runner's high" a real thing? Running coach Kyle Kranz believes it is. "Once you get into a run, your body starts to release natural opioid-type chemicals that make you feel good," he says. "Running may sometimes be physically hard, but it's often quite mentally stimulating. Scientists have even discovered that running and other aerobic exercise may trigger the growth and regeneration of brain neurons."

Why Do Runners Stop Running?

Like any sport, running doesn't come without its risks. As running coach Matt Fitzgerald points out, it's a high-impact activity that puts stress on the joints and bones, which increases the odds of injury. "Some runners develop overuse injuries, such as bone spurs, which are difficult to recover from," he says. "Others just sort of age out of the sport, reaching a point where the activity is too painful to continue." Some give up running due to burnout—after excessive amounts of training and racing, they simply get sick of the sport.

Beth Weinstein, ultramarathoner and owner of clothing brand OnlyAtoms, says balance is key in prolonging your participation in the sport. She recommends alternating running with other forms of exercise. "Cross training not only helps to prevent overuse injuries, but also tones the body, stretches your 'running muscles' and helps to avoid burnout," she says. "I personally only run around three times a week, and I enjoy it each time I run."

If pain becomes an unwelcome running companion, don't try to run through it. "Runners are often too afraid to skip a run when they feel a little twinge, and then they end up being forced to rest due to injury," says Kranz. "Skipping a single run or doing shorter, easier runs for a period of time is always preferable to running through an ache and then developing a full-blown injury."

How to Fill the Running Void

When your daily runs have become integral to your physical, mental and emotional health, losing them to pain or injury can seem devastating. A longtime runner who can no longer run is likely to be frustrated, grumpy and maybe even depressed.
"Part of what makes runners psychologically dependent on running is that it makes them feel good both while they are doing it and afterward," Fitzgerald says. "When they're forced to stop, they can go through a kind of withdrawal." In one study, runners who voluntarily stopped running for two weeks reported symptoms of depression, including anxiety, insomnia and feelings of being under strain. The symptoms stopped when running was resumed.

That doesn't mean you have to sack out on the couch and snarl at your family if you’re physically unable to run anymore, though. If you've suffered an injury, had a recent surgery or just aren’t sure if you should run or not, you don't have to give up exercising altogether. In fact, even in the absence of injury, some degree of cross-training is important for all athletes. There are plenty of low-impact ways to stay in shape during the hiatus or to pick up as a long-term substitute.
  • Aqua Jogging: When it's time to dive into a low-impact exercise, aqua jogging (also known as deep water running or pool running) provides a refreshing mix of cardio and strength training. Using a special flotation device, you can mimic the motions of regular running. The water provides added resistance, building muscle tone while providing an extra cardiovascular challenge. Best of all, the buoyancy of the water means there's no impact on the bones or joints, making aqua jogging an ideal activity for injured runners.
  • Cycling/Spinning: As an effective, low-impact alternative to running, cycling works the muscles in the legs and glutes while providing a great aerobic workout. As an added bonus, it strengthens the knees, hips and ankles, preventing injury during future runs. If you have a bike, you can ride on a local trail or neighborhood. If you're more comfortable off the road, try a stationary bike at the gym or sign up for a spinning class (but not before checking out our spinning cheat sheet!).
  • Hiking: Even if you can't run, you can still exercise in nature, which can do wonders for your mental and physical wellness. Kranz recommends hiking as a lower-intensity alternative, and maybe even as a gateway activity for would-be runners. With the technical terrain and hills, hiking is more challenging and burns more calories than walking, all while offering picturesque scenery and a sense of adventure.
  • Pilates: Weinstein has plenty of stories about how Pilates has saved her running. "It's key for preventing injuries and strengthening the core, which is the most important part of the body used when running," she says. There's a common misconception that Pilates is easy, but when done properly, the exercises are very challenging and work all muscles in the body.
  • Elliptical Trainer: When you want the action of running without the impact, it's tough to beat the elliptical trainer. This cross-training machine helps to strengthen the core and leg muscles that are so essential to running. As a bonus, the arm levers work the upper body and help you develop a more efficient stride.
  • Stand-Up Paddleboarding: Kranz recommends this unique activity as a great way for former runners to maintain muscle strength, improve balance, increase endurance and boost cardiovascular fitness. Although it's a challenging exercise to learn, stand-up paddleboarding is low-impact and won't strain the joints.
  • Cross-Country Skiing: If you have access to a well-maintained cross-country ski course, this activity uses motions that are very similar to running. It's a great way to maintain your endurance and muscle tone without the impact of pounding the pavement. In addition to the legs, cross-country skiing also works the core and upper body. Sans the slopes, a Nordic Track machine offers the same benefits.
  • Walking: Although it can be mentally tough for runners to slow down and walk, the activity is a highly effective, low-impact alternative. Walking utilizes many of the same motions and muscles as running. You can maintain a brisk pace and incorporate the arms to reap the cardiovascular benefits without the impact.
While running does have a somewhat addictive quality, those who are forced to hang up their sneakers—either temporarily or indefinitely—don't have to wallow in withdrawal mode. By finding an alternate activity that keeps your muscles working and endorphins flowing, you can rediscover an exercise high, with or without the pavement beneath your feet.

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Member Comments

    I gave up running about 3 years ago but I'm back on the elliptical and I'm ok with it.
  • I incorporate all of these in my weekly exercise plan. Although I can still run, I realize the effect it will have on me as I get older. Thanx for the eye-opener and the replies as well as the suggestions. Were all getting older and have injuries and must do what we gotta do to stay and maintain our healthy way of living.
  • I had a knee replacement in 2010 and I love biking, hiking, walking, swimming. All ok for the knees1
  • my orthopedist recommended cycling

    The advantage of running was being able to roll out of bed and take off down the street without having to drive to the Y or wait around for a class. Cycling gives me the same 'wind in my hair - alone in the predawn city - time to think' that I got from running.

    sort of but nothing is running but running

    I miss the races though. I've done a couple of cycling community events, but bike races are not open for we normal folk the same way running is.
  • Addendum to my last comment. As far as "runners high", I have had many second winds which feel as if my endorphins are flowing while on extended rides on the Me-Mover, it's as if I'm on automatic, moving without conscious effort of propelling the scooter. Hard to explain, "runners high" seems to fit that calmness that overtakes you when you're in the midst of an aerobic condition.
  • Years of running damages joints and cartilage. I met a runner that had to quit because of injuries, he had run in many competitions. I asked him to try my Me-Mover, he rode around the area, when he came back he told me it felt the same as running, only without the impact.
    This scooter uses the same muscles as running, similar to a stair stepper except you are in motion, intense physical motion. I've done HIIT routines with no problems, most importantly there is low impact, no jarring.
    The Me-Mover is not regularly advertised, relatively new, designed in Denmark, I read about in a health blog. Of course, I was skeptical, reading about something I never tried and acquiring it is a big jump, but I did jump, and glad I did.
    Getting acclimated took me about a week to find the sweet spot, probably will take others less time, I'm 79 years old. Since then I have a newer version. If aerobics is something that is important, the Me-Mover will satisfy as well as taking you places at similar speeds of a bicycle, but you're standing, seeing what's around you. Get's you motivated to use your body to use physical motion if you need motivation.
  • I had to retire from running 2 years ago and I struggled a lot to find something that gave me the runner's high and was also a challenge. For me it was hiking. We have some dune areas that lead out to Lake Michigan, but to get to the lake you have to climb almost 400 steps. It is quite the challenge and has easily replaced running. I love the accomplishment of being able to tackle that many steps and to take the hike out to the beach.
    Rowing is a GREAT form of exercise for those of us who no longer run!
  • When I was; more abled bodied I did all of these things. None of them however ever gave me a runners high - today with several serious health issues to juggle, none of these would work for me (can't use a public pool anymore because of chlorine). Still looking to replace that runners high - there is nothing like it because it is done in nature and can be done anywhere. So in the end, still looking. I really do miss running.

About The Author

Melissa Rudy Melissa Rudy
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.