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 business coach, 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.<pagebreak>
  • 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.
  • 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.