Cardio Around an Injury

Cardio Around an Injury

It happens to everyone at least once, if not several times. You train hard pushing your body to the limit, and those little aches/pains you felt after training persist. You know what I’m talking about. That tendinitis in your elbows, lower back pain, neck stiffness, knee pains, shoulder aches, etc. If you want gains you’ve got to push through the pain, right? Not exactly, you don’t want to make the injury worse by continuing training like normal, so it may be smarter to take some time off. But if you’re like me, you don’t want to lose any time at the gym from a minor injury. We put together some short workouts for some of the most common aches and pain areas to help get back to 100% and not miss a beat.


Back Pains

If you’ve ever experienced lower back pain, you know how debilitating it can become when you don’t take care of the problem. There’s good news though. You don’t have to miss any cardio while your back heals! You might be wondering well how am I supposed to do cardio when my back hurts just standing here? The solution is simple... Get off your feet and go for a swim! Swimming is a great exercise for lower back pain. Virtually no impact and it gets you off your feet so there’s no force running vertically down the spine. Even walking/jogging in a pool would be better for recovery than doing so on the treadmill. Here’s a quick 15 min HIIT workout if you feel like getting your feet wet!

  • Warmup with a couple laps of light swimming
  • Freestyle swim for 30 seconds (high intensity)
  • Light swim or walk in water for 1 minute
  • Repeat steps 2 & 3 nine more times
  • Cooldown and stretch

Upper back and neck pains will differ some when it comes to cardio. Swimming is still great, but depending on what you have going on, some swim strokes may aggravate the area more than help it. The best options here are the recumbent bike and the reliable treadmill. These two exercises take it easy on the upper back as there is minimal movement across the shoulders. Just take a seat and pedal away at a light pace for 15-20 minutes, or hop on the treadmill (keep treadmill flat) and walk at a good pace.


Ankle Aches

Our ankles take the entire weight of our body any time we’re on our feet. This makes cardio especially difficult for any exercise done standing up will most likely aggravate the injury depending on how bad the ankle is. That leaves us with a few options to keep a low impact on the ankle. You’ll see these two a lot because of their low impact on joints and both very effective cardio exercises – swimming and cycling. There is one more exercise that you don’t see too often, but this is the one you’ll want to do if your ankle is in a lot of pain just walking around. The ergometer, a row machine just for your upper body so you won’t have to push with your legs. It might not seem like much, but that little machine will put you through a workout! For a cycling workout, you’ll want to stick with low intensity pedaling for 10-20 minutes. There’s no point to risk making it worse by doing high intensity intervals. But you can do HIIT with an ergometer, and we’ve got a sample workout for those with bad ankle pain.

  • Warmup with a low speed & resistance for 3-5 minutes
  • Increase speed & resistance for 45 seconds then drop speed/resistance back down for 2 minutes, repeat one more time.
  • Increase speed & resistance for 20 seconds then drop it back down for 40 seconds, repeat 4 more times.
  • Cooldown and stretch

Another alternative with the ergometer is time trials. You would choose a distance (500m, 1000m, 2000m, etc.), a speed, and a resistance/intensity level. Finish the workout and write down the info listed previously along with the time it took you to complete it. Then you’ll do the same workout each week and you’ll be able to see how your progress is coming along.


Knee Pains

Moving up the leg to the knees! It’s no surprise that weight lifting puts extra stress on the joints, and the knee is one of them that takes the brunt of it. All it takes it a little too much weight and improper form, and you find yourself dealing with some patellar tendonitis. Just like the ankle aches, you will want to stay off your feet to avoid any extra strain on the knees. Some good cardio options here include: cycling, swimming (upper body only), rowing (lower body stationary), and the elliptical. So, how about a workout for a couple of these?!


  • Warmup for 2-3 minutes at a low speed & intensity
  • Moderate speed & intensity for 1 minute followed by low speed & intensity for 2 minutes
  • Repeat step 2 four more times
  • Cooldown and stretch


  • Warmup with light paddling for 2-3 minutes
  • High intensity paddle for 30 seconds followed by light paddling for 90 seconds, repeat 4 more times
  • High intensity paddle for 10 seconds followed by light paddling for 30 seconds, repeat 4 more times
  • High intensity paddle for 10 seconds followed by light paddling for 20 seconds, repeat 2 more times
  • Cooldown and stretch (really stretch the rear delts and rhomboids)


Shoulder Aches & Elbow Pains

Injuries in these two areas are often linked to one another. A shoulder that is bound up or out of place can affect how the biceps pull due to the biceps tendon originating from the shoulder joint. That could lead to a sharp little pain in your elbow, but no worries just give it a rest for a week or two, use some lighter weight, and maintain your cardio to get the blood moving. On the other hand, you may try to tough out the tendinitis in your elbow and push through an arm workout with improper form and wind up hurting your shoulder. It’s no surprise we want to stay away from the row machine here. Your top options would be the bike, treadmill, or stepmill. They all have one thing in common – minimal upper body movement. Save the upper body movements for your workout and rehab exercises. We are just looking to increase the heart rate a bit and maintain our endurance while recovering. So, while you heal up those pains give these short sessions a go!

Stepmill Intervals

  • Warmup with low speed/intensity for 2-3 minutes
  • Moderate speed/intensity for 1 minute, then low speed/intensity for 1 min, repeat 2 more times
  • Moderate speed/intensity for 30 seconds, then low speed/intensity for 1 min, then high speed/intensity for 15 seconds, repeat 5 more times
  • Cooldown and stretch

Another alternative you can do is add exercises into your cycling HIIT workout. Here’s an example of what the workout might look like.

  • Warmup with low speed & resistance for 2-3 minutes
  • High speed & resistance for 20 seconds
  • Perform as many reps possible in 30 seconds for the following exercises:



Body squats

Lying leg lifts

Squat jumps

  • Low speed & resistance for 1 minute
  • Repeat steps 2-4 nine more times. You will do each exercise twice, just cycle through them.
  • Cooldown and stretch


Wrap Up

As with any injury or pain, you’ll need to change your training to accommodate your injury. The short workouts here will help to get you started with your recovery and give you some ideas for later on. Make note of the trend throughout the workouts, and look for exercises that have a low impact on the injured area. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is coming back from an injury too soon. That often leads to a re-injury and then you’ll risk losing some gym time. So take your time healing the injury because you shouldn’t miss a beat now!