Cardio Alternatives To Running: 16 Different Ways to Cross-Train


While running is great and something we love, there should be room in your workout routine for non-running cardio activities, too.

If you are injured, running might not be something you can do while hurt. But you can still stay in shape by doing some other cardio workouts.

And even if you aren’t injured, mixing in cross-training can give your body a break from running and help you prevent getting hurt. It’s also a good way to work out muscles that running doesn’t use.

Whichever camp you fall into, it’s wise to try a few different cardio alternatives to running.

Here are 16 different cardio options if you need a break from running and still want to stay fit.

What Counts as Cardio Exercise?

Cardio—also called aerobic exercise—is any exercise that utilizes the body’s aerobic mechanism. That means the body uses oxygen to produce energy.

Any exercise that gets your heart rate up for an extended period of time counts as cardio. They aim to improve your cardiovascular system and help your body learn to use oxygen more efficiently.

Workouts that don’t count as cardio usually include strength training—lifting weights and doing resistance exercises. However, if you do them a certain way, you can turn them into cardio too, but the strength gains will be diminished.

What Exercise Is Considered Cross-Training?

Cross-training is anything that’s not your usual form of exercise. If you’re a runner, then anything other than running counts as cross-training—it doesn’t matter if it’s cardio or strength training.

If your main form of exercise is weightlifting, then running and everything else you do is considered cross-training. Adding cardio to your training plan will help increase your overall fitness level.

Why Is Cardiovascular Fitness Important?

The better your cardiovascular fitness, the better your blood flow, which means every organ, muscle, and cell essentially has more oxygen available for fuel.

As you build your cardiovascular fitness, your heart gets stronger and stronger. As more blood volume comes into the heart, it has to pump harder to move the blood around the body. Like any other muscle in the body, regular training causes it to become stronger.

But it doesn’t just improve your heart health. Regular cardiovascular exercise can also lead to:

  • Lower body weight that’s easier to maintain
  • A reduced chance of developing diabetes
  • Decreased LDL cholesterol
  • Lower risk of cognitive problems
  • Improved memory and mood
  • Better quality sleep
  • Increased level of fitness

Strength training serves its purpose, but cardio helps build endurance and stamina. It’s also a great way to shed some pounds, as it burns more calories in a shorter period than strength training.

Does Cardio Burn Fat or Calories?

A calorie is a unit of energy. We take in calories from food, and if our body doesn’t use all of them, they get stored as fat. When you do cardio, you’re using up your daily calorie intake—the energy you’ve taken in from the foods you’ve eaten. When no “free-floating” calories are left to use, the body taps into its fat stores to provide energy to muscles.

If you exercise fasted—after 8+ hours without taking in any calories—then your body has no choice but to go for the fat. But if you eat before you train, your body uses those calories as fuel before they can be stored as fat. In this case, you may not be ‘burning fat”, but you’re definitely burning calories, so nothing is being stored as fat.

However, the key to making sure you’re losing fat is to take in fewer calories than you burn every day. For example, if you’re burning 2000 calories each day and only eating 1500, then your body has no choice but to dip into its own fat stores for those remaining 500 calories.

Do You Need to Go to the Gym to Cross-Train?

No, you don’t need to go to the gym to cross-train, even if you don’t have any cardio equipment at home. As runners will know, you don’t need a machine to get a good workout! Cardio can be done wherever you are, as long as you can get your heart rate up.

Plenty of cardio choices don’t need any equipment, like walking, swimming, aqua jogging, shadow boxing, climbing stairs, and even bodyweight training. Or, you can invest in something more affordable than a gym contract or a cardio machine, like a jump rope or dance classes.

16 Different Ways to Cross-Train

It’s important to note that not all of these cardio exercises will appeal to everyone, so don’t force yourself through something if you don’t enjoy it. Some may also be less accessible to certain people—for example, not everyone will be able to ski.

But there should be at least one or two things on this list that sound good to you. If you want to alternate with your running, you can do so. Or you can keep them in mind for moments when you can’t run due to injury.

1. Walking

Walking is an excellent low-impact alternative to running. It’s pretty much the same mechanism, and of course, you don’t need anything but a good pair of shoes and some space to walk.

Don’t assume that you won’t get good exercise from walking! If you take a brisk walk and throw in some hills, you’ll be surprised at how much of a cardio workout it can be. You can also walk on a treadmill if you have one at home and you’ll get a great workout.

2. Jumping Rope

Jumping rope isn’t just for kids! Do it right, and you’ll work up a serious sweat, give your cardiovascular system a heavy workout, and build an impressive set of calves as well.

The good news is that you can buy a regular jump rope at almost any sporting store. But if you really want to maximize your jump rope experience, choose a weighted rope like CrossRope.

This will give you some muscular activation as well, and with more weight to swing, you can also burn more calories per workout. Plus, like walking and running, it’s a weight-bearing exercise that strengthens your bones and joints.

3. Rowing

If you can access a rowing machine, rowing is a fantastic workout. It helps both to lose weight and build muscle up the posterior chain, so you’ll get both a muscular and a cardio workout.

If you don’t have access to a rowing machine, but you live near a body of water, you can always take a real row if you have the equipment!

4. Cycling

Cycling is a superb low-impact cardio option. Your options are varied, as you can cycle on the road, on a mountain bike, or use a stationary bike. If you have a bike, you can also use a bike stand like a TACX to mount it at home and use it as a stationary bike.

In particular, cycling is great for building leg muscle. Your quads, hamstrings, and glutes will get a workout, and your cardiovascular system will also get a good exercise. There’s not much upper body activation, though.

5. Spinning

Spinning is basically indoor cycling, but it’s usually done in a studio as a group class with an instructor. It’s done on a special spinning bike, and it may be followed along to an immersive video or music for motivation.

You can do spinning at home if you get yourself a bike. But it’s more common to go to the gym and join a group spinning class, because it also adds an element of socialization and motivation. It’s low-impact, but expect it to be a tough workout.

6. Swimming

Here’s another one you can easily do in the comfort of your own home if you have a pool. You can swim laps at a decent pace or do interval training if your endurance feels challenged in the pool.

Swimming is a great recovery cardio tool. Not only is it no-impact, but the pressure from the water provides light compression to your muscles and joints as you exercise.

7. Aqua Jogging

Aqua jogging is basically sprinting in water. If you’re an injured runner, try out this form of cardio. You can still work on maintaining great running form, and the water provides some strong resistance to push against.

Stand on the bottom of the pool and sprint with good form. It’s more complicated than it seems! If you can’t reach the bottom, use a flotation device but keep the running motion. It’s no-impact and surprisingly tough.

8. Elliptical Machine

The elliptical is a popular form of cardio. One of the great things about it is that it offers both an upper and a lower body workout. Or, you can hang onto the stationary handlebars and get just a serious lower body exercise.

It’s also low-impact and relatively easy to pick up. You can consider investing in an elliptical if you want to, but most gyms have them if you don’t mind heading away from home.

9. Stair Climbing

You can do this on a stair climber machine, or with real stairs. It’ll strengthen your calves, quads, hamstrings, and glutes. And if you do it at a bit of pace, you’ll get a great cardio or out as well.

As a runner, stair climbing can also help you build muscle and power for more effective hill running. Try this if you’re injured and need a different form of cardio!

10. Aerobic Dance Classes

If you love to dance, use it as your cardio! You can either join a group class or simply find a follow-along YouTube video and dance in the privacy of your own home.

This may still be hard on the feet and legs, so it might not be the best choice if you’ve got an injury and you need to tone it down.

11. Boxercise

Boxercise is a high-intensity boxing-based exercise class that has you ducking and weaving your way to better fitness. You won’t be hitting anyone or being hit—it’s all about the movement and getting your heart rate up!

You can always do it at home too. Shadow boxing is a form of training in which you spar with a non-existent opponent, which can be extremely cardio-heavy. Or, you can get yourself an actual bag and gloves and go wild.

12. Cross-Country Skiing

Those who live in snowy areas can choose cross-country skiing as a form of cardio. It’s a full-body exercise, low-impact, and of course, beautiful! However, please make sure to get some lessons if you’ve never skied before.—there is a learning curve.

13. Ultimate Frisbee

Looking for something that feels more like a game but gets your heart racing? Ultimate frisbee could be it. You’ll be running, jumping, ducking, and diving, chasing after the frisbee and pushing for the win.

While you’re having all of this fun, you’re getting some pretty awesome cardio exercise. Just keep in mind that it’s fairly high-impact, so it might not be best for those with sore joints.

14. Plyometrics

Plyometrics are short, sharp bursts of motion or exercise, designed to increase explosive muscle power. Good examples of plyometric exercises include box jumps, burpees, squat jumps, and explosive push-ups.

If you’ve got no equipment whatsoever and want to get some great cardio in, do some plyometrics. They’re body weight exercises, but with a specific focus on explosive movement and speed.

15. Circuit Training

Not sure which one to choose? Why not create a cardio circuit? Circuit training is a form of exercise where you cycle through 8 to 10 different “stations,” each with a different task to complete. In this case, each one with a different short burst of cardio.

A simple bodyweight circuit may look like this:

  • Push-ups, 30 seconds
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • Squat jumps, 30 seconds
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • Lunges, 30 seconds
  • 30 seconds of rest
  • Repeat 3 times or more

If you want to add even more cardio to the mix, try throwing in 30 seconds of jump rope between each exercise, or sprints. If you’ve got access to a bike, elliptical, or rowing machine, you can add them too!

16. Cardio Heavy Sports

If you play sports outside of your running, it already counts as cross-training. Things like football, soccer, tennis, squash, and other sports in which you spend a lot of time running are already giving you a serious cardio workout.

Most of them are high-impact, though, so be mindful of that if you’re taking a break from running due to injury.

Steady State Cardio vs HIIT

The evidence suggests that HIIT—high-intensity interval training—and LISS—low-intensity steady-state cardio—are both excellent choices. HIIT tends to give you more bang for your buck, burning more calories over the day than LISS.

But in one session, you can burn a pretty comparable number of calories doing either one. If you hate HIIT, there’s no need to suffer through it—you can get by with steady-state cardio.

Is HIIT Cardio?

Although HIIT is a training protocol that you apply to your physical activity which does get your heart rate up, making it a form of cardio. You can apply HIIT to any form of exercise you choose, like a HIIT running workout, a HIIT cycling workout, or even HIIT bodyweight training.

Mixing up your workouts to include HIIT will allow you to reap the benefits that are typically associated with longer, traditional cardio sessions in a shorter amount of time.

What Is the Lowest Impact Cardio?

Swimming is the lowest-impact form of cardio. There’s no impact whatsoever on the joints and it’s quite safe. Other low-impact options include cycling, rowing, and elliptical.

How Many Times a Week Should You Cross-Train?

If you’re running regularly, cross-training twice a week is a decent amount. Any more than that, and you’ll be at risk of overtraining.

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Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.