The Best Cardio Exercise for a Foot Injury

Just because you've had a foot injury doesn't mean your fitness has to suffer. Doing cardio with a foot injury is feasible if you use the right equipment. Some cardio machines can also be modified for foot injuries.

Swimming is a great cardio exercise with a foot injury. Credit: ferrantraite/E+/GettyImages

Foot injuries are incredibly cumbersome because along with using your feet to walk, you use them in most exercises. Cardio exercises like running on the treadmill, pedaling a bike, rowing, stepping on a stair climber machine or running on an elliptical all use your feet.

Some cardio machines, such as the treadmill, will most likely be off-limits if you have a foot injury. However, that doesn't mean you have to sit at home while you recover. There are other options, depending on the type of injury you have.

Common Foot Injuries

Your feet contain bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments that are all susceptible to injury. Some injuries, like stress fractures, can be caused by the cardio routine you're already doing. Running is often a cause of stress fractures in the foot.

The metatarsal bone, one of the long bones in the foot, can fracture under the repeated stress of running, according to the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS). It's important to take time away from high-impact cardio exercise if you have a broken foot, at least until it has a chance to recover. In the meantime, you can focus on other forms of cardio that don't hurt your foot.

Ligaments in your foot and even your toes can be damaged by activity. For example, the Lisfranc ligament that crosses the middle of your foot can tear, which makes your foot unstable. This injury is common among football and soccer players, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

To protect your foot from the pounding force it receives every time you take a step, your doctor will probably have you wear a protective boot or use crutches until the injury in your foot heals. This makes exercise even more challenging, because you have to lug a clunky boot around with you.

Read more: How to Treat a Sprained or Torn Ligament in Your Foot

Staying in Shape

The idea of taking weeks or even months off from exercise is disheartening, especially if you've worked hard to get your fitness level to where it is when you're injured. Your foot injury will undoubtedly limit you in the gym, but you don't have to give up and sit on the couch until it's healed.

Weight lifting workouts are simpler than cardio exercise to adjust when you have a foot injury. Upper body exercises, such as the bench press or lat pulldown, don't require pressure on your foot. You can even do some lower body exercises like the leg extension and leg curl machine, to make sure you don't lose muscle or strength in your legs.

Unfortunately, muscular strength isn't the first thing to go when you stop training. Within the first two weeks of stopping, your VO2 max drops, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out. The VO2 max is a measurement of your aerobic capacity, which is one way of measuring your aerobic fitness. In other words, cardiovascular fitness is harder to maintain than strength if you take a break from the gym.

For that reason, it's important to make an effort to get some cardio sessions in. The best cardio exercise for a broken or injured foot should use your upper body to do most of the work without demanding much weight-bearing from your foot.

Exercise With an Injured Foot

Swimming is one of the best ways to do cardio with a foot injury. In the pool, you don't have to worry about putting weight on your foot. You can swim laps using any stroke you want, as long as there's a minimal contribution from your feet.

For example, if you do the freestyle stroke, you should pull with your arms and leave your legs and feet relaxed. Don't kick, because that puts pressure on your foot. You can also modify the backstroke and butterfly somewhat by leaving your legs relaxed.

Read more: Swimming for Beginners: Read This Before You Dive In

Swimming is a demanding form of cardiovascular exercise, which helps you stay in shape while you recover. If you don't like cardio equipment and you're looking for a more natural form of exercise, swimming is a good choice.

While it's not a common piece of gym equipment, the arm ergometer is perfect for someone with an injured foot. It doesn't require any modification, because it's completely driven by your upper body ⁠— it looks like a bike for your arms. To use the arm ergometer, you'll sit in a seat with the machine in front of you.

Grab the handles and turn them the same way your feet would turn bike pedals. Your feet should be flat on the ground the entire time, and you should be close enough to the handles that your arms are never fully locked out as you pedal.

With the arm ergometer, you can do the same style of workout you'd do with a treadmill or elliptical. You can do long-duration and low-intensity workouts or push yourself with sprint-style workouts. Because the muscles of your upper body are smaller and demand less oxygen than those in your legs, it might be more difficult to elevate your heart rate ⁠— but it's not impossible.

Modified Cardio Exercises

The row ergometer can be modified to help you do cardio with a foot injury. Sit in a rowing machine and strap your feet in. Grab the handle and straighten your legs.

Sit upright in your seat with your knees locked out. Lean forward slightly, then lean back and pull the handle in toward your chest.

There is some slight pressure on your foot, even though you're using your upper body to do all the work. This modification isn't perfect ⁠— but if your options are limited, it's better than nothing. You can wear your boot during the exercise to minimize pressure on your foot.

Battle ropes are another piece of equipment that you can use with a slight modification. Typically, you'd stand up and slam the ropes together or one at a time, using your full body to gain momentum. However, if you want to take the pressure off your foot, you can put a pad on the ground and kneel on it.

This modification might make your rope slams less powerful but it also forces your arms to work harder, which is good if you're trying to work on your upper body strength. With battle ropes, you can either do fast sprint-style intervals or take it slow and go for as long as possible.

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