5 Running Alternatives for People with Knee Problems

5 Running Alternatives for People with Knee Problems

Posted on 11. Jul, 2010 by in Uncategorized

As a fitness trainer who trains people with different backgrounds and walks of life, I have to be able to modify exercises in varying situations. A common issue that I see in a lot of my current clients is having knee problems due to past injury, arthritis, and other causes. Due to these issues, they can not perform certain exercises like running or jumping because either it hurts their knees or it would just be a bad idea because doing those exercises can aggravate the issues they’re already having.

So, I’ve compiled 5 different options that you can do if you are one of those people who do not want to further worsen your knee problems. This article can also help those people who are looking for an alternative to running which we all should do to avoid overuse injuries.

Alternative #1: The Rowing Machine

The rowing machine is the first one on this list because it provides a great, total body cardiovascular exercise and helps burn a ton of calories without causing knee joint problems later on. Because you are using mostly your upper body in this exercise, it is considered a low impact exercise. Many women can also benefit to switching to rowing instead of running because it helps increase your upper body strength which many women fitness begginers seem to lack. Plus, it will help give you a nice, toned look to your back when you wear back baring tops during the summer.


The rowing machines are usually empty when I go to the gym which is another benefit to using them – easy access. If you would rather use it at home, there are many simple and cheap rowing machines available in the market.

Alternative #2: The Stairmaster

Depending on what your knee problems are, the stairmaster provides simiar cardiovascular benefits compared to the treadmill if not better. However, some people may have trouble using these machines because of the angle that it puts your knees in during the stair climb. Even if it is low impact, make sure that your knees will fair well when you step up to each stair step. When in doubt, avoid using it.

For those people who can use the stairmaster, you can do interval training on it by varying time and intensity which is far easier to manipulate compared to the treadmill.

Alternative #3: Kettlebell Swings

I would have put this on #1 if not for the proper skills you will need in learning this movement. Kettlebells swings may seem so easy to do but a lot of people tend to have a difficult time executing this exercise properly even with proper instructions. It takes a few sessions with a certified kettlebell instructor and enough practice on your own to get this movement right.

Once you know how to properly perform kettlebell swings, you can get an amazing cardiovascular workout with one kettlebell in as little as 20 minutes a day. In addition to strengthening your core and your back, swings can also give your butt a nice, toned, lifted look that a lot of us are after. This exercise puts little to no impact on your knees and almost anyone can perform this exercise.

Alternative #4: Stationary Bikes

There are a few types of bikes that can be found at your local gym. These can range from stationary, upright, or indoor cycling bikes. Which one you choose depends on the angle that your knees can take. One thing you also have to keep in mind is the position of your back when sitting on the bike. The indoor cycling bikes, the ones that are used for spinning classes, are probably the ones that best mimic biking outdoors because of the many settings you can use to change your intensity. The stationary bikes provides the most back support because you can sit on it as if you’re sitting on a regular chair.


[A typical indoor cycling bike. Photo by Global Fitness]

One thing to note is you can still perform high and low intensity intervals on whichever bike you choose. Again, these are great low impact alternatives compared to running which helps your joints last longer.

Alternative #5: Walking Uphill

If you do not care to buy fancy equipment and you can not run, walking uphill beats walking on level ground. By walking uphill, you can increase strength in your lower body as it provides some resistance as you walk while also giving your heart enough challenge to give you cardiovascular fitness. You can do interval style training by walking uphill for the high intensity part and then walking downhill for your recovery period part of the workout.

As you can see, there are many options available to you even if you have bad knees. It is just a matter of finding what works for your specific situation. In the future, I will discuss exercise modifications for people with knee issues.

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  • I have that exact problem its very frustrating being limited to certain exercises!
    Due to an old sports injury I can't turn quickly and my knee locks up … I tried swimming, running on sand and grass but still my knee swellsup but thanks for the idea on kettle bells, i will try them out in the near future and see how that goes!

  • AnnaDornier

    Raymond, yep, kettlebell swings may be a great option for you. Let me know
    how it goes.


  • I used to be a marathon runner until, during training, I messed up my knee pretty bad. It ended my days of distance running but fortunately I can still do weight training and sprints. Good stuff here to make sure that everyone has no excuses!

  • Anna,
    What are your thoughts on an elliptical as a running alternative? I've found it to be pretty low impact. However, getting the right elliptical is a big deal as I've been on some (front drive mainly) that just don't allow for a high intensity workout.

  • AnnaDornier

    Dave, I don't really see the elliptical as an alternative to running 🙂 I
    don't like them because I they feel awkward and, as you've said, it's hard
    to get a high intensity workout on them. But, if it will get people with bad
    knees to have some exercise, it's still not a bad option.

  • FitXcel

    I love the rowing machine. I just wish my gym had one. Good to see the inclusion of a spin bike. LOVE those!


  • AnnaDornier

    Drew, yep, rowing is a good one especially since most people tend to weaker
    on their upper body. It's a great equipment to balance us out. Spin bikes
    are great. I've used them while in class – fun!


  • I disagree that its hard to get a high intensity workout from them. In fact, the elliptical is my machine of choice when it comes to HIIT.

  • AnnaDornier

    Disagreement is good. If it works for you then it's fine. This is from my
    opinion and personal experience. Thanks for stopping by!

  • I've never really thought about the rowing machine before, but you're right, its a full body workout. I'm going to include that in my workouts starting this week. I'm excited to try it, I imagine I'll be sore since I'm not used to the motion. Great idea

  • I'm glad you like it, Alejandro. Yes, you may be sore but that's a good sign
    that you're working your muscles a little harder 🙂 but you probably already
    know that.


  • These are great ideas. I know a lot of people who have problems with their knees. My Mother has a lot of difficulty with exercising. This information will really help her! Thanks!

    Mrs. White

  • Glad to help, Mrs. White.


  • Collegiate Rower

    Great ideas, but just a head's up, rowing is not a mostly upper body exercise. Most of the power comes from the legs; in fact, the weakest part of the stroke is the use of the arms. You're supposed to just let the arms hang off the bar. But it is great for those who can't run because of their knees. I've had problems with my knees over the years due to my sports and I find rowing never hurts my knees. 🙂

  • Thanks for the input. Now that I think about it, it really does make sense

    that the power comes from the legs. I guess it would be more efficient that



  • Kasey

    Thanks for this article. I have been diagnosed with every knee problem (patella femur degeneration, OA, meniscus tears, loose ligaments, etc) and am desperate to avoid the total knee replacement I’ve been told that I need. Because of the limitations I’ve accepted in order to avoid surgery, I can no longer run or jump as part of exercising – which makes it hard to lose the weight that makes things worse for my knees! As a former runner and collegiate track athlete, I find it difficult to reach a level of intensity that is comparable to running – and, oh, how I hate swimming which is always the standard response. Hadn’t considered a rowing machine, but I’m now on the market for one! 🙂

  • You’re welcome, Kasey. I’m glad to help!

  • jelestu

    I am in your same situation. I perform the rowing maching and the elliptical but what has helped me the most is DDP yoga! Try it. My knees are so much better.