Don't Play Through the Pain: Alternative Exercises for Injured People

No one wants to take a break when they are injured. Time away from your sport or activity means missing something you enjoy along with its health benefits. But you should also not ignore your injuries. Here's how you can stay active and not make your injury worse.

Time to Heal

Most injuries need time to heal, but time can be the hardest thing for an athlete to give.

The key to healing is patience. Going back to sports or activities too soon can make your injury worse. You should only go back to your sport when your doctor, trainer, or physical therapist says it is safe.

Other Exercises

There are other activities that will let you rest the injured area while still getting exercise. You just might find a few new ones to love. Here are just a few:

Ankle Injuries
An ankle sprain can cause time out from many sports and activities. You can keep fit by doing things that rely on the upper body, such as rowing.

You can also do strength training exercises like leg curls or leg extensions. Just make sure you do not put stress on your ankle.

Knee Injuries
Knee injuries can be serious. Trying to keep going when you have one could make it worse or result in lasting damage. Talk to your doctor or trainer to find out if cycling or riding a recumbent bike will make your injury worse. If not, these might be good activities, because they take the weight off your legs. If your knee injury is more serious, think about jumping into the pool for a workout.

Pulled Muscles
Trying to play through a pulled muscle or tendon is tempting. You may not feel the injury as much when your muscles warm up. It is better to take a break.

Hamstring injuries are very common, often because of fast starting, stopping, or a change of direction. If you pull a muscle, you need to let it rest. Follow RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) to ease symptoms.

One way to work up a sweat using only upper body muscles is to toss around a medicine ball with a partner. Toss it back and forth for 20 or 30 minutes without running around. You will workout using your abs and shoulder muscles.

Achilles Tendinopathy
An aching Achilles tendinopathy has caused problems for many athletes. So, if you feel pain, do not ignore it. Take a break from all sports that make it worse, such as running or activities that involve running. Using a rowing machine is a good way to stay fit while resting your Achilles tendon. You may be able to use an elliptical trainer as well.

Tennis Elbow
Players of racquet sports know about elbow pain. If tennis elbow starts to get in the way of your sport, take time off to let the injury heal. You can keep running and doing interval training, such as adding plenty of short bursts of speed and side-to-side movements to stay in top tennis shape.

Shoulder Injuries
Hurting your shoulder can make it hard to do many sports. You do not want to serve, swim, swing, or throw with a shoulder injury. It may even hurt to swing your arms when running.

Do not do any overhead movements or put your arm in a position that causes pain. You can return to your sport when your doctor, trainer, or physical therapist says it is safe. Do as much lower-body weight training as you are able. Try running, cycling, stair climbing, and even rowing.

When You Cannot Run

Running is the basis of many fitness programs. It produces effective cardiovascular results. But it is also an activity that you may need to stop when you have a sports injury. You cannot mimic the effects of running, but you can come close by using a stair climber or elliptical trainer.

Circuit training also helps runners who are taking time off the road. Have 10 or 12 weight machines that you want to use and go through them in a pattern. Do one set on each machine with less weight than you would usually use.

There are many more safe and effective exercises you can do when injured. You may need to try a number of them to find the right one. Working with a physical therapist or personal trainer may help.


American College of Sports Medicine
National Strength and Conditioning Association


Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology


Basic knee injury prevention. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at:
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Accessed June 23, 2021.
Resistance training and injury prevention. American College of Sports Medicine website. Available at: Accessed June 23, 2021.
What are sports injuries? National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases website. Available at: Accessed June 23, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/23/2021

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