What is low impact training?
Impact training describes forms of exercise where there is high force transmission through the body, via the legs, arms, trunk or head and neck. Impact training can be good for us as it helps our
bones strengthen and promotes muscular development. This is required during childhood when we are growing and throughout adulthood to maintain good bone and muscle density
(particularly over the age of 50).
However, too much training that involves repetitive contact with the ground or other objectives, thus creating high reaction forces, coupled with inadequate recovery time, can be harmful to our
bodies. Higher impact training activities include running, contact sports and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Getting the balance between low and high impact training is therefore important in order to maintain a healthy musculoskeletal system.
How can excessive high impact training affect us?
Excessive high impact or loading typical causes injury to our joints, bones, tendons and muscles. Common injuries may include bone stress injury, tendinitis and overload syndromes. Depending on the type of high impact training this may affect our:
(feet, ankles, legs and hips)
High impact exercises such as running, football and activities that involve jumping are relevant here.
(shoulders, arms, wrists and hands)
Activities such as racket sports, climbing, diving and gymnastics may produce high impact forces and therefore lead to injury.
(spine, head and neck)
Contact sports such as rugby or those sports that require excessive rotation of the spine (e.g. golf) are applicable here.
How can low impact training help us?
Low impact training, on the other hand, has little or no force transmission through the body whilst being performed. This is useful when we are trying to offload, protect or recover.
There are lots of times when introducing and incorporating low impact training into our exercise regimes may help. Below, we describe three common scenarios where low impact training is very useful.
Scenario 1 – Protecting joints
Although most forms of exercise are great for our joints, sometimes we can cause more pain or injury when the impact or intensity is too high. A common example of this is in people with osteoarthritis (wear and tear) of their joints, particularly the knees. Low impact training can provide the right environment for joints that may need protecting, whilst ensuring we are able to continue to work them out, keeping them healthy and supple.
Scenario 2 – Healing after injury
Some injuries, e.g. stress injuries or fractures, require time away from high impact training to heal. Low impact training can provide enough stimulation through the bone to encourage healing, but not too much force so that healing is disrupted.
Scenario 3 – As a recovery strategy
Incorporating low impact exercise into your training can reduce the overall “training load” across the week. Low impact training can also be used as a “recovery or rest session” after higher intensity training.
Types of low impact training
An easy rule of thumb to follow in order to keep training low impact is to “keep your feet on the ground or platform” (not applicable for pool-based training). This means avoiding stepping, jumping or running.
Pool based low impact training
Pool-based exercise (e.g. aquarobics) provides a minimal impact environment, but also a high resistance environment. The level of resistance provided by the water can be easily changed by the level of the water exercised (a higher water level creates more resistance). This means that we can exercise our joints and muscles in a safe environment whilst getting a great strength and cardiovascular workout.
Cardiovascular low impact training
It is certainly still possible to get a good cardiovascular workout whilst maintaining low impact. The following are examples of cardiovascular exercises that can be performed safely in all 3 of the above scenarios:
- Static or outdoor cycling
- Cross-training (elliptical machine)
- Arm bike
Please note that if any of the above exercises are done excessively, they may also lead to overuse injury.
Strength-based low impact training
The following are examples of strength-based exercises that can be performed with low impact and can be applied in all three of the above scenarios:
- Lower limb open chain exercises. These are exercises where your feet are not in contact with the ground or a platform. Examples include knee extensions and hamstring curls.
- Lower limb closed chain exercises. These are exercises where your feet are in contact with the ground or a platform. Examples include leg press, squats, deadlifting and calf raises.
- Upper body weighted workouts. Most upper body training does not put force through the lower limbs but can be traumatic for the upper limbs and spine.
Please note that if any of the above exercises are done excessively, they may also lead to injury.
Sports-based low impact training
Most sports require some element of high impact training. However, it may be possible to adapt your chosen sport to reduce the level of impact sustained. Below are some examples of sports that are more low impact based:
- Swimming. Particularly when combined with other pool-based exercises, swimming provides one of the best environments for exercise, recovery and healing. The hydrostatic pressure of the water also helps our joints, muscles and tendons stay healthy and recover quicker.
- Pilates and Yoga. Both these exercise modalities are low impact on the body and great for improving core strength and ﬂexibility. Strategies such as massage and foam rolling also help reduce muscle tension and reduce pressure on our joints.
- Golf. Golf is a great recreational sport that allows us to exercise without putting much force through the lower limbs. However, when played at a higher level, golf can produce larger force transmission through the hips, pelvis and spine.
- Nordic walking. The use of Nordic walking poles can help distribute ground reaction forces throughout all four limbs. This is particularly useful for people with lower-limb joint pain e.g. knee arthritis, who still want to keep active.
- Soft surface training. Some training surfaces are much more forgiving on the body than others and can allow you to continue exercising in an adapted training environment. These include carpet, grass, sand, trampoline/trampette, cushioned ﬂoor (e.g., gymnastics matt), sprung ﬂoor/platform, and aeroﬂoor.
- Hand-eye coordination sports. Sports that continue to develop hand-eye coordination may be a good alternative when trying to reduce the amount of impact going through the body. Examples include Frisbee, throwing and catching, Darts and Snooker.
How long do I need to continue low impact training for?
This depends on the extent of your injury or illness. It may be appropriate for you to switch your training completely to low impact training, for example, to protect joints. If this is the case, you will certainly not be at a disadvantage as you will still be able to have a robust and well-rounded training programme which includes strength, ﬂexibility and cardiovascular training.
If you are recovering from an injury (e.g. stress fracture), please consult with your LBSM physician as to when and how it is appropriate to reintroduce higher impact training.
Ultimately, having a well-rounded, balanced training plan is the best way of maximising your performance and reducing the risk of injury.