From twisted ankles to shin splints, various acute and chronic injuries can interfere with your cardio workouts and prevent you from reaching your goals.
Cardio injuries may be acute or chronic.
Acute injuries come on suddenly, such as a sprained ankle when you step off the curb. Chronic injuries, such as tendonitis, occur gradually over time.
Importance of Addressing Cardio Injuries
You can avoid many cardio injuries (or, at the very least, lessen their severity) with adequate knowledge of their causes and effective preventative techniques.
The more you know, the less likely you are to struggle with these injuries, and the easier it will be to progress in your cardio activity of choice.
Who Can Benefit from This Guide?
Anyone who regularly does cardiovascular exercise, from runners and cyclists to step aerobics enthusiasts, can benefit from this guide. Use the information below to stay safe during your cardio workouts and see better results.
Understanding Cardio Injuries
A cardio injury occurs during a cardiovascular workout. For example, say you get a stress fracture in your foot while running. That would be considered a cardio injury.
Types of Cardio Injuries
The following are some of the most common cardio injuries you might experience:
Muscle strains occur when you over-stretch a muscle. They often affect the ankles, calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and groin.
Muscle sprains occur when you over-stretch or tear the ligaments surrounding a joint. The ankle is the most commonly sprained joint.
Also known as patellofemoral syndrome, runner’s knee is an overuse injury that often happens when the kneecap is misaligned. It involves worn-down cartilage (connective tissue that protects the bones and joints) on the kneecap.
The knee joint and bones are less protected when this cartilage wears down. This lack of protection contributes to pain when climbing or walking down the stairs, squatting, or sitting with a bent knee for an extended period.
A stress fracture is a small crack in a bone. It often affects the shins and feet, especially in runners, dancers, and others who spend a lot of time running, jumping, etc.
Also known as medial tibial stress syndrome (MTSS), shin splints involve tibia or shin bone pain. This injury often results from overworked muscles, tendons, and bones and occurs in those who recently changed or intensified a training regimen.
Also known as tendinitis, tendinopathy affects the tendons, which connect muscles to bones. You’ll experience pain, burning, and stiffness when tendons become damaged and inflamed.
Tendinopathy can affect many tendons in the body, but it’s particularly common in the Achilles tendon, which attaches the calf muscles to the back of your heel.
Plantar fasciitis involves inflammation in the tissue on the bottom of the foot that stretches from the toes to the heel. This tissue is known as the plantar fascia.
Iliotibial (IT) Band Syndrome
The iliotibial (IT) band is a ligament (which connects bones to other bones) that extends from the top of the hip to the outside of the knee and runs along the outer thigh. IT band syndrome occurs when the IT band thickens and rubs against the knee bone, resulting in inflammation.
Blisters might not be as severe as other injuries on this list, but they can still be painful and prevent you from performing at your best.
Blisters are fluid-filled sacks caused by friction between the skin and another surface (often the shoes or socks).
If you do cardio workouts outside (such as walking, running, cycling, etc.), you may be more vulnerable to temperature-related injuries, such as heat stroke or hypothermia.
Risk Factors for Cardio Injuries
Anyone can experience cardiovascular injuries. However, there are some behaviors that will put you at higher risk for cardio injuries:
- Not warming up properly (or at all)
- Repeating the same motions throughout workouts
- Not understanding proper exercise form
- Not getting sufficient rest between workouts
- Overexerting during workouts
- Taking on activities that are too strenuous for current fitness level
- Not using the proper equipment during their workouts
If any of those situations sound familiar, you might be more likely to deal with a cardio injury.
Common Causes of Cardio Injuries
No matter how skilled you are, several issues can cause cardio injuries.
Overexertion and Overworking Your Heart
Generally, cardiovascular exercise is good for your heart. It strengthens the cardiovascular system and reduces your risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. However, it’s also possible to push yourself too hard and overwork your heart.
When you overexert yourself, your body produces a massive amount of adrenaline, leading to elevated blood pressure and heart rate. If your blood pressure and heart rate rise too much, too quickly, you could experience a heart attack.
Poor Technique and Form for Cardio Exercises
When people think about exercise injuries resulting from poor form, they often picture someone lifting too much weight or doing a strength training exercise incorrectly.
Poor technique and form during cardio can also cause injuries, though. For example, running with your head protruding forward makes you more prone to neck pain.
Incorrect Use of Equipment
Do you run on a treadmill, ride a bicycle, walk on a stair climber machine, or use other equipment during your cardio workout?
If so, you must learn how the equipment works and how to use it correctly. Otherwise, you increase your risk of injuries (trips, falls, posture-related injuries, etc.).
Inadequate Warm-Up and Cool-Down
If you jump into a workout without warming up or return to regular activities without cooling down, your chances of getting hurt increase.
For example, you may be more likely to experience muscle strains or sprains if you don’t warm up before running. You may also be more prone to soreness and muscle strain if you don’t cool down or stretch afterward.
How to Avoid Overworking Your Heart
Don’t let the risk of overworking your heart stop you from working out.
According to Dr. Elizabeth Dineen, an assistant professor of cardiology at UC Irvine, those who don’t exercise regularly have a “way higher” baseline risk of a heart attack than those who are habitually active.
Sufficient knowledge and preparation can help you protect your heart during cardio workouts. Start by implementing the tips and suggestions discussed below.
Understanding Your Heart Rate Zones
Heart rate zones are percentages of a person’s maximum heart rate (measured in beats per minute).
If you exercise too close to your maximum heart rate, you’ll struggle to keep up with the physical demand and be more likely to hurt yourself.
The American College of Sports Medicine divides heart rates zones into the following groups:
- Very light exercise: Below 57%
- Light: 57-63%
- Moderate: 64-76%
- Vigorous: 77-95%
- Near Maximal to Maximal: Greater than 96%
To identify your maximum heart rate, the Centers for Disease Control recommends subtracting your age from the number 220.
If you’re 35, your maximum heart rate would be 185 beats per minute. Your target heart rate for moderate exercise would be between 118 and 150 beats per minute.
Monitoring Your Heart Rate During Exercise
The easiest way to ensure you stay within your target range is to monitor your heart rate.
Many wearable fitness trackers or smart watches include built-in heart rate monitors. You can also buy one that straps around your chest (some people find that this type provides a more accurate number).
Gradually work up to your target heart rate zone to avoid overworking your heart.
In other words, don’t hop on the treadmill and start sprinting immediately. Instead, start with a brisk walk, then increase to a jog, then a faster run.
When you’re in a rush, you might feel tempted to avoid easing in and get straight to the primary part of your workout. However, this approach puts more stress on your heart and increases your risk of other types of injuries.
Proper Technique and Form for Cardio Exercises
Proper technique and form will help you stay safe during cardio workouts. Whether you’re running or swimming, these general guidelines apply to all types of cardio.
Correct Posture and Alignment
When running, walking, or doing aerobics (and other forms of cardio that keep you on your feet), correct posture and alignment typically involve the following:
- Head up, directly over the neck, looking straight forward
- Back straight
- Shoulders level, stacked over the hips and under the ears to keep your pelvis in a neutral position
When you get tired, you may start to lean forward or backward at the waist. Avoid doing this, though, as it can put extra strain on your shoulders, neck, and lower back.
Proper Breathing Techniques
Proper breathing also helps you avoid over-taxing yourself while exercising.
Proper breathing generally entails inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. This approach helps deliver oxygen to your brain and body, providing more energy and allowing you to push farther before you feel fatigued.
Visualizing the Muscles You're Using
A solid mind-muscle connection can reduce your risk of injury and help you see better results from your workouts.
Connecting the mind and muscles during a cardio workout might involve visualizing the leg muscles working as you run or thinking about the back and leg muscles working while you use a rowing machine.
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Choosing the Right Equipment and Footwear
Quality, properly-fitting equipment and footwear will make your workouts more enjoyable and safer. This information will help you ensure you’re choosing the right products.
Importance of Proper Equipment and Footwear
If you’re considering buying cardio equipment (such as a bike or a treadmill for your home gym), you must research to ensure you choose the best options for your specific exercise needs.
For example, say you’re using a bike that’s the wrong height. You might experience lower back while riding.
You need to choose the proper footwear for your activity of choice. The best shoes for running are likely not the same shoes you’ll need for cycling or hiking. Make sure you have activity-appropriate shoes that fit correctly and provide sufficient support.
Tips for Selecting the Right Equipment
Not sure what to look for when shopping for cardio equipment? Consider the following:
Space requirements: Will the equipment fit in your workout area?
Budget: How much can you afford to spend?
Goals and Interests: What kind of exercise do you want to do, and what are you trying to accomplish? For example, do you want a treadmill to work on increasing your running speed?
Warranty: Look for equipment with a warranty so you can get repairs paid for or your money back if something goes wrong.
Comfort: Make sure the equipment is made for someone of your height and stature; otherwise, it will likely be uncomfortable to use consistently, increasing your injury risk and decreasing your chances of reaching your goals.
The Importance of Proper Warm-Up and Cool-Down
If you dive straight into a workout without a proper warm-up, your chances of an injury increase. The same goes for skipping your post-workout cool-down. Learn strategies for better warm-ups and cool-downs below.
The Purpose of Warm-Up and Cool-Down
A warm-up prepares your muscles and joints for an upcoming workout.
It gets blood flowing throughout the body to reduce your injury risk. It also gives you a chance to get focused on the workout and strengthen your mind-muscle connection.
As for cool-downs, the purpose is to bring your heart rate down gradually and catch your breath before getting on with your day. A cool-down typically involves stretching to promote relaxation and help prevent muscle strain.
Dynamic Warm-Up Exercises
Most warm-ups involve a series of dynamic exercises. Dynamic warm-up exercises are compound movements (meaning they use multiple muscle groups) like bodyweight squats or step-ups performed relatively quickly.
Rather than holding a stretch for several seconds (static stretching), you’ll move continuously to increase your heart rate and blood flow while addressing the muscles you’ll use during your workout.
Static Stretching Techniques
Static stretching involves holding a stretch for an extended period (the American College of Sports Medicine recommends 15-30 seconds). These stretches are done at the end of the workout to lower the heart rate after more intense exercise and can help to improve flexibility and range of motion.
Avoiding Cardio Injuries with a Balanced Workout Routine
Cardio injuries, especially chronic ones, often result from an imbalanced workout routine. If you do a lot of cardio and don’t balance it with strength training, your chances of getting hurt increase.
Importance of a Balanced Workout Routine
If you exclusively do cardiovascular exercise, or if it’s the main component of your workout routine, you might be more prone to injuries.
Say you run six days per week. You’re using a variety of muscles, including your hip flexors, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
If you don’t take time to strengthen these muscles, they may fail you eventually, especially when you try to increase your speed or distance.
By incorporating regular strength training into your routine (for example, you might run four days per week and dedicate two days to strength training), you can create more balance and reduce your chances of getting hurt during your runs.
Check out our article on Best Cross-Training for Runners for more ideas on how to vary your workouts.
Incorporating Variety in Your Cardio Routine
You might also be more injury prone if you regularly do the same type of workout.
For example, if you run five miles six days per week, you might not be giving your body enough time to recover, increasing your injury risk. You may also struggle to see progress in your running speed or stamina.
Varying your cardio routine gives you opportunities to challenge yourself. It also makes more room for recovery so you can push yourself harder during certain workouts.
Significance of Cross-Training
Cross-training involves combining multiple types of exercise (cardio, strength training, balance training, stretching, etc.). When you prioritize cross-training, you’re less likely to neglect specific muscle groups or types of exercise that could reduce your injury risk.
For example, many athletes neglect stretching and balance training. This neglect can impact their range of motion and stability (which, in turn, hinders their performance while doing cardio or strength exercises).
Check out our article on Best Cross-Training Workouts for ideas on cross-training exercises that you can incorporate into your routine.
Recovery and Resting After a Cardio Workout
Sufficient rest is also vital to your safety. Without giving your body enough time to recover after training, you’ll be more prone to injuries and may struggle to make progress toward your goals. Find out why below.
Importance of Recovery and Resting
Recovery and rest are vital to preventing injuries and improving your performance.
If you don’t allow yourself to rest after a tough run or intense swimming session, you’re not giving your body the time it needs to repair the damage your muscles sustained during that workout.
As a result, you may experience more soreness and stiffness. You may also struggle to perform your best during subsequent workouts.
Active Recovery Techniques
Recovery doesn’t mean laying on the couch and doing nothing. You can utilize many active recovery techniques, such as light walking, stretching, and yoga.
Remember that gently moving your body will increase blood flow, which helps to remove waste products from the muscles and deliver nutrients required for recovery.
Rest Days and Adequate Sleep
In addition to active recovery, it’s also crucial that you take rest days and get adequate sleep.
When you sleep, your body does most of its repair work. If you’re not resting enough, you’ll likely experience more muscle soreness and take longer to recover.
Long-term, poor sleep can also interfere with your performance and make you more prone to injuries.
Reducing the Risk of Cardio Injuries Through a Healthy Lifestyle
Not all injury prevention techniques have to do directly with your workouts. A generally healthy lifestyle will also protect you.
Importance of a Healthy Lifestyle
Exercise is just one component of a healthy lifestyle. Healthy living also involves diet, sleep, emotional well-being, and relationships.
If you’re neglecting these other essential areas, it doesn’t matter how often you exercise or how carefully you balance your workout routine. You could still get hurt.
Proper Nutrition and Hydration
Say you exercise regularly but don’t eat nutritious food, drink enough water, or eat enough calories. You may experience more injuries because your body doesn’t have the nutrients and energy needed to help you power through during or rebuild after strenuous workouts.
If you’re overly stressed or distracted while working out, you may be at higher risk for injury. If you’re struggling with your mind and body connection, you could be more likely to get hurt because you’re not paying attention to the muscles you’re using during your workout. Being present and focused is key.
Advice from Experts in Cardio Health and Fitness
Getting advice and guidance from professionals and experienced athletes can help you avoid making mistakes that could lead to injuries.
Seeking Professional Help
Talk to your physician, a sports medicine doctor, or a personal trainer. They can help you evaluate your routine, identify areas that need improvement, and teach you exercises and techniques that increase your safety while exercising.
Fitness and Health Communities
Consider joining fitness and health communities online or in your area, too. Being part of these communities will allow you to learn from other athletes, including those who have been training longer than you and have discovered (likely from experience) how to stay safe while exercising.
Cardio injuries can result from numerous issues, from poor posture and form to insufficient rest. If you follow the above guidelines, you can avoid them and stay safe while exercising.
Recap of Key Points
- Cardio injuries occur during cardiovascular workouts like running, hiking, dancing, and swimming.
- These injuries come in several forms, including strains, sprains, stress fractures, and tendinopathy.
- Anyone can experience cardio injuries, but they often affect those who don’t warm up properly, don’t use the proper form, or don’t use the appropriate equipment.
- Some common causes of cardio injuries include overexertion, improper warm-ups and cool-downs, improper equipment or footwear, a lack of balance in one’s routine, and insufficient recovery.
- A healthy lifestyle and consultation with experts can help you protect yourself from cardio injuries and see better results from your workouts.
Final Tips and Takeaways
Cardio exercise is an integral part of an effective workout routine. As long as you balance it with other workouts, such as strength training, balance training, and stretching -- you’ll have a good chance of staying safe and reaping all its benefits.
Encouragement to Maintain Cardio Health
Remember that cardiovascular exercise is essential to a healthy heart, lungs, immune system, and more.
Don’t let the fear of cardio injuries prevent you from participating in your favorite activities. Instead, use this information to stay safe, make more progress, and ensure you can keep up with your cardio long-term.
More Cardio Advice from GymBird Experts
- What is Cardio?
- Cardio for Beginners
- Best Cardio Workouts
- 5 Cardio Workouts at Home
- Cardio Workouts for Runners
- Cardio with Weights
- Cardio vs HIIT
- Cardio vs. Walking
- Is Cardio Aerobic or Anaerobic?
- Top Cardio Benefits