Choosing Non-Impact Workout Options

A spin cycle class is a great way to burn calories and get a non-impact workout.
The Caserma Ederle Gym holds many classes for fitness during COVID-19, one being the spin cycle class on Oct. 7, 2020. (Spc. Trinity Carter/U.S. Army photo)

Every week, several people email me about cardiovascular options other than running.  Running is a great cardio option. However, if your knees are injured, you are overweight or just need a break from running for a while, here are some non-impact cardio options that I prefer to do.

Swimming options

Water is a domain that is very forgiving to the joints of the body.  If you are able to swim, the workouts below are a great way to build up your heart and burn calories. These are quick, easy workouts as well as very advanced ones that I do not recommend doing alone or without a lifeguard. 

If you are a beginner, do what you can, and it may be necessary to learn a few techniques to swim more efficiently. I learned by watching swim teams practice, but there are many videos and swim instructors out there to help you.

Quick workouts

300-meter timed swim

5 x 100-meter sprint

200-meter warmup

10 x 50-meter sprints (rest 30-45 seconds)

500-meter cooldown

Repeat five times.

Sprint 100-200 meters

Tread water for one minute (no hands)

Medium workout

20 x 25-meter sprints

Rest 10-15 seconds  

10 x 50-meter sprints

Rest 20-30 seconds

100-meter pyramid

Swim 100 meters (keep pace between 1:20-1:40 for all)

Rest 30 seconds

Swim 100 meters

Rest 30 seconds

Swim 100 meters

Rest 30 seconds

Swim 100 meters

Rest 30 seconds

Swim 100 meters

Rest 40 seconds

Sprint 100 meters - ______?

Repeat in reverse order but rest with 50 meters of a slow swim/breaststroke/backstroke, etc. 

Longer workout

500-meter warmup

5 x 100-meter sprints

5 x 50-meter kickboard

5 x 50-meter arm pull only

Swim 500-2,000 meters with or without fins nonstop

Prep for BUD/S

One-mile swim with fins


Two-mile swim with fins

Getting harder hypoxic

Swim 100 meters: 4 strokes/breath

Swim 200 meters: 6 strokes/breath

Swim 300 meters: 8 strokes/breath

Do PT for five minutes (push-ups/abs)

Swim 4 x 100 meters at 8-10 strokes/breath

Rest 30 seconds each 100m

Do PT for five minutes (push-ups/abs)

Hypoxic workout

Swim 300-500 meters

4 strokes per breath

6 strokes per breath

8 strokes per breath

Total distance 900-1,500 meters

Keep going if you wish, then repeat in reverse order (rest optional for 20-30 seconds in between). You should strive for about 1,000 meters.

One of my favorite bike workouts is the stationary bike pyramid. You can do this on an elliptical machine as well.

Bike pyramid

Start -- Level 1 on manual mode for one minute and keep the RPMs at 80-100. After each minute that passes, increase the resistance by one level. Continue this process until you are having difficulty breathing and/or pedaling. When you get really good at this, you can take the bike to level 20. 

Then repeat the cycle in reverse order.  So you have a warmup -- max out -- cooldown all rolled into one nice package. This workout will take about 40 minutes if you are that advanced, but if you only can get up to level 10 and back to level 1, your time investment is only 19 minutes. I do the same on an elliptical machine but find that increasing by two or three levels each minute makes it more challenging. A spinning class also is a killer workout and one of the best ways to burn calories with a group of people.

Getting outside on a real bike can be another way to get cardiovascular workouts. Make sure you have a safe place to ride.


If you have never ridden a rowing machine, also known as an ergometer, it is tough and a great full-body workout. I always wondered why so many guys who rowed for their sport went on to SEAL training and did very well. It is one tough cardiovascular exercise. My swim buddy, Alden Mills of, was team captain of the Navy heavyweight crew team and, at 230 pounds, could crank out 30 pull-ups. That is what rowing can do for you, but if you are seeking just a great non-impact cardio exercise, rowing may be right for you. Machines like Concept 2 or the Vasa Trainer have programs that challenge you and keep your interest.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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