A Runner's Guide to the Elliptical: How to Maximize Your Cross-Training to Minimize Your Fitness Loss During Injury

A Runner’s Guide to the Elliptical

Since I sprained my foot while hiking a few weeks ago, I’ve been spending a significant amount of time on the elliptical machine to cross-train until I am healed enough to run again. A few readers have asked me about using the elliptical for cross-training; while I’m no expert at the elliptical, this runner’s guide to the elliptical will help you maximize your workout and minimize boredom while maintaining your running specific fitness. 

A Runner's Guide to the Elliptical: How to Maximize Your Cross-Training to Minimize Your Fitness Loss During Injury

Will the Elliptical Actually Maintain My Running Fitness?

Let’s look at what the science says. You know me: objective fact beats subjective observations. The elliptical will feel different than running outside and many of us runners will feel as if we are not getting an equivalent workout. But is that based on the actual physiological effects of an elliptical workout or based on the fact that many of us runners crave the pounding of our feet on the ground and the wind in our hair?

So let’s see what science actually says:

It may not feel the same as running, and of course you won’t get quite the same benefits as with road running, but if the elliptical is your only option due to injury, you do not have to worry about losing your hard-earned running fitness.

Of course, you get what you give on the elliptical. If you slog along at a slow effort for 20 minutes, you’re not going to receive a good workout. If you push yourself to hit the right cadence, increase the resistance, and actually work out at a harder effort, then you will have a workout that is similar to running!

The Benefits of the Elliptical for Runners

  • Aerobic conditioning with a lower impact: maintain fitness while injured or increase your mileage without extra impact
  • Keeps you from going insane when you’re injured
  • Comparable to the treadmill in terms of fitness gains
  • You don’t need any special gear as you would for swimming

The elliptical appears to be rather straight-forward, but knowing a few simple tips will help you make the most of your time on the elliptical. No one wants to spend hours on that machine, so follow these tips on how to get a sweaty, heart-pumping, similar to running workout in 60 minutes or less.

A Runner’s Guide to the Elliptical

Aim for 90 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute)

The elliptical can be used to simulate a hike or a run. Obviously, the rule of specificity reigns supreme when choosing cross-training activities, especially if the cross-training is completely replacing running due to a time off from running.

Running speed is a combination of stride length and stride rate (cadence). Ideally, you want to run as closely to a 180 cadence (180 steps total per minute, or 90 per foot) for the most efficient stride. On the elliptical, then, to mimic the stride rate of running, try to get as close to 90 RPM as possible. This may take some practice and you may need to maintain just a moderate resistance (2-8) until you can master the proper cadence.

Be patient with yourself: the first couple times on the elliptical, you may find that you struggle to hit a higher RPM as you try to find the right rhythm on the machine.

Using the elliptical has shown me that I need to work on improving my cadence through the incorporation of strides and drills after I return to  running; I average about a 75-80 RPM on the elliptical. So think of the elliptical as a chance to uncover potential areas of weakness and give you a game plan for how to come back to running stronger than before. 

Vary the Resistance

You don’t want to plod along at zero resistance, but you also don’t want to spend the entire 30-60 minutes at the highest possible resistance. Remember the rule of specificity? It applies here as well.

Aim for a resistance that feels most akin to the effort you run outside. This will vary depending on whether you run flat roads, rolling hills, or trails and based on the type of workout you are aiming to complete. . So for an easy elliptical “run,” keep the resistance on the lower end and aim for 90 RPM (or as close as possible). For an interval workout, maintain 90 PRM and then bump up the incline for the “on” intervals. To mimic a tempo or steady state runs, maintain a moderate incline and 90 PRM. And for a hilly run, play with the resistance as much as you want!

Time and Effort Instead of Distance and Pace

You will likely not achieve the same pace on the elliptical as you do on the roads, and nor should you – while the elliptical is similar in its physiological effects as running, it still is different in terms of mechanics than running and you have the assistance of a machine.

Exercise on the elliptical according to time and effort rather than distance and pace. So instead of running 7 miles at an 8:30/mile pace, I’ll aim for 60 minutes at an easy effort on the elliptical. I may cover more distance on the elliptical, but that matters less than the time spent exercising in terms of equivalent workouts.

And again, the rule of specificity should determine your duration and effort: if you’re a half marathoner or marathoner trying to maintain your fitness during injury, opt for longer and easier to moderate elliptical workouts. Runners with a 5K and 10K focus should do shorter interval workouts more often on the elliptical to maintain their race-specific speed.

Stay Present in the Workout

Associative thinking applies on the elliptical as much as it does on the roads. While entertainment is great for distracting you from the fact that you are confined to a little machine inside and NOT running, you also want to remain attuned to your effort. Zoning out too much can lead to just a shuffle on the elliptical which will do nothing other than waste your time. Check in on your form, gauge your effort every few minutes, and focus on working hard. As the studies show, equivalent effort is key!

Go Virtual

The ellipticals at my apartment gym offer virtual simulations of several hiking and running trails across the globe. I set the elliptical to vary the incline (usually with a resistance of 4-8 so I can focus on my RPM and speed) and just watch the screen and pretending I’m running those trails. The visual of outdoor scenery, although on a screen, helps me feel as if I’m outdoors rather than confined to a machine.

The mind is a powerful thing, and the more you can trick your brain into thinking elliptical training is similar to outdoor running, the easier it will be for you to tolerate cross-training on the elliptical.

The only downside is that now we NEED to go to Yosemite this year. I can’t stand virtually running through it and NOT experiencing it in person. Hmmm, the California International Marathon is only 2 hours from Yosemite, and during the ideal season for avoiding crowds…

What about the Hand Bars?

Don’t use the static hand bars to stabilize yourself, as this will decrease the effectiveness of your workout. As for the moving bars? I do use them to increase my power output, but I do not rest any of my weight on them (I only loosely hold them to avoid putting any weight on them). Rather, I push and pull them while pumping my legs at a steady and fast clip for a total body workout. For me, this mimics the arm swing of a good running form while also working my upper body – which means more calorie burn.

You can also opt to not use the bars and swing your arms freely as you would running. Just don’t have a rigid or motionless upper body and be careful with your posture if you go hands-free. 

No matter what you choose, avoid leaning forward or rest your weight onto the bars. Maintain a straight back, engaged core, and strong upright posture.

When to Avoid the Elliptical:

  • If you have a stress fracture, you need to choose completely non-impact forms of cross-training such as swimming or water running.
  • Injuries such as IT band syndrome or Achilles tendonitis may be aggravated by the motions of the elliptical.
  • If it hurts, don’t do it. Plain and simple.

Elliptical Workouts

A Runner's Guide to the Elliptical: 3 Elliptical Workouts to Maintain Your Running Fitness When You're Injured

Try one of these elliptical workouts to maintain your running fitness and beat boredom at the gym! As with running, try to follow the hard-easy principle, meaning if you do a hard workout on Monday, do an easy workout on Tuesday. 

Tempo Elliptical Run

10-20 minutes easy effort at a low resistance (1-4).
20-30 minutes at a comfortably hard effort, with moderate resistance (5-10) and focus on maintaining as close to 90 RPM as possible.
10-20 minutes easy effort at low resistance (1-4).

Elliptical Intervals

10 minutes at easy effort at low resistance (1-4).
6-8 sets of: 2 minutes at hard effort with high resistance (10-15), 2 minutes at low resistance (1-4).
10 minutes easy effort at moderate resistance (3-7).

Steady State Rolling Hills

45-60 minutes at a moderate effort with resistance ranging from 3-10 and changing every 1-3 minutes. 

Meredith wrote a great post on tips and workouts for the elliptical, so be sure to reference her as well! 

Linking up with Coaches’ Corner! 

What workouts you do on the elliptical?
What’s your current favorite podcast?

What is your workout today?

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32 Responses

  1. I agree that you can get a good workout on the elliptical if you do it right! If I don’t want to be on the elliptical I tend to take it easy and not put enough effort into my workout. Those workouts looks like great options for maintaining fitness while injured!

    1. Thank you! I agree, it’s so easy to just take it at a leisurely pace on the elliptical when I don’t want to be there as well. Although having a workout makes the time go by faster!

  2. thanks for sharing my elliptical post 😉 I appreciate you researching the studies on the elliptical machine and definitely feel that you can get a great workout on the elliptical machine so long as you use it to get a great workout! some people use it as a pass to just pedal along and that’s not how to use it. gotta push ourselves, you know? I never pay attention though to my speed or the numbers in comparison to running like you say, it’s not exactly the same as running. rather, I just push myself to get a good effort workout in – that’s what matters to me when I am using it. I am glad your foot is doing better! and I am glad that throughout the foot issue, you were able to still cross train.

    1. Thank you for that helpful post! You really do have to put in the effort – it’s literally just spinning wheels if you pedal leisurely along! Thank you and I’m glad I was to – definitely kept routine feeling normal!

  3. This is an AWESOME explanation and look at the elliptical. I think my caveat is that even with as much as you can maintain on the elliptical, like with the treadmill, you can’t just go back to running the same amount on roads. You will need to transition back to roads as well to allow your muscles time to transition and start firing appropriately again.

    1. Thank you!! Oooh yes, I do think that caveat is important! Even after just a couple weeks on the elliptical I noticed it took a couple runs to feel normal on the roads again – and that was with short runs!

  4. This is awesome. I have an elliptical but I don’t use it often, pinned for later just in case I get injured anytime soon and actually have to use it 😛

  5. This is an amazing resource! I typically only go to the elliptical if I’m injured but I’ve never had a clue if it was similar to running or what type of workouts I should do. I’m hoping I won’t need this information for a while since I don’t want to be injured but definitely pinning it.

  6. Great tips! My current favourite podcast is one called “Guys we F***ed” and although it sounds AWFUL, I swear it’s not. The girls are intelligent and respectful and the discussions and interviews on there are inspiring and enlightening. It’s not what one would assume from reading the title. They should really come up with a new one.

    1. It is so nice to have the lower impact with the similar movement to running – the stationary/spin bikes just don’t feel the same. And it’s a great choice for bad weather!

  7. For me the elliptical is an occasional necessary evil :-). It’s great when I’m injured, need to workout indoors, or just need a change, but I just find it sooooo boring. I always to some type of interval workout when I do use it, because that seems to make the time go faster (especially recovery!). Pinning your workout ideas for the next time I’m stuck indoors. Thanks for linking up!

    1. Necessary evil is the perfect way to describe it! Although using it made me realize how valuable it is for adding volume without adding impact. Thank you for pinning and hosting!

  8. I was stuck on the elliptical for a couple weeks when I trained for my first half marathon, and it was SO BORING. I think I tried reading, but I can’t even read while walking so I’m not sure why I thought that would work. Pretty sure I haven’t been on an elliptical since (fingers crossed).

    1. It’s so hard to read on the elliptical! Podcasts are what have been getting me through because it is SO boring. Hopefully you don’t have to get on one anytime soon!

  9. I don’t use the elliptical hardly at all at the gym but I think I would have to have a podcast to listen too. This is a great resource, I am trying new things so this may have given me incentive to jump on!

  10. Just stumbled upon this, as I am trying to re-strengthen into running shape after 5 marathons last year but a long winter break due to torn labrum. Wanting to get back to marathon shape/endurance to pull out a BQ before this fall’s registration, but not cleared to run again just yet…any thoughts on how to mimic HM/marathon training on elliptical, in order to transfer over to the road once cleared to run? Strengthening glutes/pelvic area via PT, and finding elliptical to not induce hip pain was a godsend…but don’t want to be ‘behind’ on fitness once I’m cleared. 🙂 Thanks for this!

    1. Thanks for reading! I am sorry to hear about your labrum tear. You can use the elliptical for equivalent time and effort to mimic running workouts – for example, instead of an hour run, you can do an hour on the elliptical at the same intensity. The workouts in this post will help improve your threshold and VO2max (or at least maintain them) and you can do equivalent long runs on the elliptical…although those are more tedious but 90 minutes at a moderate intensity on the elliptical will give you a similar workout. Good luck!

  11. When using the elliptical mixed with running , do i need to factor any of the time/mileage in to my weekly running mileage?

    1. I would not consider it part of weekly running mileage but it is important to factor cross-training time into your overall training plan (which includes running volume, cross-training volume, and strength training volume). For example, if you are running three days per week and using the elliptical three days per week, count the elliptical time as cross-training, not running mileage.

  12. I just tried one for the first time, but even at level 1, my legs are moving really slowly. No where near 90. It says my mph is only 3.7. I’m very small. What am I doing wrong?

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