Elliptical Running: A Cross-Training Guide for Runners

Elliptical Cross-training for Runners (Plus 3 Elliptical Workouts!)

While most runners primarily run as their training, cross-training workouts have a valuable place in a running plan. Cross-training allows runners to add extra aerobic volume with a lower risk of injury. If a runner is injured, cross-training can be part of the rehabilitation plan to maintain aerobic fitness. The elliptical is a popular cross-training tool for runners. This article guides you through how to use the elliptical as part of your run training and provides sample elliptical workouts for runners.

Elliptical vs Running

Is the elliptical the same as running? The elliptical is a gym machine that mimics the motion of running. However, the elliptical is not the same as running. Instead, the elliptical machine serves as cross-training for runners. If you are unable to run, the elliptical is a training alternative. Likewise, cross-training on the elliptical can help some runners safely increase their aerobic training volume.

The elliptical is different than running for your musculoskeletal system. While heart rate and oxygen consumption can be similar between the elliptical and running, you stress your muscles and bones differently. The elliptical is low-impact exercise, since the machine guides the movement. Running is a high-impact exercise, since your feet repeatedly contact the ground. The low-impact nature of the elliptical is why it is so safe for injured or injury-prone runners.

While the elliptical can be used for cross-training, you do not want to use it entirely to replace running. If you are preparing for a race (especially a long one like a marathon or half marathon), you want to stress your musculoskeletal system in training. If you trained for an entire race on the elliptical, without much running, your muscles would fatigue very early on race day due to not being adapted to that high of biomechanical stress.

Is Elliptical Cross-training for Runners Effective?

Does the elliptical help with running? Runners cross-train for multiple reasons. Some runners cross-train to mitigate injury risk. For example, injury-prone runners may run three days per week and cross-train two to three days. Some runners use cross-training to increase training volume via twice-per-day workouts. Other runners cross-train to maintain fitness when injured or burnt out from running.

The elliptical is one form of aerobic cross-training. Most gyms will have elliptical machines. It is more accessible and easier to learn than swimming or Nordic skiing. The motion patterns of the elliptical mimic those of running. The combination of the motion patterns make it an effective form of cross-training for running.

At the same rate of perceived exertion (RPE), oxygen consumption was similar on the elliptical trainer as on the treadmill, according to a 2010 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. However, heart rate was higher on the elliptical than on the treadmill. The researchers theorized this was due to over-reliance on the machine for arm support, as less arm movement can elevate heart rate. The researchers also noted that increased pedaling speed is important for maintaining higher oxygen consumption rates on the elliptical.

The elliptical will feel different than running outside. As a result, it may not feel like you are getting an equivalent workout to running. However, feeling and actual physiological benefits can differ, especially when comparing activities with different degrees of weight-bearing.

Will the Elliptical Maintain Running Fitness When Injured?

The elliptical will not feel the same as running for the exact reason that it is beneficial for cross-training: it is lower impact. However, it will help maintain aerobic fitness while injured and unable to run.

When looking at maintaining running fitness during an injury, you want to consider all aspects of fitness. Running fitness is multifactorial, including aerobic capacity, muscle activity, and neural adaptation. A cross-training modality specific to running will tax aerobic capacity, use similar muscles, and move through similar motion patterns.

According to a 2020 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, muscle activation of the gastrocnemius, soleus, semitendinosus (hamstring), and tibialis anterior was lower on the elliptical compared to treadmill running. However, muscle activation of the quadriceps, biceps femoris (hamstring), and gluteus medius were similar between the elliptical and running. Thus, the elliptical may allow certain overuse injuries in the calf or medial hamstring to recover, while still taxing other muscles used in running.

As described above, the elliptical can tax the aerobic system in a manner similar to running. The motion patterns are also similar to running. Since the motion patterns mimic a running stride, the elliptical can help maintain neuromuscular adaptations when unable to run.

As with any modality of cross-training, your effort will directly impact how good of a workout you get. If you slog along at a slow effort for 20 minutes, you may not receive optimal aerobic benefits. If you focus on cadence and adjust the resistance, you can replicate the intensity of running workouts on the elliptical.

Elliptical to Running Conversion

If you use the elliptical for cross-training, you want to use a 1:1 elliptical to running conversion for time. 2 miles on the elliptical is not equal to running the same distance, since it will take a different amount of time. However, the approximate metabolic equivalent of a 20 minute treadmill run would be 20 minutes of using the elliptical (while maintaining the same cadence and intensity as you would on a run). As noted above, the elliptical has a metabolic stress similar to running.

This 1:1 elliptical to running conversion applies to any use: during injury, as a way to do a double workout, or for regular cross-training.

How to Use the Elliptical as Cross-training for Runners

Aim for 90 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute)

Running speed is a combination of stride length and stride rate (cadence). Most runners will average 170-185 steps per minute. Runners want to mimic their normal cadence when using the elliptical for cross-training. Aim for an 85-90 RPM when using the elliptical. This may take some practice. You may need to maintain just a moderate resistance (2-8) until you feel comfortable at the high cadence.

Be patient with yourself when first using the elliptical. New modes of exercise will always feel harder at first. Initially, you may find that you struggle to hit a higher RPM as you try to find the right rhythm on the machine. Do not give up after the first session and keep practicing. It will feel more natural with time.

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. Instead, you want to adjust the resistance to best mimic the motion patterns and intensity of running.

Adjust the resistance for what feels similar to the effort you run outside. The resistance will vary based on the type of workout you are aiming to complete. For an easy elliptical “run,” keep the resistance on the lower end. For an interval workout, maintain 90-95 PRM and then bump up the incline for the “on” intervals. To mimic a tempo run, maintain a moderate incline, moderately hard intensity, and ~90 PRM. Vary with the resistance every few minutes to simulate a hilly run.

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, nor should you. While the elliptical is similar in its physiological effects to 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. For example, instead of running 6 miles at a 10:00/mile pace, aim for 60 minutes at an easy effort on the elliptical. You may cover more distance on the elliptical. However, exact distance matters less than the duration of the workout.

The rule of specificity can guide 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.

Use RPE to Gauge Intensity on the Elliptical

Pace is not reliable on the elliptical. Instead, you will want to use perceived exertion to pace yourself. A rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale allows you to gauge intensity based on how hard you are working. RPE 3-4 out of 10 is an effort you feel like you could sustain for a long period of time, similar to an easy run. An RPE of 8 is hard, just like in an interval run. You can use the RPE scale to hit equivalent efforts on the elliptical compared to a run.

Focus on Good Form

Poor form can be uncomfortable and inefficient when using the elliptical. Similar to running, you want to think of a tall posture. Slouching over the bars can cause neck or shoulder pain. Think of driving your knees up high when striding. Keep your gaze forward and avoid tucking your chin. The moving bars can help you pump your arms similar to when you run.

What about the Hand Bars?

Do not lean onto the static hand bars to stabilize yourself, as this will cause poor posture and decrease the efficacy of your workout. However, using the moving hand bars can increase upper body muscle activity. Actively push and pull them while pumping the legs for a total body workout.

Do Not Use the Elliptical If:

  • If you have a stress fracture, you need to choose completely non-impact forms of cross-training such as swimming or pool running.
  • If it hurts, don’t do it. Plain and simple.

The Best Elliptical Workouts for Runners

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

The Best Elliptical Workouts for Runners: Image details three workouts. 
20-30 minutes progressive effort: start at a moderate resistance (5-6) and increase every 5-7 minutes. 

6-10 sets of: 2 minutes at hard effort/high resistance (10-15), 2 minutes at low resistance (1-4).

Steady State:
45-60 minutes at a moderate effort with varying resistance (3-10)

Tempo Elliptical Run

10-20 minutes easy effort at a low resistance (1-4).
20-30 minutes
progressive effort: start at a moderate resistance (5-6) and increase every 5-7 minutes. 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).
6-10 sets of: 2 minutes at hard effort/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. 

Is the Elliptical Better Than Running?

The principle of specificity applies to the use of the elliptical. For a runner who wants to improve their running, the elliptical is not better than running. However, it can be used as supplemental training. However, in terms of general fitness, the elliptical provides an effective aerobic stimulus – just with a different biomechanical stress than running.

Increase your knowledge, decrease your run time with the Foundations of Running E-course!

Share this post

35 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?

  13. I’m dealing with an aching calf at the moment so no running for a few more days. I’m now doing the elliptical and the same effort as running BUT my heart rate is about 10 beats lower then a run- I wear a heart rate chest strap. Is that normal for heart rates on the elliptical to be lower then on the treadmill?

  14. Good read and I discovered the elliptical when I was injured and getting ready to run Boston this year. I actually like the challenge of doing 2 hours. Consider using an Arc trainer vs the elliptical as it mimics running and puts far less pressure on your knees. PS I only had 3 weeks of running in my Boston block but still BQd by 13’. The elliptical definitely saved my race.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *