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.
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).
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.
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