Elliptical Training for Runners

People in the gym.
People are training on elliptical machines and stationary bikes. (Image: FlairImages/iStock/Getty Images)

An elliptical trainer is a stationary exercise machine that combines the motions of cross-country skiing, running and stair climbing. Feet and legs move in an elliptical, or oval, motion. The user garners cardiovascular benefits similar to running but avoids impact on muscles and joints. For runners, using an elliptical trainer is a cross-training option to supplement running, such as preventing injury or providing variety or to replace running, including while rehabbing an injury.

Significance

Elliptical trainers serve as a sport-specific alternative to running in that an elliptical employs many of the same muscles as running. For seasoned runners, using an elliptical can serve as a respite from high impact on the body. Occasionally getting on an elliptical instead of hitting the roads can enhance a runner’s regimen by mimicking running but eliminating some potential for injury due to overuse and impact. According to the American Council on Exercise, “People who are particularly prone to lower-leg problems from running long distances should consider incorporating low-impact activities, such as elliptical training.”

Features

Elliptical trainers have changeable resistance levels, similar to stationary bikes. Some machines also have an adjustable incline ramp, allowing the user to increase the incline, making the exercise motion similar to hiking or running uphill and providing variation in workouts and muscles used. In addition, elliptical trainers can be pedaled in reverse to work a different set of muscles. Many elliptical machines also have handles that move back and forth; by grasping these handles, the user engages upper body muscles, like in cross-country skiing, and can balance effort between the upper and lower body. On machines without the handles, the user can still move her arms just like she would while running.

Benefits

The benefits of using elliptical trainers for runners are numerous. Elliptical trainers require and build leg strength very similar to that needed for running. Using an elliptical trainer with moving handles exercises muscles of the upper body, as well, thus employing additional muscle mass in the workout. Furthermore, runners can obtain cardiovascular benefits similar to running on an elliptical: “elliptical training and other forms of cross-training are forgiving on the body, while further developing aerobic fitness,” states "Running Times Magazine".

Expert Insight

Many runners wonder how to convert running workouts to elliptical trainer workouts, or vice versa. The bottom line is that there is no exact science to this kind of conversion. An elliptical trainer inherently requires less effort than running because the user is not moving her own body weight forward in space or enduring repeated impact on the ground. Nonetheless, to achieve a close equivalent to running miles, generally add a bit more time to the elliptical workout. For example, if a runner typically averages eight minutes per mile outside, she might use nine minutes per mile as a “pace” for the elliptical and multiply nine times the number of miles she would like to “run”. The product is the total time she would exercise on the elliptical trainer: 9 minutes x 6 miles = 54 elliptical minutes.

If doing an interval workout on the elliptical, increasing the time of hard efforts and/or reducing the recovery period between bouts is another way to adjust for the easier effort required by an elliptical trainer vs. running.

Considerations

Some runners love elliptical trainers while others are wary of them. However, elliptical training for runners can actually boost overall fitness by aiding in injury prevention or rehabilitation, allowing for recovery from repeated impact on hard surfaces, and providing mental and physical variety in training. Using an elliptical too often, though, may cause its own physical effects due to overuse, so be sure to balance this activity with running and other forms of exercise.

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