Elliptical Training for Runners

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. Elliptical workouts for runners give cardiovascular benefits similar to running with reduced impact on muscles and joints. For runners, using an elliptical trainer is a cross-training option to supplement running or replace running, as occurs while rehabbing an injury.

The elliptical trainer is a great low impact exercise for runners. (Image: Alexeg84/iStock/GettyImages)

Low-Impact Training Alternative

Elliptical training for runners serves 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 risks of injury due to overuse and impact. According to the Mayo Clinic, elliptical training can prevent overload injuries.

Elliptical Settings to Mimic Running

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 while providing variation in workouts and muscles used. In addition, elliptical trainers can be pedaled in reverse to work a different set of muscles according to ExRx.

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 of Ellipticals

The benefits of using the elliptical vs. running outside 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 groups in the workout.

Furthermore, runners can obtain cardiovascular benefits similar to running on an elliptical. Cross-training on an elliptical to reach your maximum potential is effective, according to a January 2016 Running magazine interview with Brant Stachel, owner of an online and local coaching service based in Kingston, Ontario.

Elliptical to Running Conversion

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 9 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 according to ACE Fitness.

Balance Is Key

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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