Jeff Gaudette

Written by Jeff Gaudette


Is the Elliptical Machine a Viable Cross Training Alternative for Runners

A few weeks ago, we examined the benefits of aqua jogging for injured runners and provided some sample workouts to help keep you as fit as possible during time off.

Unfortunately, not all runners are able to take advantage of aqua jogging when they are injured because it requires a pool deep enough to run in.

So, what is the next best cross-training solution for runners?

After aqua jogging, the elliptical machine is a runner’s best choice for cross training equipment.

The movement of the elliptical closely mimics running form, but without the impact. Plus, you can easily monitor and change the intensities.

More importantly, elliptical machines are widely available in most gyms, making them an easy cross training solution.

In this article, I am going to share some of the research regarding the potential benefits of elliptical training for runners as well as a few workouts to keep your heart pounding and your fitness sustained.

The benefits of elliptical training

Obviously, there is no exact substitute for running, but elliptical training can provide some fitness benefits for injured runners or those that need to cross train to supplement mileage.

While direct comparisons between elliptical training and running are limited in scientific research, I did uncover some data about how elliptical training and running compare.

Oxygen consumption and energy expenditure

In one study, researchers compared oxygen consumption, energy expenditure, and heart rate on a treadmill versus an elliptical when exercising at the same effort (perceived level of exertion).

The results indicated that while heart rate was slightly higher on the elliptical, oxygen consumption and energy expenditure were similar on both machines. As such, the researchers concluded that:

“During a cross training or noncompetition-specific training phase, an elliptical device is an acceptable alternative to a treadmill.”

Heart rate on elliptical versus running

A 2004 study reviewed the apparent differences in heart rate on the treadmill compared to the elliptical machine. While the researchers did not find the same elevated heart rate levels seen in the previously mentioned study, they did find that:

“The rating of perceived exertion (RPE) was the same in the chest and actually more intense for the legs on the elliptical compared to the treadmill (presumably from the incline).

As such, the researchers concluded that using RPE as a measurement of effort on the elliptical can produce fitness results similar to running.

Metabolic and cardio-respiratory improvements

Finally, another study compared metabolic and cardio-respiratory improvements following a 12-week training program using and elliptical trainer versus a treadmill.

The researchers found that when training volumes and intensities were equivalent on the treadmill and elliptical, physiological adaptations remained relatively the same.

So, will an elliptical help maintain running fitness?

The results of these limited studies suggests that while the elliptical is not a perfect substitution for running, it will allow you to maintain fitness during time off from training.

The only potential drawback to the elliptical machine for injured runners is that it can still aggravate some injuries, despite the lack of impact. Such injuries include stress fractures, achilles injuries, and the IT band. So, be careful and listen to your body when on the elliptical.

Sample elliptical workouts

Easy elliptical training and RPMs

Easy elliptical workouts should be performed between 65-75 percent of maximum heart rate.

During a typical easy run, you would have a stride rate that is equivalent to a cadence that is 90 rpm (rotations per minute) on an elliptical. So, for easy elliptical sessions and breaks between intervals, lower the resistance and incline on the elliptical so you can maintain a rhythm of 90 rpm.

As a note, some elliptical machines measure stride rate, which measures both legs, so the stride rate would 180.

Easy elliptical sessions should be used for recovery between hard workouts (just like you need in running) or general maintenance if you’re not injured and using the elliptical to supplement mileage.

In general, you should replicate your time running on an average easy day with time on the elliptical.

So, if your normal easy run is 45-50 minutes, then you would use an elliptical for 45-50 minutes.

I prefer a lower incline since it more closely mimics the running motion.

Medium effort elliptical workouts

Medium elliptical workout should be 87-92 percent of the maximum heart rate. This is what you would consider a hard tempo run effort or comfortably hard.

Maintain 90 rpm, but increase the resistance or the incline to elevate your heart rate and effort to appropriate levels.

Medium elliptical sessions are great for runners who are injury prone and want to perform more intense workouts, but can’t add the volume to their training without getting injured. They are also good as “maintenance” days for injured runners.

The workouts will help keep your heart rate up, but aren’t so killer that you can’t perform them daily.

To make the workouts longer or shorter, simply adjust the number of repetitions.
Sample workouts (click to expand)»

Hard effort elliptical workouts

Hard elliptical workouts should be performed at 95-100 percent of the maximum heart rate. This would be considered a VO2max or speed workout type effort.

Again, maintain 90 rpm and increase the resistance to achieve the desired effort level.

Hard efforts are great for the inured runner who needs to maintain fitness and train to get back in shape fast. You should do no more than two or three of these hard workouts per week. You still need recovery even though the impact is lessened.

The workouts will challenge you and make you wish you were back on the track and roads. To make the workouts longer or shorter, simply adjust the number of repetitions.

Sample workouts (click to expand)»

Final thoughts

Cross training can be tough, especially when you’re injured or want to be increasing your volume faster.

By providing a variety of workouts and implementing some elliptical training, you’ll emerge from your injury with minimal fitness loss and challenge your aerobic system without the pounding.

Workout 1

10 minutes easy w/u
6 x 5 mins hard
3 mins easy
5 mins easy c/d

Workout 2

10 minutes easy w/u
1,2.3,4.5,6,5,4,3,2,1 minutes hard w/2min easy btwn all
5 min easy c/d

Workout 3

10 minutes easy w/u
1 min medium, 1 min hard, 1 min medium, 1 min hard
1 min easy (x6)
5 min easy c/d

Workout 4

10 minutes easy w/u
1:00 hard, 30 sec easy, 30 sec hard:, 30 sec easy, 2:00 hard
:30 easy (continue building up until 5:00, and then come back down by :30 second intervals)
10 min easy c/d

Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5

Workout 1.

10 min easy w/20 min medium pace
3 x 3 mins hard w/90 sec easy
5 min c/d

Workout 2.

10 min easy w/u
start at level 1 and increase resistance every 4 minutes for 35-40 minutes
5 min c/d (this is a simulated hill workout)

Workout 3.

10 min easy w/u
5 min medium, 2 min hard, 5 min medium, 2min hard, 2 min easy, (x 3)
5 min easy c/d

Powered by Hackadelic Sliding Notes 1.6.5

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18 Responses on “Is the Elliptical Machine a Viable Cross Training Alternative for Runners

  1. I was interested to see that RPE for the legs is higher for elliptical v. running. I have always had problems w/ ellipticals (my PR is 30 min at no resistance!) and find them extremely difficult to use. Seems to be so much more effort – esp for quads and hip flexors – that I tire quickly and give up (despite being able to run for a couple hours at a time). I suppose some of it could be that I use them so rarely (preferring tmill, outdoor runs or even stationary bike due to perceived difficulty) that it’s just a “sports specific training” deficit on my part. I’ve even wondered if somehow the design/lever angles, etc. just doesn’t suit my build (5’8″ with 36″ hip-to-floor, short waist,long arms).

    Any ideas/tips for improving my ability to use ellipticals if the need arises? Settings I should check? (hip and glute strengthening are already on my to-do list for other reasons)

    • Glad you enjoyed the article, MJ. Yes, I was surprised to learn that the RPE was higher. However, it makes sense when you consider the incline.

      My advice would be lower the incline and resistance as low as possible. This should help you keep the stride rate where it needs to be without killing your legs.

      There’s also the difference between machines and your body type, which you probably can’t do much about. Luckily, you don’t need to use it often!

      Best of luck!

  2. I have clearly had good success with recovering from some injuries using ellipticals as a part of my cross training. I put a lot of faith in their service as a substitute for running and replace run warm ups with warm ups on the elliptical quite often if I have to spend a lot of time on a treadmill (both are boring and I would rather be outside).

    I was wondering a similar question as MJ though, as to are the same muscle groups working to the same level of effort? I know that arms receive a different workout on the elliptical swinging bars and they tend to mess up my balance so I don’t use them but what about the ankles and calves? And the plane of motion of my feet seem wider than when I run so I wonder about that too.

    Just wondering ’cause standing on the machines for an hour or more a day leave me with little else to do….

    Thanks for the article again, as always.


    • Good question, Matt. The specific muscles (or at least how they are used) is different from running, which is why it’s not a “perfect” substitute. You’re right, the wider hips and different movement patterns makes for a slightly different workout, but obviously the lack of impact makes up for it!

    • Interesting question, Adam. I didn’t uncover any literature about the Elliptigo specifically (probably because it’s too new). However, the motion looks very much the same, so the RPE results would probably be similar. My only concern would be how hard you can go on the Elliptigo. I’ve never used one, but I know I can crank on the Elliptical pretty hard?

  3. You mention that the elliptical can bother injuries such as stress fractures. I currently am recovering from a tibia stress fracture and have been using the elliptical. Is this okay? I am not experiencing any pain or discomfort while using the elliptical.

  4. Hi, I just want to share my experience on Elliptical Trainer as an injured triathlete. A little information on my background. I have been practicing triathlon since 2007 at Amateur Level. Nevertheless, I have achieved a good level at the sport. In 2012 I qualified for Ironman World Championship in Kona Hawaii, after a sub 10 hour race at Ironman Zurich in Switzerland. Unfortunately, I wasn’t very fortunate on the events than happened in Hawaii. On race week, I got hit by a car and ended up with a fractured Talus which was diagnosed after getting back home. Anyway I did race and crossed the finish line… but that is worth another blog of writing. After 2 surgeries and more than 90 sessions of Physical Therapy I could run again with some limitations. If I exceeded more than 6 miles of running I would end up with a stress fracture on the 5th metatarsal bone. So I had to figure a way to train the running volume in another way. That’s when I started running in water and eventually moved into Elliptical trainer. My goal was to race a Half Ironman and somehow make it to the finish line without walking the half marathon. So we developed a training system in which basically cut the real running to minimum. I had 4 sessions of running. 2 fully on Elliptical. 1 mixing Elliptical trainer and Treadmill running. Finally 1 short real running session that I would perform after a Cycling workout (brick workout). This training system allowed me to nail the Half Ironman race and run the complete half marathon at a respectable pace. So I want to give hope to everyone out there that is going to the same process. Threre’s always a way. Just don’t give up.

    • That is incredibly inspiring Andres. What a wonderful story, you are so right, and others will be happy to see another successful case. Thank you very much for sharing, just goes to show that if you put your mind to it, and put in the work, the results will take care of themselves. Hope you continue to improve!

  5. Should you use the moving handles. At my gym there are 2 types of elyptical. One no moving handles incline and shows stride and heart rate. The other has moving handles and heartrsye but don’t show rpm or stride rate.

    • Hi Danny, yes definitely better to use the moving handles as they just use more of your muscles than without. It is also closer to the running motion. Hope this helps!

  6. 90 RPM! Crikey, I can only manage 80 at resistance of 1 (no incline) when my legs are “pedalling” as fast as possible, I can’t get anywhere near that as the resistance increases. My normal running cadence is 160-170 (average, equivalent of 80-85 rpm), stride length about 1.16m according to my Garmin. What am I doing wrong on the cross-trainer?

      • Yes, I’m currently injured (diagnosed as upper hamstring tendinopathy) and hence the reason I’m using the cross trainer more regularly, but this is not an injury I’ve experienced before. This type of exercise, along with cycling, doesn’t seem to be having any detrimental effect on the injury and I’m hoping to maintain some fitness until I can run again. I will certainly take a look at the article.

  7. Hi, my left hip has been hurting for a week now. I’m still waiting to see an ortho to confirm my diagnosis but my suspicion is bursitis. Can I still use the elliptical in the meantime to replace running?

    • Hi Mara, it is good you have made an appointment with a specialist to get a diagnosis, that would be our first recommendation. As for now, our best advice would be to elliptical if it does not cause any pain. If it makes you hurt worse during or after, then it would be better to just rest.

  8. I have an elliptical. I did a lot of research before buying it. . If you’re a single person who uses the elliptical for 30 minutes or less a day, a low-end elliptical will work for you. If you have two people or you use it for long periods of time, you may benefit from a mid-range product – I wouldn’t go super high-end unless I had a home gym and intended to use this thing for hours a day, and even then, since having what I have, I am not sure it’s worth it. People were very negative about me getting an elliptical but I use it everyday and I’ve already had a ton of luck losing pounds, inches and gaining muscle. I love the precor/life fitness at the gym but I went with a cheaper product because i wanted something I could transport if I move and I didn’t know 100% i would use it so I didn’t want to spend a bundle.

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