Since I sprained my foot while hiking a few weeks ago, I’ve been spending a significant amount of time on the elliptical machine to cross-train until I am healed enough to run again. A few readers have asked me about using the elliptical for cross-training; while I’m no expert at the elliptical, this runner’s guide to the elliptical will help you maximize your workout and minimize boredom while maintaining your running specific fitness.
Will the Elliptical Actually Maintain My Running Fitness?
Let’s look at what the science says. You know me: objective fact beats subjective observations. The elliptical will feel different than running outside and many of us runners will feel as if we are not getting an equivalent workout. But is that based on the actual physiological effects of an elliptical workout or based on the fact that many of us runners crave the pounding of our feet on the ground and the wind in our hair?
So let’s see what science actually says:
- At the same perceived effort, oxygen consumption was the same on the elliptical trainer as the treadmill (2010 Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research).
- With equivalent training volume and intensity, women of moderate levels of fitness saw equal improvements from the elliptical and treadmill over 12 weeks (2004 The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness).
It may not feel the same as running, and of course you won’t get quite the same benefits as with road running, but if the elliptical is your only option due to injury, you do not have to worry about losing your hard-earned running fitness.
Of course, you get what you give on the elliptical. If you slog along at a slow effort for 20 minutes, you’re not going to receive a good workout. If you push yourself to hit the right cadence, increase the resistance, and actually work out at a harder effort, then you will have a workout that is similar to running!
The Benefits of the Elliptical for Runners
- Aerobic conditioning with a lower impact: maintain fitness while injured or increase your mileage without extra impact
- Keeps you from going insane when you’re injured
- Comparable to the treadmill in terms of fitness gains
- You don’t need any special gear as you would for swimming
The elliptical appears to be rather straight-forward, but knowing a few simple tips will help you make the most of your time on the elliptical. No one wants to spend hours on that machine, so follow these tips on how to get a sweaty, heart-pumping, similar to running workout in 60 minutes or less.
A Runner’s Guide to the Elliptical
Aim for 90 RPM (Revolutions Per Minute)
The elliptical can be used to simulate a hike or a run. Obviously, the rule of specificity reigns supreme when choosing cross-training activities, especially if the cross-training is completely replacing running due to a time off from running.
Running speed is a combination of stride length and stride rate (cadence). Ideally, you want to run as closely to a 180 cadence (180 steps total per minute, or 90 per foot) for the most efficient stride. On the elliptical, then, to mimic the stride rate of running, try to get as close to 90 RPM as possible. This may take some practice and you may need to maintain just a moderate resistance (2-8) until you can master the proper cadence.
Be patient with yourself: the first couple times on the elliptical, you may find that you struggle to hit a higher RPM as you try to find the right rhythm on the machine.
Using the elliptical has shown me that I need to work on improving my cadence through the incorporation of strides and drills after I return to running; I average about a 75-80 RPM on the elliptical. So think of the elliptical as a chance to uncover potential areas of weakness and give you a game plan for how to come back to running stronger than before.
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. Remember the rule of specificity? It applies here as well.
Aim for a resistance that feels most akin to the effort you run outside. This will vary depending on whether you run flat roads, rolling hills, or trails and based on the type of workout you are aiming to complete. . So for an easy elliptical “run,” keep the resistance on the lower end and aim for 90 RPM (or as close as possible). For an interval workout, maintain 90 PRM and then bump up the incline for the “on” intervals. To mimic a tempo or steady state runs, maintain a moderate incline and 90 PRM. And for a hilly run, play with the resistance as much as you want!
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, and nor should you – while the elliptical is similar in its physiological effects as 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. So instead of running 7 miles at an 8:30/mile pace, I’ll aim for 60 minutes at an easy effort on the elliptical. I may cover more distance on the elliptical, but that matters less than the time spent exercising in terms of equivalent workouts.
And again, the rule of specificity should determine 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.
Stay Present in the Workout
Associative thinking applies on the elliptical as much as it does on the roads. While entertainment is great for distracting you from the fact that you are confined to a little machine inside and NOT running, you also want to remain attuned to your effort. Zoning out too much can lead to just a shuffle on the elliptical which will do nothing other than waste your time. Check in on your form, gauge your effort every few minutes, and focus on working hard. As the studies show, equivalent effort is key!
The ellipticals at my apartment gym offer virtual simulations of several hiking and running trails across the globe. I set the elliptical to vary the incline (usually with a resistance of 4-8 so I can focus on my RPM and speed) and just watch the screen and pretending I’m running those trails. The visual of outdoor scenery, although on a screen, helps me feel as if I’m outdoors rather than confined to a machine.
The mind is a powerful thing, and the more you can trick your brain into thinking elliptical training is similar to outdoor running, the easier it will be for you to tolerate cross-training on the elliptical.
The only downside is that now we NEED to go to Yosemite this year. I can’t stand virtually running through it and NOT experiencing it in person. Hmmm, the California International Marathon is only 2 hours from Yosemite, and during the ideal season for avoiding crowds…
What about the Hand Bars?
Don’t use the static hand bars to stabilize yourself, as this will decrease the effectiveness of your workout. As for the moving bars? I do use them to increase my power output, but I do not rest any of my weight on them (I only loosely hold them to avoid putting any weight on them). Rather, I push and pull them while pumping my legs at a steady and fast clip for a total body workout. For me, this mimics the arm swing of a good running form while also working my upper body – which means more calorie burn.
You can also opt to not use the bars and swing your arms freely as you would running. Just don’t have a rigid or motionless upper body and be careful with your posture if you go hands-free.
No matter what you choose, avoid leaning forward or rest your weight onto the bars. Maintain a straight back, engaged core, and strong upright posture.
When to Avoid the Elliptical:
- If you have a stress fracture, you need to choose completely non-impact forms of cross-training such as swimming or water running.
- Injuries such as IT band syndrome or Achilles tendonitis may be aggravated by the motions of the elliptical.
- If it hurts, don’t do it. Plain and simple.
Try one of these elliptical workouts to maintain your running fitness and beat boredom at the gym! As with running, try to follow the hard-easy principle, meaning if you do a hard 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 at a comfortably hard effort, with moderate resistance (5-10) and 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).
6-8 sets of: 2 minutes at hard effort with 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.
Meredith wrote a great post on tips and workouts for the elliptical, so be sure to reference her as well!
Linking up with Coaches’ Corner!
What workouts you do on the elliptical?
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What is your workout today?