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As a runner, you probably head straight to the treadmill when taking your workout indoors, but you may want to consider hopping on the elliptical trainer every now and then for an excellent cross-training session.

Elliptical workouts offer similar cardio benefits to running, as they can help improve heart health and increase your stamina. They’re also an excellent option for runners with injuries or joint issues—they give you a low-impact option to get moving without adding more running volume to your training.

Below, we’ll dive deeper into some of the benefits of elliptical workouts for runners and provide a few sample workouts for different fitness levels to help you get started. Are you ready to hit your stride? Then read on!

What Is An Elliptical?

If you’re a tried-and-true runner, you may not be familiar with an elliptical and how it works, so let’s start there.

An elliptical is a cardio machine that provides a full-body, low-impact workout. It’s unique in that the stride path of an elliptical combines three motions: walking, running, and stair climbing. Unlike running, your foot never leaves the pedal of an elliptical, so you can still get a great aerobic workout with less stress on your joints.

schwinn 470 elliptical review

In addition to pedals, elliptical trainers have handlebars that move with you. If you hold onto the handlebars, you’ll engage your upper body in addition to your lower body and core. 

Here’s a quick breakdown of the muscles an elliptical works:

  • Upper back
  • Biceps
  • Quadriceps (quads)
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves 
  • Core

Elliptical Vs Running

So, how does an elliptical workout compare to running? For starters, elliptical workouts and running are forms of cardiovascular exercise. Because of this, they have shared benefits like lowering your risk of heart disease1, improving cardiorespiratory fitness and lung function2, and increasing stress resilience3. Research also shows that they burn a similar amount of calories4, which can contribute to weight loss or maintenance.

RELATED: Elliptical Workouts For Weight Loss

Both types of cardio can also accommodate various training styles. Depending on how you structure your workout sessions, you can do everything from low-intensity steady state (LISS) sessions to high-intensity interval training (aka HIIT). This versatility gives you the freedom to tailor your workouts to your goals.

elliptical-vs-running

RELATED: Elliptical Vs Running

Now, here are some notable differences: 

  • While you can modify the intensity of your speed, running is considered a high-impact exercise; ellipticals are low-impact and easier on your joints.
  • Both target the major muscle groups in your lower body, but running is lower body-centric, meaning it focuses mostly on the lower body. Ellipticals offer a full-body workout, engaging the upper body more (assuming you’re using the handlebars).
  • The elliptical gives you more control over your workout compared to running on a treadmill or outside. You can adjust both your resistance and incline on an elliptical as well as the stride length. 

Sample Elliptical Workouts For Runners

If you’re unsure how to get started, here are some sample elliptical workouts we recommend for runners in every stage, from beginner to advanced.

Beginner Elliptical Workout for Runners

When you’re just starting out, you want to take it semi-easy to avoid overuse injuries, especially if you’re adding elliptical workouts on top of regular runs.

RELATED: 6 Best Stretches Before Running

This workout gradually increases your resistance, then drops back down to give you time to recover before increasing again. Feel free to play around with the resistance if it feels too easy. Because ellipticals have different resistance ranges, a four on your machine may differ from a four on another machine.

TimeResistanceIncline
0:00-2:00 min. (warm up)11
2:00-5:00 min.21
5:00-8:00 min.31
8:00-11:00 min.41
11:00-14:00 min.21
14:00-17:00 min.31
17:00-20:00 min.41
20:00-23:00 min.21
23:00-26:00 min.31
26:00-29:00 min.41
29:00-30:00 min. (cool down)11

Intermediate Elliptical Workout for Runners

This 30-minute intermediate elliptical workout for runners mimics a tempo run with a steady pace that still requires quite a bit of effort. It can help ease you into a routine before you advance to the next level.

NordicTrack-FS14i elliptical
TimeResistanceIncline
0:00-2:00 min. (warm up)21
2:00-28:00 min.84
28:00-30:00 min. (cool down)11

Advanced Elliptical Workout for Runners

As you advance, it can be beneficial to start incorporating an elliptical HIIT workout. HIIT workouts can improve muscle power5, which can make you a faster runner.

TimeResistanceIncline
0:00-2:00 min. (warm up)12
2:00-4:00 min.43
4:00-5:00 min.108
5:00-7:00 min.33
7:00-8:00 min.128
8:00-10:00 min.43
10:00-11:00 min.108
11:00-13:00 min.33
13:00-14:00 min.128
14:00-16:00 min.43
16:00-17:00 min.108
17:00-19:00 min.33
19:00-20:00 min.128
20:00-22:00 min.43
22:00-25:00 min. (cool down)21

The Benefits of Elliptical Training For Runners

While they might not be the go-to choice for marathon or triathlon training, ellipticals offer a number of benefits for runners looking to cross-train.

There’s a Lower Risk of Injury

One of the biggest benefits of elliptical training is the lower risk of injury compared to running. Because your feet don’t leave the pedals, ellipticals provide a much lower impact than treadmills or outdoor running.

On the flip side, running is well-known for being high-impact and high-intensity. Further, the repetitive motion or impact can place strain on your joints. An estimated 56% of recreational runners6 experience some form of impact injury. This is especially true for beginners who haven’t quite nailed proper running form or runners who aren’t prioritizing their post-run recovery. 

They Can Keep You Moving After Injury

Relatedly, ellipticals are a great way for injured runners to keep moving as they heal. For example, if you’re currently getting over a stress fracture and you’re not quite ready to get back to the high impact of running, you may be able to use an elliptical to keep your body moving without losing too much progress. 

Researchers from a study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism7 compared treadmill, elliptical, and stair climber workouts. They found that both ellipticals and stair climbers are suitable substitutes for running when reduced load is required, like when you’re healing from an injury.

Sole E55 Elliptical

Just make sure you get clearance from your doctor or physical therapist, of course.

They Provide a Complete Workout

As previously mentioned, running targets mostly the lower body, while ellipticals engage the whole body, including the major muscle groups in your upper body, lower body, and core. Just be sure to hold onto the handlebars and maintain an upright posture for the most benefit.

They Can Help Increase Your Stamina

If your goal is to become a long-distance runner, you’ll need stamina—an elliptical machine can help.

RELATED: How To Start Running

Over time, all aerobic exercise can improve maximal cardiac output8, the amount of blood (and thus oxygen) pumped to your muscles during training. This leads to an increase in aerobic power and endurance, which can help you become a better, more efficient runner.

They’re a Nice Break

In general, ellipticals have a lower rate of perceived exertion (RPE) than running. That means, at the same speed and intensity, you’ll typically feel like you’re doing an easier workout (akin to an “easy run”) on the elliptical.

Combined with the lower impact, an elliptical may feel like a mental or physical break from more strenuous runs.

Diamondback Elliptical 1280ef

An elliptical can also be a good substitute for a recovery run. The goal of a recovery run is to keep the intensity down and work at about 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. But it can be more difficult (read: near impossible) to keep the impact low when you’re running. Instead, you can sub an elliptical workout on those recovery days when you want to give your body a break.

Elliptical Workouts For Runners: Final Thoughts 

While elliptical workouts can’t replace a targeted running fitness routine, they can be an excellent addition to it. These cross-training workouts can provide low-impact movement on recovery days, allow you to heal from running-related injuries, and help improve your stamina and overall cardiovascular fitness. 

If you want to add an elliptical to your home gym, check out our guide to the best ellipticals.

Elliptical Workouts For Runners: FAQs

Is elliptical training good for runners?

Yes, elliptical training can be a worthwhile part of a running training plan. Ellipticals help you get in some cardio and improve your aerobic fitness but are easier on the joints than running. This means they put less stress on your body and can be a great option for maintenance days when you need to get some movement in but want a lower training volume than running.

How much elliptical is equal to running?

At the same level of effort, you should expect to spend about 1.5 to two times as much time on an elliptical as you would running. If you typically run for 30 minutes, you’ll get an “equivalent” elliptical workout in 45 minutes to an hour, or if you up the intensity and/or resistance level, you can cut that time down.

Can I train for a 5k on an elliptical?

Yes and no. You can use an elliptical to build up your endurance and VO2 max (aerobic capacity), which can help you get through the 5K. But if you’re running for time, you’ll want to hop on the treadmill or run outdoors. Actual running workouts will help your body adjust to the impact and effort required to get through a 5K.

RELATED: Couch to 5K Planning

Is elliptical better than treadmill for runners?

In a word, no—an elliptical isn’t better than a treadmill for runners. While it has some benefits, it won’t help you improve your running technique. If you’re marathon training or trying to improve your overall running speed, you need to be running. 

References

  1. American Heart Association. American Heart Association Recommendations for Physical Activity in Adults and Kids. Updated January 19, 2024.
  2. Benck, LR, Cuttica, MJ, Colangelo, LA, et al. Association between Cardiorespiratory Fitness and Lung Health from Young Adulthood to Middle Age. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2017;195(9):1236-1243. doi:10.1164/rccm.201610-2089OC
  3. Kim, Jong-Ho, McKenzie, Larry. The Impacts of Physical Exercise on Stress Coping and Well-Being in University Students in the Context of Leisure. Health. 2014;06:2570-2580. doi:10.4236/health.2014.619296 
  4. Brown, GA, Cook, CM, Krueger, RD, Heelan, KA. Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. J Strength Cond Res. 2010;24(6):1643-1649. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181cb2854
  5. Caparrós-Manosalva, C, Garrido-Muñoz, N, Alvear-Constanzo, B, et al. Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training on Lean Mass, Strength, and Power of the Lower Limbs in Healthy Old and Young People. Front Physiol. 2023;14:1223069. doi:10.3389/fphys.2023.1223069
  6. Musgjerd, T, Anason, J, Rutherford, D, Kernozek, TW. Effect of Increasing Running Cadence on Peak Impact Force in an Outdoor Environment. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2021;16(4):1076-1083. doi:10.26603/001c.25166
  7. Bosch, AN, Flanagan, KC, Eken, MM, Withers, A, Burger, J, Lamberts, RP. Physiological and Metabolic Responses to Exercise on Treadmill, Elliptical Trainer, and Stepper: Practical Implications for Training. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2021;31(2):135-142. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0155
  8. Hellsten, Y, Nyberg, M. Cardiovascular Adaptations to Exercise Training. Compr Physiol. 2015;6(1):1-32. doi:10.1002/cphy.c140080

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As a runner, you probably head straight to the treadmill when taking your workout indoors, but you may want to consider hopping on the elliptical trainer every now and then for an excellent cross-training session.Elliptical workouts offer similar cardio benefits to running, as they can help improve heart health and increase your stamina. They’re also an excellent option for runners with injuries or joint issues—they give you a low-impact option to get moving without adding more running volume to your training.  » Read more about: 3 Elliptical Workouts For Runners: Change Up Your Cardio Sessions  » Read more