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Training: Does the elliptical trainer benefit runners?

Coach Dean Hebert

Coach Dean Hebert

A reader named Kelly asks:

I have been experiencing some injuries in the past two weeks or so while training for the Marine Corps Marathon in October. This is my first marathon. I was curious what is thought about training on an elliptical machine as part of cross-training. Does that have any benefits? Or are the only two options aqua-running and cycling?

This question has been posed to me a number of times in recent years. Let me lead my answer by telling a short story which will help illustrate the point to be made.

One of the best examples I can think of happened when Kenya decided to field a Winter Olympics team. They sent Philip Boit and Henry Bitok — a couple of elite runners — to Finland to train with the very best cross-country skiers in the world for two years in preparation for the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games.

Boit and Bitok, both from the Nandi tribe, were elite athletes. Boit, 26, a military policeman, has run 100 meters in a hand-timed 10.49 seconds, 200 in 21.06, 400 in 46.20, 800 in 1:47.46 and 1,500 in 3:46.52. (He is a cousin of Mike Boit, the 1972 bronze medalist in the 800-meter run.) And Bitok, 28, a naval officer, was once a top steeplechaser with a career best of 8:17.28, and he has run a half marathon in about 65 minutes.

The results were dismal. Boit finished last, 20 minutes behind the Norwegian gold medalist in the 10k… and minutes behind the next competitor in front of him. As it turns out, despite exceptional world class cardiovascular development the problem lay in their neuromuscular sport-specific training. It was simply not enough to be a great athlete to win; it was necessary to be a great cross-country skier to win. That is an important lesson for all of us.

So, the answer is pretty straight forward. Any cross-training (even weight circuit training) that mimics running-specific motion is preferred over other types of training. This is the Law of Specificity of Training: you get good at what you train at.

The running motion itself tops the list of alternatives to running when injured; which means aqua-running is optimal. By the way, some people have criticized aqua-running as the new “fad” for runners. It is not. It has been well studied and has been used extensively by world class runners for at least a decade. Cycling has been shown in a number of studies to have a decent cross-over effect. So, these two activities top the list.

To answer your question about elliptical training: there is no definitive answer because there is little or no research that I know of specifically on it. That doesn’t mean it won’t help, but I can’t tell you it will either. The best I can share is that I have had two runners who did elliptical training in the past year or so and both ended up with hip related injuries. I personally do not advocate it.

This is a limited perspective, but there isn’t much science to go on here. Though the ellipitcal trainer it is an “aerobic” activity, and indeed it would be better than doing nothing, I have nothing at this time that supports it as an activity which enhances running.

If you enjoy elliptical machines and you have no ill effects, then do it. If you want to optimize conditioning for your marathon while injured, stick with aqua-running and cycling.

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Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor, Running Advice and News


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