-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Training: does an elliptical trainer offer the same workout as a treadmill or running outside?

One of my newer athletes presented this question to me recently: “Does the elliptical trainer in my gym offer the same workout as a treadmill or running outside?” This is an interesting variant of a question that we receive often. Normally, we are asked whether the elliptical trainer is a good alternative to running when rehabilitating from an injury (the answer is yes) — but here the question asks more specifically can you use an elliptical as an alternative to running. The answer here is yes and no.

Elliptical trainers
An elliptical trainer is a piece of exercise equipment that provides a cardio-vascular workout in a vertical position (standing upright) with a minimal level of impact on the lower-body. Said another way, elliptical trainers offer a close simulation to walking or running, but since the feet never jump into the air as with running, there is no hard crash as the foot comes down on the pavement.

The lack of impact on the ground is then the primary benefit of an elliptical trainer. This reduces the stress placed on the feet, ankles, knees and hips, which make them an excellent cardio-vascular workout when rehabilitating many running injuries.

So the elliptical trainer can offer a great aerobic workout with less of the pounding that running puts on the body.

Elliptical trainers as an alternative to running
An important principle of training for an endurance sport event is the concept of muscle specificity. Muscle specificity means that the best workout to train you for a specific event is a workout that uses the same muscles in the same way that you will use them during the event. Another way to put this is that the best workout for running is running.

And not only that, but the best workout for running a particular speed on a particular type of terrain is to run that speed on that terrain. This is why we put such a focus on learning “goal pace” with marathon runners. We want to train the body to run the particular pace they plan to run and we spend a great deal of time teaching the muscles to operate in that particular way, at that particular speed.

In choosing activities then that support your endurance training goals, it is important to try to choose activities that most closely simulate your racing goals.

With that in mind, the elliptical trainer is not the best choice for runners if they have the option to run — either outside or on the treadmill. While elliptical trainers provide a good aerboic workout, they will not simulate running exactly. If you were to do all of your training on your elliptical trainer and then were to hit the roads for your race, you would not be well trained to handle the physical pounding of the ground, which the elliptical trainer does such a good job of removing.

Bottom Line
For runners the best way to think of the elliptical trainer is as a great cross-training tool or a tool for injury rehabilitation. You can use the elliptical trainer in your workout program as a low-impact alternative during your training week, but make sure to keep enough outdoor and treadmill running so that you adequately train yourself to handle the impact of running. Cross-training with the elliptical trainer, spin classes, swimming and other low-impact activities provide an excellent source of aerobic training with less impact on the body. Just make sure not to sacrifice the sport specific training that your body needs to be successful on race day.

Coach Joe English, Portland Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


5 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. coachdeanhebert February 13th, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    You hit it on the head about specificity of training. In that vein… aqua running still wins out over ALL other cross training. Also, if you do cross train in ANY other way, always make it an interval type training. Do NOT do steady state 40 minute or whatever runs. Do intervals. Hard efforts followed by a short recovery has been shown to give more benefit.
    Coach Dean

  2. 2. Lisa askes: Is there a difference in the … « Virtual Team in Training Fall 2008 June 17th, 2008 at 9:03 am

  3. 3. iamsamiam September 17th, 2008 at 6:56 am

    On the elliptical I sweat more and feel far more of a cardio workout than with running (which is why I prefer running 😉

  4. 4. weaksauce October 25th, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    That's weird because I'm here because I feel basically NOTHING from a elliptical workout. I can do an hour on the highest resistance and incline settings, go 12 miles and burn 1300 calories (according to the machine!!) whereas on a treadmill I go about 3 miles in 30 minutes and I'm spent. I sweat about the same amount. Is it really just the impact that helps me do so much more? Or maybe a broken machine? Its a real mystery.

  5. 5. JoeEnglish October 26th, 2009 at 5:55 pm

    Here’s what I would suggest in your case. Buy or borrow a heart-rate monitor and wear it for a workout on both the treadmill and ellipitcal trainer. Take a look at the rates and see if they are similar. If your hear-rate is much lower on the elliptical, then its not giving you a similar cardio workout. Also note that when you use a machine over and over, you can build substantial muscle in those muscles used to power that machine. At times people get stronger enough that the resistance isn’t enough to give them the workout that they need. Good luck!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.