Elliptical Cross-Training for Improving Running Fitness

Nothing is more frustrating for a runner than not being able to run. If an injury is keeping you from running, it is essential to know your options for maintaining fitness. Incorporating cross-training as a part of your training plan even when you are healthy, can help prevent overload injuries.

A good cross-training option for runners is the much dreaded elliptical machine. If a runner can’t run, he or she will often hop on the exercise bikes ahead of the elliptical. In many cases, however, the elliptical machine will be a better option for injured runners.

Elliptical cross-training is a great option maintain and supplement running fitness.
The elliptical machine is a great cross-training option for running. Photo by Pixabay.

With a movement that closely mimics that of running, but without any of the impact, the elliptical is a highly specific form of cross-training for runners. Most machines will also let you quickly adjust the resistance. This option enables you to keep your cadence similar to when running, regardless of intensity level.

Elliptical Cross-Training Compared to Running

Studies on the subject of elliptical training, and how it compares to running, are limited in numbers. However, there are some studies out there. These studies coupled with personal experiences let us make educated assumptions on how to use elliptical training to benefit your running.

A study from 2010 by Brown, Cook, Krueger and Heelan gives us some insight. The scientists compared heart rate and two other measures of stress at similar rates of perceived effort on the elliptical versus the treadmill. The study showed that heart rate on the elliptical was slightly higher compared to the treadmill, while the two other measures of stress were similar.

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

Brown, Cook, Krueger and Heelan

Another study also concluded that the elliptical is a great option for cross-training. In 2004 Egaña and Donne looked at fitness changes in females after a 12-week training program. They found that fitness improvements were similar on the elliptical compared to treadmill running.

In moderately active females similar physiological improvements were observed using stair-climber, elliptical trainer and treadmill running when training volume and intensity were equivalent.

Egaña and Donne

All of this to say that yes, training on the elliptical will help you maintain and improve your fitness to become a faster runner. But how should you approach sessions and overall load on the elliptical?

How Should Runners Should Train on the Elliptical?

For maximum running specificity, it is crucial to keep your cadence similar to when running. Typically this will mean somewhere between 80-90. Initially, this resistance level will probably feel unnaturally hard, but you will quickly adapt.

Research indicates that if you use heart rate to structure your training, you should make slight adjustments compared to running. During easy and recovery training on the elliptical, you can allow your heart rate to drift slightly above your upper boundary for running. When doing workouts, you are probably better off going by perceived effort as opposed to heart rate. At the very least, you don’t have to be afraid of going a few beats per minutes above running at similar effort levels.

Related: How to Handle a Running Injury

In terms of how often and how hard, elliptical training can follow the same structure as that of your overall running plan. With no impact load, you can even supplement running with an extra hard session on the elliptical. Given the results of the studies mentioned above, VO2Max work on the elliptical may be the most sensible option.

A word to wise is to be mindful of how quickly you increase your training load on the elliptical machine. As with all forms of training, your body needs to adapt to the new type of stress gradually. Doing too much, too soon will lead to injury, even on the elliptical.

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