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5 Elliptical Workouts for Runners

As runners, we know that cross-training is important. But it can be easy to get into a rut of the cross-training you’re comfortable doing. It’s important to get out of that rut, for boredom’s sake as well as for fitness.

After all, the whole point of cross-training is to mix up your training routine and get you doing something new. Mixing up your routine with an elliptical machine is what this article is for! We’ll tell you how to use the elliptical machine for cross-training as a runner and vary up your routine.

Ellipticals can also be a great option any runner – you can even go outside if you ride an ElliptiGO bike. Whether you are sidelined with an injury, or just don’t feel like a run for a particular day, the elliptical is a great way to change the pace. No matter how you decide to use the elliptical, we’ll tell you how to get the most out of it.

In addition to discussing what an elliptical machine is (if you’ve never used one before) and how you can use it, we’ve also included five practical workouts that you can use the next time you head to the gym.

What is the Elliptical Machine or Cross Trainer?

Let’s start with a definition. An elliptical machine is an indoor, stationary exercise machine. Your feet slide gently back and forth in an elliptical shape so that you can climb stairs, walk, or run without the pounding impact that typically occurs. As a result, it decreases the chance of getting injured. Some runners like to use elliptical machines to warm up or cool down.

Other runners use elliptical machines to cross-train, and will hop on the elliptical on their off day to get a workout similar to running. Of course it isn’t the same as hitting the trail. But if you’re dealing with an injury, it’s a good substitute.

Is an Elliptical Machine Good for Runners?

Studies indicate that an elliptical machine actually is a good option if you find yourself unable to run.

One study found that oxygen consumption was the same on an elliptical as on a treadmill when the perceived effort was the same. Another study discovered that women saw the same fitness improvements over 12 weeks on an elliptical as compared to a treadmill.

When is it Good to Use an Elliptical?

As we hinted at above, you might want to use an elliptical as a way to maintain running fitness during the off season. If you live in a climate that gets pretty cold in the winter, you could alternate between running on the treadmill and using the elliptical for some variety.

You can also use an elliptical when you’re unable to run due to an injury. One running coach used the elliptical machine after spraining her foot while hiking to allow her injury to heal while still keeping up her running fitness.

I also have a friend who is a very fast runner, and he always warms up on the elliptical for ten minutes anytime that he goes to the gym, whether he’s going to lift or do sprints on the treadmill. He always gets 10 minutes on the elliptical in first.

What Should I Watch Out For?

Now that you’ve been convinced to use the elliptical, you might want to know what pitfalls to avoid. One potential drawback to the elliptical machine for injured runners is that it can still aggravate some injuries.

Injuries that are susceptible include stress fractures, Achilles tendon injuries, and IT band issues. If you’re dealing with any of those injuries, you might want to try something like pool running that is even easier on muscles, bones, and connective tissue.

If you have an injury that doesn’t fit in one of these categories, feel free to try the elliptical, but remember to stop if it hurts. While it shouldn’t aggravate other injuries, if it’s painful, you shouldn’t be doing it.

What Should My Form Look Like?

Just like running has proper form, so does using the elliptical machine. Avoid leaning forward or resting your weight on the bars. You shouldn’t be using the bars to stabilize you. Instead, push the moving bars to help imitate how you would pump your arms when you run.

And similar to running form, your back should be straight, your core should be engaged, and your posture should be upright. Don’t shrug your shoulders or slouch. You should be standing nice and tall.

What are Some Workouts to Try?

First, for simple elliptical workouts that you might use as a warm up, keep the resistance on the lower end and aim for 90 RPM (90 revolutions per minute) or as close as you possibly can. If you can’t do 90 RPM now, don’t sweat it. Just work up to it. (Note that 90 RPM equals 180 steps per minute, which is a generally good running cadence)

To do an interval workout, you can keep the resistance low and still keep aiming for 90 RPM, just bump up the incline for the “fast” intervals. Of course, you don’t have to do it this way. You can always increase resistance and/or RPM (i.e., speed).

Finally, if you want to imitate a tempo or steady state run, try to maintain a moderate incline and 90 RPM. Basically, you can play around with resistance levels and speed/RPM.

That being said, if you want it to be closer to running, use lower resistance levels and a higher cadence. This better imitates running, which requires a quick turnover for proper form.

Workout 1

If you’re a beginner on the elliptical, or if you just want to start getting used to the machine, try this workout.

Start with ten minutes of warm up. Then do 6 sets of one minute hard alternating with one minute medium/slow. Cool down for eight minutes. Your total time will be 30 minutes.

Workout 2

If you want a great mix for middle distance and medium pace training with some spicy intervals, then try this workout. It’s good for all distances.

Warm up for ten minutes, then do twenty minutes at a medium pace.

Follow that up with 5 x 2:00 hard with 90 seconds of recovery in between the reps. Finish with a five minute cool down. This one will take you 50 minutes.

Workout 3

This workout is best if you’re preparing for a 10k or half marathon. Depending on the recovery time, it could take you 50 to 60 minutes to complete the entire workout.

Like all the other workouts, begin with a ten-minute warm up. Then work your way up a pyramid, starting with 1:00 hard followed by 1:00-2:00 recovery, then 2:00 hard followed by recovery, and all the way up to 5:00 hard. Then work your way back down. End with a five minute cool down.

Workout 4

If you’re trying to simulate hill training, or if you’re training for any distance between a 10k and a marathon, try this workout.

Begin with a ten minute warm up. Start at level 1 and increase your resistance every 2-4 minutes depending on how many levels can be set.

You may also have to take into your account your physical ability. Take the resistance level as high as you’re comfortable with. This will take you 30 to 40 minutes. End with a five-minute cool down, making this workout roughly an hour.

Workout 5

Finally, if you want an awesome mix of sprints and hill training that is good for all distances, try this workout. You’ll need just 35 minutes to get it in.

Start with a ten-minute warm up. Then do 10 rounds of 1:00 low resistance but high RPM sprints, alternating with high resistance, slow RPM steep hill steps. The former are your sprints, and the latter are your hills. End with a five-minute cool down.

Other Assorted Bits of Advice

If possible, try to get an interesting scene on the screen of the elliptical so that it reminds you of running more. For example, maybe the elliptical machines at your gym have virtual simulations of hiking and running trails.

If you can picture yourself running outside even when you’re sidelined with an injury, that will make your workouts on the elliptical a lot more fun and enjoyable.

Another thing that’s helpful is to run based on time and perceived effort. Typically, when you go for a run outside, you have a time goal and a distance in mind. For the elliptical, it might behoove you to think in terms of time and effort.

This means if you’re running a longer distance, treat the elliptical like you would a long run—nice and slow. If you’re training for a shorter race, you might want to push harder to get those RPMs up.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the elliptical machine is a great tool at your disposal as a runner. It can be good for a warm up when you hit the gym, a good alternative to the treadmill when it’s raining or snowing outside, and a way to stay in good running shape when you’re dealing with an injury.

Hopefully, you now have a better idea of how to use the elliptical as well as specific workouts that you can start incorporating into your running program and everyday routine. It’s not like a run outside, but at least it’s not the treadmill!

Rachel Basinger
The Wired Runner