We’re deep in the throws of winter. Even though some runners love bundling up for a run, an equal number of runners resign themselves to gym workouts. Even the hardcore outdoor runners occasionally stay inside but still need to burn calories.
Head inside any gym, and you are confronted with an obvious choice: the elliptical machine. The mechanics are similar enough to running suggest that half an hour on the elliptical can take the place of your scheduled easy run. Is that really the case?
Just because you’re inside doesn’t mean you don’t want a great workout. As a runner, which should you choose? Personal taste aside, there are upsides and downsides of each way to exercise. But which gives the better workout?
In any case, this article will discuss the similarities and differences between elliptical machines and running, covering everything you need to know about which one will give you the better workout.
Running and using the elliptical machine are similar in many ways, and we’ll cover that in this article. But I’d like to begin by looking at what each workout is especially good at.
An elliptical workout is a gentle, low-impact workout that still gives you a good calorie burn. One exercise scientist discovered that the impact forces of an elliptical were more similar to walking than to running. So if you want the calorie burn and cardio workout of running without the injuries, you should get on an elliptical.
But if you’re training for a race, you have to get in actual runs. An elliptical won’t cut it because there’s more to training than just getting a cardio workout. You need to be training your musculo-skeletal system so that you’re prepared for the race.
You won’t be at the upper reaches of your VO2 max for a long race (even a marathon), but you will be exerting a lot of force on your bones, and connective tissues, and that’s what you need to prepare in addition to cardio workouts.
Running is going to provide slightly greater cardiovascular benefits, although you need to be prepared that you might suffer ankle and knee injuries due to a consistent pounding of the pavement.
Even so, one exercise scientist at the University of Wisconsin La Cross found that the cardio benefits of heart rate and oxygen consumption were pretty similar between an elliptical and a treadmill, so this category doesn’t really go to either an elliptical workout or running.
But an elliptical machine will give you more than just a great cardio workout. They also work your arms, so you’ll get a little bit of an upper-body workout. And it’s an ideal machine for anyone suffering from injuries or needing to workout inside for a while.
An elliptical machine has a smooth movement that is easier on the joints than running is. This is especially important if you’re someone who has joint or back pain, or arthritis. Additionally, running can be hard if you’re carrying a lot of extra pounds.
In these cases, you might prefer starting with an elliptical machine to lose weight and burn calories because you’ll still get a great workout and burn a good number of calories without all the stress of running, which requires training and time to get used to.
If you work your body too hard (whether going too fast or too far) running, you’ll soon find yourself with injuries. It’s easy to overdo with running. Using an elliptical gives your body a bit of a break. You can get your workout in while skipping out on the impact to your joints.
You’ll burn more calories running on the road, compared to using an elliptical machine, although it’s a small edge. Because you have to propel yourself forward in running, it requires more energy. That means more calories burnt.
But the difference is about 100 calories or fewer per hour, so if you prefer the elliptical machine and don’t need those extra 50 calories for a 30-minute workout, the calorie burning benefits that running provide will be null.
For example, if you’re around 150 pounds and run a 9-minute mile, you’ll burn 409 calories in 30 minutes. If you’re jogging at a 12-minute mile, you’ll burn 298 calories in a half-hour. An elliptical is right in the middle—you’ll burn 335 calories in a half-hour. So, depending on how fast you run, an elliptical may or may not give you the better calorie-burning workout.
You’ll get more bang for your buck with a running workout if you look from the calorie side, as you’ll burn more calories in the same amount of time as an elliptical workout. But if you’re looking from the cardio perspective side, you’ll get about the same benefit from either workout.
Duration, therefore, really comes down to personal preference. If you want a good cardio workout that has an impact more like walking, then an elliptical workout is the better option. But if you’re a bit more hardcore, you should choose running.
Running is going to be cheaper because you can do it outside for free whereas you either have to purchase an elliptical machine or belong to a gym that has one.
If you happen to live in an apartment that has a small gym as a courtesy to its renters, you might be able to use an elliptical for free. But that’s the only time that it would be as cheap as running outside.
If you purchase an elliptical machine, you’re looking at spending between $1,000 to $2,000 for a good machine. That’s not a small amount of money, so you have to know that’s what you want.
Similarly, the average cost of a gym membership is about $60 a month or $720 a year. Although it’s cheaper than an elliptical machine that is in your home, you also have to factor in other costs like gas to get to the gym as well as time spent.
However, a gym membership does also provide you with other exercise tools that you can use for running, namely the treadmill and potentially a track, so if you use the elliptical machine half the time and the track half the time, the cost for using an elliptical to exercise versus running is about the same.
I personally don’t really like the elliptical, so I tend to avoid it. But I have several friends who start every workout at the gym with 10 minutes on the elliptical, going up to 10 resistance and coming back down.
Because the elliptical is a nice, smooth movement, it’s more relaxing than running, and you don’t really feel like you’re burning a lot of calories. It can be easier to let your mind wander on the elliptical, and it’s ideal if you want to get a cardio workout without pounding the pavement.
But running remains the better cardio workout because you get more bang for your buck. Plus, I personally love running outdoors and getting to see the ocean (I live by the beach), wave at my neighbors, feel the breeze (or sometimes full-out wind) in my hair, and just be grateful for nature.
Plus, I’ve run with friends before, and we’ve talked, but you’re much less likely to do that on an elliptical machine at the gym. I personally prefer running because it’s new every time I run outside even if I take the same route. Although it’s harder on my joints, I just make sure to stretch and warm-up and cool down so that I avoid injuries.
In the end, using an elliptical machine or running gives you a similar cardio workout with different advantages and disadvantages for each option. You just have to weigh what your goals are and figure out which exercise will help you best achieve that.