7 Elliptical Workouts for Runners

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Cross-training is one of the best ways for runners to build strength and endurance without… Well, running. And if your chosen form of cross-training is elliptical, it’s an excellent alternative. It’s low-impact, which gives your joints a bit of a break but still offers all the benefits of running.

But to maximize your cross-training on the elliptical, you have to make the most of each workout. So we’ve put together all the information you need to know about this form of exercise and our top 7 elliptical workouts for runners.

Try one of them or try all of them. They’re all great for different things, so you’ll benefit from including them in your cross-training at some point.

Does an Elliptical Offer Good Workout for Runners?

The elliptical is an excellent cardio choice for runners. It’s close enough to the running motion to further strengthen those important muscles, but it has some interesting differences that make it an even more appealing choice for cross-training.

One of the biggest bonuses to the elliptical is that it’s more low-impact than running. You’ll get a similar workout but without the harsh impact on the joints. Twice the exercise, half the shock!

Another excellent feature of the elliptical is that it gives you a bit of an upper body workout too, which running doesn’t. More muscle equals a faster energy metabolism, a more toned body, and better performance on both the elliptical and the road or trail.

Can an Elliptical Make You a Faster Runner?

Logging regular miles on an elliptical won’t automatically make you run faster. But it builds the muscles in your legs and glutes, which helps you push off more powerfully.

It may also increase your muscular endurance, allowing you to run for longer at a higher pace before becoming fatigued.

You can also work specifically on your cadence on the elliptical, which translates well into running. As you need to focus on your posture, it can also help to build better posture and form habits during running.

So ultimately, yes, using the elliptical can contribute to you becoming a faster runner, thanks to its muscle- and endurance-building benefits, as well as boosting your cadence and getting you into better habits.

How Long Should I Run on the Elliptical?

You can match your elliptical workouts to the same time and intensity you would be doing if you were running. Instead of doing a HIIT workout running, you can do a HIIT workout on the elliptical—shorter intense bursts, with lower intensity sessions in between.

If you’d usually do a longer run at a more moderate to easy pace, you can do that too on an elliptical. Go for an hour at a lighter pace if that feels good. Mix and match your elliptical workouts to blend well with your running workouts, and make sure not to do too much or you’ll be at risk of overtraining.

It’s good to know that distance on the elliptical isn’t quite the same as distance when running. It gets a little complicated due to the unusual stride on the elliptical, so it’s easier to base your elliptical workouts on time rather than distance.

When is it Good to Use an Elliptical?

The elliptical is the preferred exercise for injured runners, especially if your injury is joint-related. It takes the stress off your joints and allows you to maintain your running fitness without aggravating your injury.

But it’s worthwhile doing it when you’re perfectly healthy as well. You don’t need to wait until you’re injured to use the elliptical. It’s a perfectly acceptable form of cross-training that can complement your running workouts, so if you’re looking for a way to build those running muscles and reduce strain on your joints, it’s a great choice.

What Is the Best Stride Length for an Elliptical?

This is a difficult question to answer because it depends on the person using the elliptical. For taller users over 6 feet, a stride length of 22 inches is optimal, but they can make do with 20 inches.

Users between 5”4 and 6 feet will find that a 16- to 18-inch stride length is adequate for maintaining proper form. Those under 5’4” can get by with a stride length of around 14 inches.

Some ellipticals have an adjustable stride length, which means multiple people can use them comfortably and effectively. They also allow for micro-adjustments that can make an elliptical slightly more comfortable.

But most have a set stride length, which may be difficult to find if you’re on an unfamiliar machine. It’s important that the stride feels comfortable to you—you shouldn’t be overstriding, or you’ll be at risk of injury.

Getting Your Form Right on an Elliptical

Just like running, getting your form right is important to maximize your workout and reduce your chance of injury. Make sure your feet are equal on the pedals—one shouldn’t be further forward than the other or angled differently.

Stand tall, keep your chest up, and look ahead, not down at your feet. It might sound unflattering, but the best way to ensure good posture is to pinch your shoulder blades together, move your head back to form a double chin and tuck your bottom inwards.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Make the most of your elliptical workout by avoiding these mistakes:

  • Letting go of the handles: You can let go of one to grab your water bottle, but letting go of both handles while you’re moving is dangerous. Always keep one hand on a handle!
  • Leaning forward: This tends to happen when you’re getting tired. It throws your form off and can reduce the effectiveness of your workout.
  • Distance training: Distance isn’t quite the same on an elliptical as it is when running. It’s complicated to calculate and can ruin the workout if you’re worried about getting your distance right. Stick to time-based workouts.
  • Using the same resistance: Unless you’re mimicking an easy run, you’re missing out if you aren’t using a program with varying resistance.

7 Best Elliptical Workouts for Runners

Ready to get going? Try one—or more—of these elliptical workouts for runners. Take some time to get used to the motion, as it’s a little different to running!

1. For Beginners

A 20-minute workout that will get you going and build up your fitness level. If there’s a custom program on the elliptical, you can set this workout beforehand or change the resistance manually as you go.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at a low resistance and a comfortable pace.
  • 3 minutes: Up the resistance 1 to 4 notches, depending on what’s comfortable. You should feel it, but still be able to have a conversation. This is known as baseline pace.
  • 2 minutes: Increase the resistance until you can feel it and have a little trouble conversing.
  • 3 minutes: Decrease the resistance back to your baseline level and maintain a comfortable pace.
  • 2 minutes: Increase the resistance until you can feel it and you have a little trouble carrying on a conversation.
  • 5 minutes: Cool down at a low resistance and a comfortable pace.

2. Hill Climb Workout

You don’t need an interval to simulate a hill climb! This workout effectively do it using just resistance.

  • 10 minutes: Warm up at a low resistance level and a comfortable pace.
  • 10 minutes: Increase the resistance by 2 levels on every “odd” minute, and decrease it by one level on every “even” minute.
  • 2 minutes: Reduce to the same level as your warm-up.
  • Repeat two to three times for a full workout.
  • 10-minute cool down at the end.

3. Pyramid Workout

This is a fun and challenging workout for intermediate and advanced elliptical users. It’s all about your own level of intensity.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at a low resistance and a comfortable pace.
  • 1 minute: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 1 minute: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 2 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 3 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 4 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 5 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 4 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 3 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 2 minutes: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 2 minutes: Rest, easy pace, and low resistance.
  • 1 minute: High-intensity at either the same resistance or 1 level up.
  • 5 minutes: Cool down at a low resistance and easy pace.

If this is a bit much, this might be a better option for a beginner:

  • 3 minutes: Warm up at a low resistance and moderate pace.
  • 1 minute: Go hard
  • 1 minute: Rest
  • 50 seconds: Go hard
  • 50 seconds: Rest
  • 40 seconds: Go hard
  • 40 seconds: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 30 seconds: Rest
  • 20 seconds: Go hard
  • 20 seconds: Rest
  • 10 seconds: Go hard
  • 10 seconds: Rest
  • 20 seconds: Go hard
  • 20 seconds: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 30 seconds: Rest
  • 40 seconds: Go hard
  • 40 seconds: Rest
  • 50 seconds: Go hard
  • 50 seconds: Rest
  • 1 minute: Go hard
  • 5 minutes: Cool down

4. Interval Workout

Excellent way of building endurance and challenging yourself!

  • 30 seconds: High intensity
  • 30 seconds: Low intensity
  • Repeat for 20 minutes
  • Increase resistance for added challenge
  • 5 minutes cool down

5. Speed Workout

This is all about your rate of perceived exertion—RPE. 1 equals a pace you could keep up indefinitely, while 10 is a pace you can only hold for around 30 seconds.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at an RPE of 1 or 2
  • 45 seconds: Set resistance to an RPE of 8 or 9
  • 75 seconds: Set resistance to RPE of 2 or 3
  • Repeat both 10 times
  • 5 minutes: Cool down at an RPE of 2 or 3

6. Endurance Workout

This is a steady-state workout that’s designed to build muscular endurance. Put some music on and push through it!

  • 45 minutes: Maintain a steady pace at a moderate resistance level
  • If it starts to feel too easy, increase the resistance a little or up the pace
  • 5 minutes: Cool down at a low resistance and easy pace

7. HIIT Workout

A HIIT workout is a great one to have in the repertoire for when you need a bit of a challenge. HIIT workouts also tend to burn more post-workout calories! You can stick to one level of resistance throughout this one, or if you’re feeling brave, play with the resistance and incline levels at each interval.

  • 5 minutes: Warm up at a low resistance and moderate pace
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 1 min 30 secs: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 1 min 15 secs: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 1 minute: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 45 seconds: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 1 minute: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 1 min 15 secs: Rest
  • 30 seconds: Go hard
  • 3 minutes: Cool down

Tips to Maximize Your Workout

Want to get the most out of every elliptical workout? Learn and remember these tips and you’ll always get a great workout.

Focus On Your Posture

One of the most common mistakes is to shift your weight forward and slouch over the console as your legs get tired. Don’t fall into this trap—pay attention to your posture throughout the movement and make sure you’re staying upright.

Keep your shoulders down, stand up straight, and ensure everything from your ankles to your shoulders is aligned.

Pedal in Both Directions

Not all ellipticals allow bi-directional pedaling, but take advantage of it if yours does! The change in direction activates the leg and core muscles differently, and it’s easy to do once you get the hang of it. You may need to lower the resistance until you get used to the movement.

Resistance Is Your Friend

Don’t go too light on the resistance! You need something for your muscles to work against. It shouldn’t be easy, but it shouldn’t feel like you’re fighting against an impossible force.

You may need to experiment to find the ideal resistance in the beginning. It’ll require some work and will make you sweat… But it shouldn’t cause pain or exhaust you. You can increase the resistance slowly over the weeks.

Include Sprints in Your Workouts

Sprints do wonders for muscle building and cardiovascular strength. In most cases, you can find sprint programs built into the elliptical—it’s an interval program that alternates sprint sessions and slower, more relaxed sessions.

You can do them a few times a week—it doesn’t need to be daily. But sprints are a valuable way to increase strength and endurance.

Keep an Eye on Your Heart Rate Zone

The “fat-burning zone” is between 60 and 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. Keep an eye on your heart rate and make sure it’s in this zone if you’re aiming to lose weight.

For muscle building, you can kick it up a notch to 70 to 80 percent of your MHR. This is an aerobic zone, which means your body uses oxygen for fuel rather than your body fat. It’s the perfect place to increase your aerobic capacity, fitness level, and muscle mass.

Use the Incline Feature

If you’re lucky enough to be on an elliptical with an incline feature, don’t miss the chance to use it! It adds a serious element of challenge to the exercise and works your muscles differently. It’s a great leg muscle builder.

Start slow. Hop up to just the first incline level and see how it feels. Some of the built-in programs may include incline and move up and down automatically as you go through the program.

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.