Jeff Gaudette— A few weeks ago, I took a look at the benefits of aqua jogging for injured runners and provided some sample workouts designed to help keep you fit during time off from training. Unfortunately, not all runners are able to take advantage of aqua jogging when they are injured because it requires deep water that isn’t always readily available. So, you might be wondering, what is the next best cross-training solution for runners?
After aqua jogging, the elliptical machine is a runner’s best choice for cross-training. The movement of the elliptical closely mimics running form, but without the impact, and you can easily monitor and change your intensity level. More importantly, elliptical machines are widely available in most gyms, making them an easy cross-training solution.
In the following pages, we’ll take a look at the research regarding the potential benefits of elliptical training for runners. I’ll also outline a few workouts to keep your heart pounding and your fitness intact.
The Benefits Of Elliptical Training
There is no exact cross-training substitute for running, but elliptical training can provide similar fitness benefits for injured runners or those that need to cross-train to supplement mileage. While direct comparisons between elliptical training and running are limited in scientific research, I did uncover some data about how elliptical training and running compare.
In one study, researchers compared oxygen consumption, energy expenditure, and heart rate on a treadmill versus an elliptical when exercising at the same perceived level of exertion. The results indicated that while heart rate was slightly higher on the elliptical, oxygen consumption and energy expenditure were similar on both machines. As such, the researchers concluded that “during a cross training or noncompetition-specific training phase, an elliptical device is an acceptable alternative to a treadmill.”
A 2004 study reviewed the apparent differences in heart rate on the treadmill compared to the elliptical machine. While the researchers did not find the same elevated heart rate levels seen in the previously mentioned study, they did find that the rating of perceived exertion (RPE) was the same in the chest and actually more intense for the legs on the elliptical compared to the treadmill (presumably from the incline). As such, the researchers concluded that using RPE as a measurement of effort can produce fitness results similar to running.
Finally, another study compared metabolic and cardio-respiratory improvements following a 12-week training program using an elliptical trainer versus a treadmill. The researchers found that when training volumes and intensities were equivalent on the treadmill and elliptical, physiological adaptations remained relatively the same.
The results of these limited studies suggests that while the elliptical is not a perfect substitution for running, it will allow you to maintain some level of fitness during time off from training.
The only potential drawback to the elliptical machine for injured runners is that it can still aggravate some injuries, despite the lack of impact. Those injuries include stress fractures, achilles injuries, and IT band issues. So, be careful and listen to your body when on the elliptical.
Sample Elliptical Eorkouts
“Easy” Workouts (And the importance of RPMs)
Easy elliptical workouts should be performed between 65-75% of maximum heart rate. During a typical easy run, you would have a stride rate that is equivalent to a cadence that is 90 RPM (rotations per minute) on an elliptical. So, for easy elliptical sessions and breaks between intervals, lower the resistance and incline on the elliptical so you can maintain a rhythm of 90 RPM. As a note, some elliptical machines measure stride rate, which measures both legs, so the stride rate would 180.
The types of elliptical sessions should be used for recovery between hard workouts (just like you need in running) or general maintenance if you’re not injured and using the elliptical to supplement mileage.
In general, you should replicate your time running on an average easy day with an equal amount of time on the elliptical. So, if your normal easy run is 45-50 minutes, than you would elliptical for 45-50 minutes. I prefer a lower incline since it more closely mimics the running motion.
Medium-effort elliptical workouts should be between 87-92 percent of maximum heart rate. This is what you would consider a comfortably hard tempo run effort. Aim for 90 RPM, but increase the resistance or the incline to elevate your heart rate (and effort) to appropriate levels.
The types of elliptical sessions are great for runners who are injury prone and want to perform more intense workouts, but can’t add the volume to their training mix without getting injured. They are also good “maintenance” days for injured runners. These workouts will help keep your heart rate up, but aren’t so tough that you can’t perform them daily. To make the workouts longer or shorter, simply adjust the number of repetitions.
1. 10:00 warm up, 6 x 5:00hard/3:00 easy, 5:00 cool down
2. 10:00 warm up, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 minutes hard w/2:00 recovery between all, 5:00 cool down
3. 10:00 warm up, 6 sets of 1:00 medium, 1:00 hard, 1:00 medium, 1:00 hard, 1:00 easy, 5:00 cool down
4. 10:00 warm up, 1:00 hard, 30 seconds easy, 30 seconds hard:, 30 seconds easy, 2:00 hard, 30 seconds easy (continue building up until 5:00, and then come back down by :30 second intervals) 10:00 cool down
Hard-effort elliptical workouts should be performed between 95-100 percent of maximum heart rate. This is considered a VO2 max or speed workout type of effort. Again, aim for maintaining 90 RPM and increase the resistance to achieve the desired effort level.
Hard efforts are great for injured runners who need to maintain fitness and train hard to get back in shape fast. Much like hard running workouts, you should do no more than two or three of these hard workouts per week. You still need recovery even though the impact is lessened.
1. 10:00 warm up, 20:00 medium pace, 3 x 3:00 hard w/90-seconds recovery between reps, 5:00 cool down
2. 10:00 warm up, start at level 1 and increase resistance every 4 minutes for 35-40 minutes, 5:00 cool down (Note: This is a simulated hill workout.)
3. 10:00 warm up, 3 sets of 5:00 medium effort, 2:00 hard, 5:00 medium, 2:00 hard, 2:00 easy, 5:00 cool down
Cross-training can be tough, especially when you’re injured or want to be increasing your volume and upping the intensity. By implementing some elliptical training into your routine, you’ll emerge from your injury with minimal fitness loss and challenge your aerobic system without the pounding.