How Should You Train When Running is not an Option? The Elliptical as a Cross Training Alternative

Guest blog by Jeff Gaudette, courtesy of RunnersConnect

A few weeks ago, we examined the benefits of aqua jogging for injured runners and provided some sample workouts to help keep you as fit as possible during time off.

Unfortunately, not all runners are able to take advantage of aqua jogging when they are injured because it requires a pool deep enough to run in.

So, what is the next best cross-training solution for runners?

The closest equivalent to running: The elliptical

After aqua jogging, the elliptical machine is a runner’s best choice for cross training equipment. The movement of the elliptical closely mimics running form, but without the impact, and you can easily monitor and change the intensities.

More importantly, elliptical machines are widely available in most gyms, making them an easy cross training solution.

In this article, I am going to share some of the research regarding the potential benefits of elliptical training for runners as well as a few workouts to keep your heart pounding and your fitness sustained.

The benefits of elliptical training

Obviously, there is no exact substitute for running, but elliptical training can provide some 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 effort (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 and 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 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. Such injuries include stress fractures, achilles injuries, and the IT band. So, be careful and listen to your body when on the elliptical.

Sample elliptical workouts

Easy elliptical training and RPMs

 Easy elliptical workouts should be performed between 65-75 percent 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.

Easy 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 time on the elliptical.

So, if your normal easy run is 45-50 minutes, then you would use an elliptical for 45-50 minutes.

I prefer a lower incline since it more closely mimics the running motion.

Medium effort elliptical workouts

Medium elliptical workout should be 87-92 percent of the maximum heart rate. This is what you would consider a hard tempo run effort or comfortably hard.

Maintain 90 rpm, but increase the resistance or the incline to elevate your heart rate and effort to appropriate levels.

Medium 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 without getting injured. They are also good as “maintenance” days for injured runners.

The workouts will help keep your heart rate up, but aren’t so killer that you can’t perform them daily.

To make the workouts longer or shorter, simply adjust the number of repetitions.

1. 10 minutes easy w/u
6 x 5 mins hard
3 mins easy
5 mins easy c/d

2. 10 minutes easy w/u
1,2.3,4.5,6,5,4,3,2,1 minutes hard w/2min easy btwn all
5 min easy c/d

3. 10 minutes easy w/u
1 min medium, 1 min hard, 1 min medium, 1 min hard
1 min easy (x6)
5 min easy c/d

4. 10 minutes easy w/u
1:00 hard, 30 sec easy, 30 sec hard:, 30 sec easy, 2:00 hard
:30 easy (continue building up until 5:00, and then come back down by :30 second intervals)
10 min easy c/d

Hard effort elliptical workouts

 Hard elliptical workouts should be performed at 95-100 percent of the maximum heart rate. This would be considered a VO2max or speed workout type effort.

Again, maintain 90 rpm and increase the resistance to achieve the desired effort level.

Hard efforts are great for the inured runner who needs to maintain fitness and train to get back in shape fast. 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 min easy w/20 min medium pace
3 x 3 mins hard w/90 sec easy
5 min c/d

2. 10 min easy w/u
start at level 1 and increase resistance every 4 minutes for 35-40 minutes
5 min c/d (this is a simulated hill workout)

3. 10 min easy w/u
5 min medium, 2 min hard, 5 min medium, 2min hard, 2 min easy, (x 3)
5 min easy c/d

Final thoughts

Cross training can be tough, especially when you’re injured or want to be increasing your volume faster.

By providing a variety of workouts and implementing some elliptical training, you’ll emerge from your injury with minimal fitness loss and challenge your aerobic system without the pounding.

Thanks to Jeff Gaudette for sharing this with Level Renner. You can see the original blog post here. Find this and so much more in the RunnersConnect blog.

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