Curse you, elliptical!
November 13, 2010 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Why can't I do the elliptical? I thought it was supposed to mimic running but lower impact, and I have no problem running.

I recently joined a gym so I could run during the winter and maybe do some lower impact cardio. I'm no star athlete but I can do 30-40 mins on the treadmill at a decent running pace. But if I get on the elliptical on the default ramp setting with no resistance, I can only last about five minutes, and my thigh muscles are killing me. I don't get it since I thought the elliptical was supposed to be like running but low impact. Is it possible I'm doing it wrong? Or does it really use entirely different muscles?
posted by smackfu to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you perhaps trying to keep your feet flat on the plates? Many people find it more comfortable to let their heels rise as their feet rotate.
posted by embrangled at 7:16 AM on November 13, 2010

This might not be the same problem you have, but I also can't use the elliptical machine despite being an avid runner. I've found that the part where you put your foot forces me to point my feet in a way that's unnatural to me, and makes my legs very sore very quickly. It took me a long time to realize that this was what was happening, but now that I know, I just never use that machine, and opt for the stairclimber instead, which causes me no problems.
posted by activitystory at 7:16 AM on November 13, 2010

activitystory: "I've found that the part where you put your foot forces me to point my feet in a way that's unnatural to me, and makes my legs very sore very quickly."

Same here; I'm a runner and it was only after I bought an elliptical for snowy, icy morning run replacement when I realized that no matter where I put my feet, my gait became unnatural and painful. It makes an excellent clothes hanger, though.
posted by dzaz at 7:22 AM on November 13, 2010

I'm not a personal trainer, but I spend a lot of time in the gym exercising for rehabilitation so I might be able to answer your question.

To me an elliptical is not like running, you glide (either forwards or backwards), and adjust the resistance and ramp level depending on your fitness. The higher the ramp is, the more unlike running it can become. For example, I sometimes set the ramp to 8 or 10 and the resistance to 4 and work mainly my glutes rather than my hamstrings and calves (which I would be using if I was running). Another thought: Are you using the ellipticals with the arm motion in conjunction with the legs? Personally, I'm not very comfortable with the arm movement, and prefer to use the stationary arm holds on the ellipticals. Most gyms offer a free orientation session for new members, so see if a trainer can walk you through the elliptical settings to make sure you're doing everything correctly (posture, settings, etc.)?

Does your gym have an AMT from Precor? Due to major knee surgery years ago, I can no longer run on the ground (Doctor's orders), but the AMT gives me enough support to jog and run through my workout on it. You can do a stair master, jog, or run on an AMT; whereas an elliptical is much more about gliding (if the elliptical foot holds are on a ramp).
posted by carabiner at 7:26 AM on November 13, 2010

I work at a gym currently (graduating in the spring, gotta pay the bills) and from what I understand, an elliptical isn't supposed to mimic running exactly, that's why people use treadmills.

An elliptical is designed to work your quads and hams, among others. You're never supposed to lock your hips or knees, and your hams and quads are supposed to be constantly firing. If you fight the motion of the machine, you're going to feel sore in places you shouldn't. Keep your knees loose, don't tighten your hip flexors, and use your quads and hams.

Sure your muscles are going to burn a bit, that's the idea. You'd be surprised how quickly you'll improve over 2-3 weeks if you stick with it, especially if you're a runner.

I personally don't like using them, because I'll never be in a situation where I need to do long distance or sprint elliptical-ing. I'll be running, biking or swimming, so the motion to me is useless. That being said, it is still effective along with a good diet, AS LONG AS you don't fight the motion. If you lock up, everything will feel poppy and jerky and strange. If you keep the joints loose, the muscles you use will quickly become apparent, and you'll feel it.
posted by irishcoffee at 7:35 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am also a(n ex-) runner ellipticaling daily, and it took me a little while to acclimate. The main problem is that not all ellipticals are created equal. Some of them mimic the average running stride better than others. Some of them have footpads that feel really creepily unnatural. Some of them feel more like stairmasters.

I went through 4 different machines at my local Equinox before I found one that suited my height and stride and natural running movements; unfortunately there are only 4 such machines at my gym and I am like a rabid junkyard dog every time someone seems to be intercepting my path towards one at 6am on a tuesday.
posted by elizardbits at 7:45 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The best use I have found for the elliptical trainer was to rehab after a broken ankle some years back. I had never bothered to use it regularly before as I found my balance on it "off" and the movement awkward as it doesn't mimic anything I do (or anybody does?) in "real (albeit active) life." Like one of the other posters above, I prefer the ones with fixed arms. I will also observe that, probably because the body weight support and movement are inefficient from an energy-use perspective, one can burn a lot of energy on one. If a quick 1,000-calorie-an-hour burn interests you, the elliptical might be your cup of tea once you get used to it. Of course, YMMV.
posted by cool breeze at 7:53 AM on November 13, 2010

Yeah, try all the kinds of machines your gym has and see if one is better than the others for you. For me, the breakthrough came when I realized that I can't use the swinging arms feature on any model. Once I gave that up and just held onto the side railings (lightly, for balance) it allowed me to adjust my posture in such a way that the machine became comfortable for me.
posted by BlahLaLa at 8:25 AM on November 13, 2010

Stupid question: are you sure you're on an elliptical and not a stair machine? I only ask because a *cough* friend made that mistake a few times (those machines were located all in a row together) and was similarly puzzled.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:06 AM on November 13, 2010

I can't do the elliptical because it hurts my knees. The fixed gait length isn't for everyone.
And if you believe the "calorie burn" readouts on ellipticals, I have a nice piece of prime Florida real estate I'd like to sell you.
posted by ch1x0r at 9:43 AM on November 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, a lot of people have problems with it because it forces you to point your feet in a specific angle, and to have your legs a certain width apart. It could be either of those problems.
posted by shesaysgo at 11:13 AM on November 13, 2010

The elliptical provides resistance on the entire downswing of the foot ramps, whereas the only resistance you meet on a treadmill is when your foot hits the deck. In my opinion this is what makes the elliptical more "difficult" (where difficult = requires more force and therefore more exertion). It's probably something you just have to work up to. I did, even though I too was a treadmill runner.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 11:26 AM on November 13, 2010

When I was using the elliptical, I had no problem; however, running was difficult...
posted by bearette at 10:05 PM on November 13, 2010

Best answer: Any change in exercise is going to cause soreness in unexpected places. That's pretty much the point of changing things up: to make your body adapt to new stimuli. My rule of thumb to try a new form of exercise at least five times before even beginning to make any judgments whether it's a good exercise for me and my goals.

I would echo trying a different type of elliptical to see if it feels more natural, and add that, yeah, "the default ramp setting with no resistance" is kind of doing it wrong. Start with upping the resistance. Five minutes with no resistance... man, your legs must flying. Slow down and add some weight.

If the machine you are using has a strides-per-minute display, use it. Your session should have intervals where you can fly along at 200+ strides, but also have just as many where you really struggle to make the 100-125 range. 150-175 should feel about an average "I-can-hold-a-conversation-at-this-intensity" effort. Once you've messed around with the resistance and gotten a grasp how it affects your speed, then start changing the incline levels and see how that changes which muscles feel most worked. I tend spend a lot of time at a high incline (13+ on the machine I use) because that puts most of the work on the butt and calves rather than the thighs.

Finally, I would disagree somewhat with those suggesting ignoring the arms. Letting them go will help you keep good posture, and you shouldn't use them the whole session (especially, perhaps, while warming up). But if you don't use them at all, you are losing some of the deep-core-area benefits of the machine. Moving your arms, again with resistance, makes your body transfer that force to the machine via your core. Tighten your abs as you push/pull your arms and you can actually feel this transfer of power to the foot pedals. If you do forgo the dynamic arm bars, at least forgo the static bars as well, which will also force some activation of your core just to keep your balance. Use the static bars to catch if you feel like you're about to fall, or for taking a rest interval.
posted by Dano St at 8:57 AM on November 15, 2010

Oh, and try going backwards some.
posted by Dano St at 9:07 AM on November 15, 2010

Response by poster: So a few months later, and I am a regular on the elliptical now (though I still don't like the one with the arm motion). I think upping the resistance was really the key, since it prevents you from going too fast and burning out in five minutes. It also helped to realize that having the ramp completely lowered is not the easiest, unlike a treadmill, and that the default "10" ramp position is the most natural for me.
posted by smackfu at 12:33 PM on February 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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