How similar is using an elliptical machine to running?
October 31, 2007 11:15 AM   Subscribe

How similar is using an elliptical machine to running?

I sustained a minor stress fracture running about a month ago, which caused me to give up my normal run/walk routine. After being mostly pain free over the past two weeks, I decided to try the elliptical last night. I took it easy, only raising my heart rate to an average of 138 over 30 minutes. Other than the awkward motions of the elliptical, I felt fine - no pain associated with my injury. Typically, I run at 5 miles per hour with an average heart rate of 140. However, the elliptical reported that at a similar heart rate, I was averaging seven miles per hour.

I suspect that the primary cause of this difference is twofold. First, and primarily, the machine calculates miles per hour based on RPMs, which likely does not translate directly to running speed. Second, my muscular and cardiovascular strength has improved since the injury because I stepped up my cross training (cycling, swimming, and strength training) since I've stopped running and walking, but this might account for a 10% improvement, guessing, not a 40% improvement in my run speed, and even 10% is likely pushing it.

Since I'm stuck on the elliptical until I go two weeks without foot pain associated with my injury, I am wondering: how effective of a substitute for running is an elliptical machine? Are they similar at all or is the commenter on my fitness blog correct when he states that the elliptical is more like cycling? Is there anything one can do on an elliptical machine to better prepare for running again?

Thanks for your thoughts.
posted by sequential to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I had a very difficult time transitioning from an elliptical trainer to running (especially on concrete sidewalks). I suspect that part of it just had to do with building up the "shock absorbers" in my leg muscles that hadn't been used on the elliptical trainer. (Plus, I have a long stride and constantly felt like I was about to trip and fall down on the elliptical.) I did find that my lungs worked fine when I started running, though — my legs just had to catch up.

However, if you've already spent a lot of time running, it's unlikely that you're going to lose much of your ability to run while you recover if you're keeping your fitness level up through cross-training. I stopped running and cross-training entirely for about three months, and when I started again, it only took me about a month to build back up to a level that had previously taken me nearly a year to reach. I wouldn't worry about it too much.

And you're right, the speed/distance the elliptical trainer tells you doesn't translate at all to a running distance. (Even if the "distance" you covered was somehow correct, running is different and does take more effort, so it wouldn't mean anything anyway.) Just concentrate on a length of time similar to the time you spent running, or keep going until you feel about as tired as you did after a run and call it good enough.
posted by adiabat at 11:39 AM on October 31, 2007

I can't speak of the precise similarities and differences between running and the elliptical, but for a while I was working out on the elliptical, on a high resistance level, three times a week... and I still couldn't jog down the block. The only thing that got me running was running itself.

It sounds like you're doing everything right, though, with cross-training and keeping your heart rate up on the elliptical. I'd guess that it'll be a minor challenge for you to get back into running, but not for long. If your speed does improve with the new routine, it'll likely be due to the strength you've obtained with cross-training rather than anything you've done on the elliptical.

It's not a perfect substitute, but it's good for the sake of keeping up your heart rate during your recovery and for keeping a routine going.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:51 PM on October 31, 2007

Another thing that might be useful for you to know is that a lot of people make the elliptical much less challenging than it should be by bouncing up and down while working out. If you're doing that, you're giving your legs much less of a workout than if you don't bounce.

The key to getting a good workout that maximizes your heart rate and keeps all your leg muscles you've built up from running in good shape is to consciously concentrate on not bouncing. (This is also probably better for your foot.) If you've got mirrors in front of you when you work out--or even a slightly-reflective window--find yourself there, and when you start going concentrate on keeping the top of your head completely even--no going up and down! You'll find that to do this you generally have to shift your center of gravity backwards, towards your heels, and even "lean back" a little. (You're not actually leaning back, but it feels like you are after leaning forward on your toes to bounce.) Trust me, if you go from bouncing up and down to leaning back a little and keeping your head perfectly steady, you'll feel it in your quads a lot more.

I don't think this really simulates running, per se, but it does give a cardio workout that is more in line with you'd get if you actually ran, in my experience. Whenever someone tells me that doing the elliptical stepper is soooo much easier than running, I usually think it's a sign that they've got bad form and are getting less out of it then they could.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:51 PM on October 31, 2007 [2 favorites]

They definitely work your leg muscles differently. Running will build / require strong calf muscles, and ellipticals will do nothing in that regard. On the other hand, you'll build strong quads.

As far as the cardio benefits, I wouldn't be surprised if they're the same. An elevated heart rate by any other method still smells sweet. Running is still the most efficient calorie burner, though.
posted by knave at 1:18 PM on October 31, 2007

I must have been using the wrong settings, because I run faster than 5 mph (on treadmills with inclines, on sidewalks, or on trails), but I'm ready to collapse after maybe 8 minutes on the elliptical. Clearly YMMV.

On preview, perhaps my calf muscles are stronger than my other ones. I'm still not clear how ellipticals are generally "easier."
posted by scission at 1:43 PM on October 31, 2007

While the cardio workout may be equivalent (or better), I found that the physical use of an elliptical machine to be completely different from running. Not even remotely similar, really. The motions are completely different for me.
posted by Thorzdad at 2:08 PM on October 31, 2007

You can garner similar cardio benefits, but no, doing the elliptical will not help you run a 10K fast. They're very, very different. And unfortunately, measurements like "miles per hour" and calories burned are notoriously inaccurate on elliptical machines, just like most exercise machines.
posted by schroedinger at 2:36 PM on October 31, 2007

My experience is similar to Thorzdad's. I just feel like it's a slow, easy course on the elliptical, and feel like I'm getting an actual workout on the treadmill. But YMMV, I suppose. I don't monitor heart rate.
posted by cmgonzalez at 4:23 PM on October 31, 2007

An elliptical will not translate to on-the-ground running because it won't build up the impact resistance running does. Not sure about treadmill running though; I've never used one.
posted by loiseau at 7:25 PM on October 31, 2007

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