How to use an elliptical to enhance your running

While it may sound counterintuitive, to improve as a runner you shouldn’t rely exclusively on running. Cross-training, in all its diverse forms, can help to strengthen your muscles, safeguard you from injury, assist recovery, and keep you mentally stimulated. But if running is all you know, it might be difficult to remove the blinkers and know how to cross into the cross-training arena.

The elliptical is a trusty machine that can help to solve your cross-training conundrum. Easy to use yet highly effective, the elliptical was designed to mimic the motions of running without generating the same impact on the body, making it a great run-like activity to slot into your training.


What is an elliptical?

Otherwise known as an elliptical machine, an elliptical trainer or simply a cross trainer, the elliptical is a large but staple piece of gym equipment. But, just like treadmills, you can use a quality elliptical from the comfort of your home, too – here are some of the best ellipticals to buy right now.

Otherwise known as an elliptical machine, an elliptical trainer, or simply a cross trainer, the elliptical is a large but staple piece of gym equipment. But, just like treadmills, you can use a quality elliptical from the comfort of your home, too – here are some of the best ellipticals to buy right now.

The elliptical gets you working in an upright position, with your feet placed on two pedals that move forward – or indeed backward, to work different muscles – in a smooth, circular motion, not dissimilar to pedal revolutions while riding a bike. That said, unlike other cross-training activities like cycling on a turbo trainer or swimming, training on the elliptical gets you working in a running-specific way that is still gentler on the body. As exercise physiologist Todd Buckingham notes, the elliptical ‘decreases the weight-bearing and muscle-pounding that running produces because it’s a much lower impact exercise.’

Some ellipticals have long handles that are joined to the foot pedals and move forward and backward as you move your legs – providing a decent upper body workout in the process – while others have stationary handles to hold as you focus on your lower body.

Ellipticals often feature a screen where you can view your workout stats – such as your heart rate, your calories burnt, and the intensity level you’re working at – or perhaps even watch a film or TV show. (You can’t do that on an outdoor run!) You’ll also find various dials on this part of the machine where you can change the resistance or incline or choose a pre-programmed elliptical workout to follow.


How does an elliptical work?

When used correctly, an elliptical gives you an excellent low-impact, full-body aerobic workout. It can help to strengthen your heart, lungs, and muscles and develop your stamina and endurance – solid physiological benefits that can assist your running performance, too.

But how do you use an elliptical correctly? It can feel awkward and unusual trying to use a machine for the first time, so here’s how to quickly get to grips with the elliptical and reap the rewards of your cross-training workout.

  1. Step onto the elliptical – with one foot on each pedal – facing the handles and screen if there is one. The pedals may rock forward and backward slightly as you find your center of gravity, but this is completely normal.
  2. If you want to do a pre-programmed workout – should your elliptical offer workouts – use the dials on or near the screen to select the one you wish to do. Some workouts focus on building strength, for example, while others are designed to build your aerobic fitness – but all help to add structure and variety to your elliptical training. The elliptical also does all the thinking and button-pressing for you, as it automatically changes the resistance and gradient in line with the workout requirements.
  3. Once you’ve chosen your workout, or if you simply want to get going and change the resistance and incline as you please, start pedaling by moving your legs in the same way that you would take strides while running or walking. Keep your feet on the pedals as you move.
  4. If the elliptical has moveable handles, hold onto these and go with the motion so you can work your upper body at the same time.
  5. Keep pedaling for as long as you wish, or for as long as your elliptical workout lasts. You’ll be able to see your elapsed time – or time remaining – on the screen in front of you.


Top elliptical tips


  • Stay in control by standing upright on the machine, leaning neither forward nor backward, and looking straight ahead.
  • Gradually increase the resistance or gradient on the elliptical machine to increase the difficulty of your workout and engage different parts of the lower body. Steeper inclines, for example, bring the focus to your glutes.
  • Once you’re confident with the motion, try mixing things up by using the elliptical with a ‘no hands’ approach. Not holding the handles while moving your legs forces you to work on stabilizing your core and building your balance.
  • Want another challenge? Pedaling backward may feel strange at first, but can be an effective way to target the hamstrings, which help to stabilize the knee joint and play a central role in your overall running performance.



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