And if your local gym is closed or you’re avoiding it due to COVID-19 concerns, it’s natural to wonder how beneficial other machines are to your training and how the elliptical vs. treadmill stacks up. Turns out, the elliptical is also a great piece of equipment for runners. Plus, as it might be tricky to get your hands on a treadmill right now (given the current state of the world), the elliptical is a great option to pair with outdoor running. If you’re smart, you’ll work both into your regular workout routine. Nell Rojass Strength Workout for Better Running.
The best reason to use the treadmill is the most obvious: It mimics that natural movement of running outside (without subjecting you to the elements). “Treadmills are also the most honest machines on the planet,” says David Siik, senior manager of running and creator of Precision Running at Equinox in Los Angeles. “If you input nine miles per hour, it is going to make you go nine miles per hour until you step off. That honesty and the ability to microprogram your speed, incline, and time creates a form of accountability that is so healthy and so rewarding.”
And on the treadmill, your body is going to experience a little less impact than on the pavement, which can keep your joints feeling good. But there is still some impact, which is also a good thing. “The healthy impact from a treadmill is so important in maintaining bone density as you age,” explains Siik. According to research from the University of Missouri, running may actually have more of an impact on building stronger bones than resistance training.
Even though you’re not putting a ton of stress on your upper body, running also causes what Siik calls “natural reaction,” where your infrastructure—your muscle and cartilage—is provoked to stay strong. “And mile after mile, that burns a lot of extra calories,” he says.
So if burning calories is your goal, treadmill running is a great option. Running a 10-minute mile burns about 9.8 METs—or the “metabolic equivalent” for a task, which is an estimate of how much energy the body uses during physical activity (sitting still is just one MET). A 150-pound person would burn 668.2 calories per hour running. That same 150-pound person would burn around 340.9 calories per hour using the elliptical at a moderate effort.
Of course, there’s a flip side (and a reason the treadmill is also called the “dreadmill”). “If you don’t have a plan or a coach to guide you, going nowhere fast can be boring without that engagement in your workout,” Siik says. And maybe even more relatable, running is hard! It takes a lot of work to push yourself forward on the treadmill (even with the moving belt), which can be discouraging to some people.
When to Use the Treadmill
If you’re used to running for fitness, working out on the treadmill three to four days a week can be a game-changer in terms of strength, stamina, and leanness, Siik says. And if you’re training for a race, two to three treadmill days is a great way to log runs with more hands-on control in terms of pace and incline. “The treadmill can take you to limits far beyond what an elliptical can, and can push you to do more work,” Siik says. “The amount of energy it takes to push off the ground to fight gravity is very big.”
You might write off using the elliptical as an easier workout than running. And it is—but that can actually benefit you. “The elliptical can provide a lower-impact workout for runners, because you’re constantly connected to the pedals, causing less strain on the knees and joints,” says Lee Wratislaw, a certified personal trainer for Gold’s Gym AMP app. That means you’ll save your lower-body joints from a lot of wear and tear—one study estimates that 80 percent of running injuries are caused by overuse.
Another plus: You’re going to get a better total-body workout when using the elliptical. “Pushing and pulling the handles can provide a challenge for the upper body, plus you’re really engaging your core to balance the movements between your upper and lower body,” Wratislaw says. “Changing the incline and resistance settings can be a great tool for targeting different areas of the lower body.” Also, the elliptical lets you stride backward. “Pedaling in reverse can be an effective way to target the hamstrings, while increasing the incline can bring the focus to the glutes,” he adds. “All of these areas are important for runners to work on.”
You burn about half the amount of calories on an elliptical compared to what you can burn on a treadmill in the same amount of time, though, if you go by METs. But you’re working harder than you think—some studies have shown that you can burn the same number of calories on each piece of equipment, only it may actually feel easier to do it on the elliptical thanks to a higher perceived rate of exertion. “If you adjust your intensity output, you can really increase the calorie-burning effects of an elliptical,” Wratislaw says.
Here’s where we remind you that, while it’s okay to keep tabs on calories, obsessing over calorie burn can be an unhealthy behavior, and most machines inaccurately estimate calorie burn anyway.
One major con: The elliptical moves in a locked pattern, and you can’t use it to focus on running form. “Runners who are training for a race will want to focus more of their time on a treadmill or outdoors to improve their technique because they won’t achieve that on the elliptical,” Wratislaw says. And the elliptical does share a common flaw with the treadmill: A steady-state session can be boring AF, and might just feel like you’re spinning your wheels.
When to Use the Elliptical
While the elliptical can’t replace running outside or on the treadmill, it can seriously benefit runners—especially runners who are injured or overtired. “The elliptical offers a lower-impact experience, giving you a break on your joints when you need it,” Siik says. “Also, variety is good for you! Moving the body a little differently also helps create some balance.”
The elliptical can also be used as active recovery and low-impact conditioning for a runner who may need a rest day from their running routine, says Wratislaw (remember, sometimes, all that impact isn’t great). “Incorporating the elliptical will allow you to still reap the cardiovascular benefits of a tough workout while providing lower impact,” he says. “That can be a great tool for runners who want to prevent injury or who just want to mix up their fitness routine.”