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Cross-Training

Yes, The Elliptical Can Create Champions. Here’s How.

In training plans of athletes who are volume-limited, you’ll often see a pattern: a couple of hours on the elliptical a week. Should you consider the elliptical in your training plan? Here’s why the elliptical might be the fitness machine with the biggest bang for your cross-training training buck.

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Last year at the NCAA 5K championships, we may have seen one of the most astonishing moments in US running history. Parker Valby, a redshirt freshman at the University of Florida, finished 2nd place… off 2 runs per week for 4 weeks

“I credit all my success to cross-training,” she said in the post-race interview. 

You’ve got to be kidding me. Around 8-10 runs all season before finishing 2nd place at a national event? Talent is one thing, but at that level, everyone is talented. For her physiology, that cross-training regimen must have been what allowed her talent to shine as brightly as any of her competitors who were doing full seasons of consistent running training.

While watching that race, my co-coach Megan and I were screaming. Part of that symphony of shrieks was excitement and awe, but the other emotion was extreme scientific wonder. Some people get noise complaints for banging their beds against the wall; we get noise complaints for scientific curiosity. 

Given what the literature says about the importance of specific training for breakthrough results, Valby’s routine must have approximated specific running training, while being low-impact enough to allow her calcaneal stress fracture (small breaks in the heel bone) to heal. Even accounting for her talent, whatever cross-training she was doing may be a major opportunity for better understanding training for peak performance. 

Tell us your secrets, Parker. Our neighbors demand it!

Elliptical Stories

Valby credited the elliptical and arc-trainer, along with pool running. We filed that information away into the box of training curiosities, introducing a bit more time on the elliptical for our athletes who were dealing with injuries, or coming back from pregnancy, but not overhauling how we approach training more generally. 

A big batch of studies shows that cross-training as a replacement for running rarely improves performance, so it was easy to write Valby off as an anomaly, especially because we had no direct evidence of the work she was doing outside of some interview snippets.

But we were on the scent, like two distractible Golden Retrievers, sniffing around for other elite athletes using the elliptical. 

On September 25, Natasha Wodak set the Canadian record in the marathon, running a 2:23:12 at age 40. Her Strava profile shows extra volume on the elliptical. Her coach, the incredible scientist Trent Stellingwerff, said that Wodak “uses the elliptical 2 to 4 times/week proactively to add aerobic volume more safely,” resulting in 2 hours of extra aerobic load. 

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Aliphine Tuliamuk cited the elliptical as a benefit to her training prior to winning the Olympic Trials in the marathon. Tons of athletes use the Elliptigo, an upright version of a bike that has the added benefit of making sure users don’t take themselves too seriously. I would argue that the Elliptigo is one of the strongest paths toward personal enlightenment, because riding it in public may result in ego-death.

Thinking back to my own journey, I remember using the elliptical extensively in early 2014, as I came back from a hip injury. After I returned to running that year, I had my big breakthrough that culminated in being named the USATF Sub-Ultra Trail Runner of the Year. That’s right: the elliptical may have played a role in earning me a certificate. Certificates rule everything around me. Fancy, fancy paper y’all.

Elliptical Science for Runners

All of these examples are subject to selection bias. Take a talented athlete (or someone who is extremely motivated by certificates) and give them any training intervention, and you may wind up confusing correlation with causation. But while it’s close-to-impossible to connect elliptical training interventions with long-term outcomes, there is surprisingly robust evidence for the elite-athlete anecdotes. 

A 2004 study in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that running, the elliptical, and the stair-climber all led to similar improvements when training volume and intensity were equivalent. That finding was duplicated by a 2021 study in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. Another 2004 study, this one in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, found that the treadmill and elliptical produced similar maximal values in physiological variables during a VO2 max test. 

lower legs on a gym machine
(Photo: Getty Images)

And there could even be extra advantages to the elliptical. A 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research had 18 athletes do 2 sub-maximal tests 15 minutes apart, with one on the treadmill and one on the elliptical. While VO2 and perceived exertion were the same for both, heart rate was 19 beats per minute higher on the elliptical (and energy expenditure was 10% higher, but it was a non-significant finding). That may indicate that the potential aerobic benefit could be greater than an equivalent effort run in some cases, particularly when using the arm levers actively, aligning with cross country skiing. A 2011 study compared the elliptical and the bike and found “Elliptical training demonstrated greater quadriceps activity and greater quadriceps/hamstrings coactivation than all other conditions.” That muscle activation could be even more beneficial in trail running, since uphills have a similar increased demand on the quads.

You can add elliptical time on top of running, or to replace mileage, and there’s good evidence it will contribute to enhanced running fitness. 

How To Use The Elliptical

After Natasha Wodak’s Canadian record and confirming with the research, we took the plunge: We bought an elliptical. Precor, you owe Natasha a commission, because WE GOT INFLUENCED. 

The elliptical seems like a wonderful way to add aerobic volume and intensity without the injury risk of running. It’s likely better than the bike on a 1:1 basis because it involves greater activation of the hips and hamstrings, due to the posture on the machine, while also allowing for arm-swing. It may be better than the stair-stepper, too, since its cadence is closer to running. You can add elliptical time on top of running, or to replace mileage, and there’s good evidence it will contribute to enhanced running fitness. 

However, I don’t think that it’s as simple as adding a few minutes on the elliptical here and there. Not every elliptical workout is created equal. 

For the longest time, I just thought of the elliptical as the machine that you get on reluctantly at 24 Hour Fitness, moving in slow, sad arcs as your brain gets poisoned by the gym playing Fox News on 12 TVs. But my understanding of the elliptical;s potential changed a little over a decade ago. Now is when we venture from scientific studies and real-world data points, into the fantasy land of personal experience. Please stop reading here if you aren’t in the mood for a healthy serving of anecdotes. 

RELATED: “Capacity Training” Is The Key to Long-Term Running Endurance

Right after I met Megan, she invited me to the college gym. She was a Division 1 field hockey player at the time, and she said that I could work as she got her workout in. I brought my textbooks and found a high-table, while she hopped up on the elliptical, the one in the corner, the one farthest from everyone else. “That’s strange,” I thought about this person who I just met, but I was already falling in love with. “Maybe she’s shy.”

I quickly understood why she was in the corner. For the next 75 minutes, she did unspeakable things to that machine, launching sweat into the great beyond far past escape velocity. I just assume half of the stars in the James Webb telescope images are her snot rockets traveling the cosmos. I realized immediately that I witnessed a beautiful athletic achievement, and it made so much sense when she walked onto the track team, after her field hockey career, and was all-conference off very low running volume. 

3 Elliptical Principles for Runners

I learned 3 principles from watching that work of elliptical art (a Jackson Pollock, but with bodily fluid). First, keep cadence high to better approximate running. That usually means 85-90 rpm at baseline, with lower resistance to make it sustainable. It feels difficult and awkward at first, but you get used to it across a couple sessions.

Second, alternate use of the moving arm levers and unmoving hand holds, which should make it easier to maintain that cadence. Personally, I like to put my hands lower on the levers to shorten the range of motion. 

Third, pulse in intervals at higher resistance and cadence at 90+ rpm. Elliptical intervals can be absolutely devilish in ways that are difficult to describe. Here is a quick video of what it looks like when I do it:

The basic takeaway is that the elliptical may be a safe way to add aerobic volume, along with threshold strength from intervals, allowing runners to do a higher amount of semi-specific training in an impact-limited sport. Advanced athletes can use the elliptical for low-impact easy doubles, or even as a second daily workout to approximate Norwegian block principles. Athletes training at lower volumes due to aging, injury, or offseason can use it for standalone hard workouts with structures like this:

  • 10-15 min easy, 15 x 1 min fast/1 min float, 10-15 min easy
  • 10-15 min easy, 1/2/3/4/3/2/1 min fast with 2 min float, 10-15 min easy
  • 60-75 min easy/mod with 1 min faster every 5 min starting at 10 min
  • 10-15 min easy, 10 x 2 min fast (90 seconds moderate, 30 seconds harder)/2 min float, 10-15 min easy
  • 10-15 min easy, 6/5/4/3/2/1 min fast with 2 min float, 10-15 min easy

But you can get creative with it! Usually, when I talk about training, I am working from a decades-long evolution in theory and science. With the elliptical, each individual is making it up as they go along, to a certain extent. I am giddy to think about what we might learn over the coming years.

And if all of this is wrong, if the elliptical is just another cross-training tool that is no better or worse than other options, then there is another benefit. You can use my tips on form to test whether potential suitors are scared off by your intergalactic sweat spewing. Because if there is one thing I have learned about relationships over the last 12 years (culminating in Megan’s current state in the 38th week of pregnancy), it’s that bodily fluids only increase over time. And in this house, we are very fluid-positive…especially now that we own an elliptical. 

 

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they answer training questions in a bonus podcast and newsletter on their Patreon page starting at $5 a month.