Elliptical v.s. Treadmill Running: Is the Training Equal?

The week before the Holidays saw the return of the Polar Vortex here in Connecticut. I do not know who comes up with these names, but whatever they choose to call the cold weather it poses a myriad of issues for those who exercise outdoors. We did get a reprieve from the bitter cold over the Holiday weekend. The wintery weather however is bound to return sooner than later.  From icy roads and trails to dangerous wind chills to those who suffer health issues where exercising in the cold could be dangerous, even the toughest and most diehard outdoor exercisers sometimes are relegated to moving their training inside.

I am lucky enough to train clients from my home studio where I have equipment readily available. From weights, to an elliptical, stationary bike, and treadmill I have it all right here at my disposal.  Except recently I was  without my treadmill.  It died after about 14 or 15 years of a love hate relationship (mostly hate).  I try to run outside in all conditions except when there is ice on the ground or snow where I cannot get off the road if cars are coming. Then I will move my training indoors. So with some of the unfavorable conditions we had I had to move a couple workouts inside. Not having the treadmill working I had to opt for the elliptical machine.

I was scheduled do a Fartlek workout so I did a one mile warmup, foam rolled, etc, and moved into my Fartlek. As I was training on the elliptical I felt the same effort level I would have expected outside. So right away I wondered if the elliptical was a true option to help bridge the gap in my training until I purchase a new treadmill. I read over some studies that back up what I felt while training.

The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse did a study looking at the use of the elliptical in training. It demonstrated that running on a treadmill and using the elliptical had virtually the same levels of oxygen consumption but with a reduced ground reaction force.  We know that high ground reaction forces can lead to injuries, so finding ways to reduce them in training can help you stay injury free.

Personally one of the only times I ever hurt running is at times when running on the treadmill. It is likely due to an altered gait pattern that I do not use outside. It is a different motion when you are actually propelling yourself forward by pushing off the ground as opposed to just moving over a surface that is also moving underneath you. Using the elliptical just feels better. Is that though because I was being lazy and looking for what is easier?

I was curious to dig deeper. I like to see the science behind what I implement into my workouts that I do as well as what I do with my clients. We know that both treadmill and elliptical training use the same level s of oxygen consumption, but are the efforts similar? In another separate sports science study it was determined that when training at a similar rate of perceived exertion the elliptical is a suitable alternative and can also elicit a higher heart rate when compared to treadmill running. For more on perceived exertion you can check out Borg’s scale of perceived exertion here.

One last possible benefit is that you can also use the elliptical to go backward. There a couple differing studies, but it may be possible to burn up to 7% more calories by pedaling backward.

It is up to you whether you want to run on the treadmill or use the elliptical. Personally I will probably alternate both. The benefits of being able to train at the same intensity with decreased ground reaction forces are a huge bonus. The key is to not train solely on the elliptical as with the reduced impact on your joints when you do start to train outdoors your muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons are not as prepared for the hard ground and return of ground forces.

Thankfully I just got my replacement treadmill last Friday. I will always seek to run if the opportunity and conditions allow, but now that I know the elliptical is viable alternative it might have a place in my training for cross training.