Elliptical Machine vs. Running: Pros and Cons

The elliptical machine is one of the most popular pieces of cardio equipment at the gym. The machine is designed to simulate the motions of walking and running while at the same time reducing impact on the joints. Using an elliptical trainer may seem like a good choice for runners wanting to alter their training or reduce joint stress, but regular use of the machine may result in some undesirable adaptations in the body.

Using The Elliptical

Elliptical Machine Running 2

Back when I got my first health club membership I tended to go on the elliptical quite often. Being in the North East during winter meant having to do most of my cardio workouts in the gym. I didn’t mind running on the treadmill but it was nice to have some variety. 

What I really liked about using the elliptical trainer was that it had handles with heart rate monitors built into the grips which allowed me to perform workouts based on different heart rate training zones. Some treadmills have these too, but they’re not as practical because it’s hard to hang on to the handles while running. 

I never got injured using an elliptical and I think, because they are a lower impact form of exercise, using them over the short-term is relatively safe. The only adverse effect I noticed was that after using one for 20 or 30 minutes my toes would feel numb for short while. I attributed this to the increased pressure the pedal puts on the front of the foot. While this didn’t make me like using the machine any less, it did cause me to start to think running on an elliptical is a bit different from normal running. 

Elliptical vs. Running Disadvantages

The first big difference between running and using the elliptical is that on the elliptical both feet are always in contact with the pedals. When walking or running one foot is on the ground stabilizing the body while the other is swinging through the air. The elliptical eliminates the need for the body to stabilize and support itself on a single leg which is an important aspect of a normal gait pattern. 

A second difference, and the one that I feel is the most important, is the lack of hip extension required on the elliptical. Below is a picture looking at the amount of hip extension (backward movement) that occurs with both walking and using the machine. 

Running Elliptical Machine 1

Burnfield JM et al, 2010

You can see in the picture that while the foot goes behind the body in both pictures, because the knee remains bent on the machine the hip remains in a neutral position. So why is this a problem? 

Missing Hip Extension

Lack of hip extension can greatly reduce efficiency and performance for runners and can potentially lead to injuries. For non-runners, a lack of hip range of motion into extension can be a problem as well, particularly since as a society we already spend so much time sitting with our hips in a flexed position. Too much time spent in a flexed position promotes muscle and joint imbalances and can lead to an anterior pelvic tilt posture. 

EMG analysis has shown that the elliptical does do a good job activating the gluteus maximus (the primary muscle for hip extension), but because the muscle is being used with the hip flexed it isn’t being trained to extend the hip through a full range of motion. Consequently running on the elliptical won’t develop the neuromuscular control of the leg that’s required for good running form.  

Flexed Positioning

In addition to the hip, there is also an increase in the amount of overall trunk and knee flexion on the elliptical compared to normal walking and running. Since most people are already well adapted to being in a flexed position, it’s good to have exercises that work in the opposite direction to balance everything out. Running, particularly at sprint speeds, does a far better job promoting extension.

Another downside is that the elliptical is one size fits all. Most machines can not be adjusted. This means that regardless of an individual’s height or body shape they will be locked into the same path of movement set by the machine. 

Less Ankle Stabilization

Activity of the anterior tibialis (the muscle in front of the shin that flexes the ankle up) was decreased while on the elliptical, likely because the pedals provide continuous support for the foot. The anterior tibialis is an important stabilizer of the ankle and arch of the foot. Combining a lack of anterior tibialis muscle activity with the anterior pelvic tilt position caused by the body’s positioning on the machine could lead to increased pronation. 

Decreased Hamstring Use

Another muscle group that is less active when using the elliptical compared to normal running is the medial hamstrings. The hamstring group (the muscles in the back of the thigh) performs several functions, one of them being the all important hip extension as noted early. They also work to balance out the quadriceps muscle group. Because the leg travels in a set path that is limited by the machine, there is less need for the hamstrings to slow down the forward moving leg–a function they would normally perform with running. Quad dominance (the quadriceps overpowering other muscle groups) is a suspected risk factor for several different injures. 

Elliptical vs. Running Advantages

There are of course several advantages to using an elliptical that should be mentioned:

  • Because of the lower impact and joint stress the machine may be a good choice for people recovering from an injury that are looking for a way to get a cardiovascular workout, or anyone simply looking to vary their workout routine. Less impact, however, also decreases the bone and muscle strengthening effects that other weight-bearing exercises can provide so this can be viewed as both a pro and a con. 
  • Ellipticals allow the user to stride both forward and in reverse which adds a nice variety and cross training effect to a workout. It’s somewhat impractical if not downright dangerous to try running backward on a treadmill.
  • Calorie burn and overall cardiovascular benefits between running and a treadmill and on are roughly equal. One study found that when using an elliptical people actually exert themselves more than what they perceive
  • Many machines have moving arms that can be used to increase calorie burn and get more of a full body workout. 
  • Safety and ease of use. Many people may not feel comfortable using a treadmill for higher intensity exercise whereas the elliptical offers an added degree of security. 

Elliptical vs. Running: The Takeaway

Joint movement and muscle activation on an elliptical machine is much different from a normal running gait. In terms of cross-training or looking at getting a purely cardiovascular workout the elliptical can be a good alternative to the treadmill, particularly for non-competitive athletes. Using the elliptical as the only form of training may promote muscle imbalances or altered movement patterns which may causes undesirable joint and soft tissue stress. 

Whether for at home or at the gym, I think the treadmill is the better choice for regular cardio exercise. As part of a well-rounded fitness routine the elliptical trainer can certainly have a place. If my main purpose for a workout is just to get my heart rate up I might choose the elliptical, especially if I’ve been running a lot and feel like I need a change. 

 Feature Photo: MontageHoa

Comments

  1. Kyle Norman says

    Hey,

    Thanks a lot for this post! I often talk to my clients about how these machines that mimic gait (treadmill, elliptical, stair climber) can potentially ruin our motor patterns. The vast majority of humans who ever walked this earth have never used such machines–they actually walked the earth. Thus I’ve learned (and I can’t remember where all I’ve read about this.) that we can throw off our gait patterns. We get reduced posterior chain use and like you mention, we may not get the chance to maintain our single-leg stabilization abilities. I think these machines are a bit like potato chips: A little bit occasionally probably won’t hurt but a steady diet of cardio machines/potato chips aren’t a good idea. Get on the rower or the bike–or hey, our tax dollars paid for the sidewalks. Go use those.

    I’m curious to see what your Treadmill vs. Running Outside has to say. Very good insight here.

  2. bill baumgartner says

    I have been training on the elliptical for a few weeks now and was wondering how time and distance would be effected. I am training for the Navy’s biannual physical fitness test and have an elliptical at home. Due to all the snow it is impractical to go for a run outside. I was tracked on the elliptical finishing the mile and a half in just under 8 minutes. I am trying to get my track time around 9 minutes would this be close to the pace needed or would I need to go faster. I have until April so hopefully the weather starts warming so I can get some track time, but I do like seeing the low times I can put up on the elliptical.

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