Using an elliptical trainer to improve your running­­­­­­ injured or not

Following on from one of my previous articles on Deep Water Running (DWR), another great training tool to help your running (potentially looked down on by some) is the elliptical trainer or cross-trainer. Like DWR, with an elliptical trainer, there is no impact on joints to contend with, and it can be included as a way to get in a great second run for the day, or an additional general run, frequency-wise there is no extra impact stress to the legs.

Personally, as I age, I am finding run time diminishing (due to injury/pain from niggles), and therefore I am reducing my run time out of necessity. Of course, having the benefit of cross training through cycling and swimming helps get the dose of intensity and cardio needed, and adding in a Yoga or Pilates session if time is available – if need be taking away specific poses/routines from these disciplines – really does help as long as you do consistently.

Enter the elliptical trainer. One of our local Noosa triathletes, (a former World Champion who is still a current pro), has had a few career threatening injuries in recent seasons, spent a few months during a previous non-running phase, on the elliptical, while upping her swim and ride volume. She came back to win a few Ironman events and placed very highly at last year’s 70.3 worlds – podiumed in fact.  I also coach some older age group athletes, in their 50s and 60s, who swear by the elliptical trainer as part of their weekly training. They run every second or third day and do body maintenance in-between, and are running now, as well as they were when running up to twice the volume, and are spending far less time out due to injury.

Like DWR, elliptical trainers provide benefits to runners/triathletes beyond being the obvious cardio workout – they’re not only beneficial for injured runners that may have been steered towards the elliptical for rehab. Most elliptical trainers have a cadence feature – with many runners trying to increase their running cadence, the elliptical trainer provides an easy, monitored environment for doing this without the stress of actually running. A simple workout is to reduce the load on the elliptical trainer and to simply hold the cadence at around 90+ strides per minute (each side) for 30-40 minutes. Alternately, you can break this up into a series of intervals instead, at a target cadence with recovery in-between, backing off the tension and going easy but still at a higher cadence between the efforts.

Focusing on cadence is not a strength building session, but more a nerve firing one, so keeping that cadence up is the key and load/strength oriented sessions can be worked in for specificity while just working on the turnover. The aim is to improve leg speed. Once you’re feeling at ease being on the elliptical trainer, you can focus on different aspects of running, such as posture. Stand tall and let the hips lead instead of ‘sitting’, and maintain proper chest and head position – this is something that can be focused on during an elliptical trainer workout.

Ideally, try not to use the long moving arms on the elliptical trainer. Sure, you get a better overall conditioning workout, but it won’t be great for you running technique as your arms end up way out in front of you as though you are ‘punching’ the air, and are more forward of the torso. Use the fixed handles that are between the outer arms so you can focus on the leg turnover – when doing a more loaded resistance session this will help keep power up through the hips. Not all elliptical trainers are the same. A newer machine should allow you to maintain the action of running, with getting in your knee lift, feet landing under the body. Ideally, these are the better ones to use if you’re able to access them and best simulate run form.  Older machines may not allow you to have your foot land under you and instead of running ‘circles’, a more ‘mechanical’ action, which sees your foot land in front of you is created.

Like running uphill or stairs, elliptical trainers help build quad and Glute strength. You can try the elliptical trainer workout below, as a cross-training alternative to running.  Over time, your form will improve if used once a week or more if unable to run for a period.

  • 10-minute easy tempo and resistance warm-up
    on the elliptical
  • 5-8 x (3 minutes at solid load on elliptical,
    2-3 minutes at very light load but higher cadence)
  • 5-minute easy cool-down

The biggest positive for the elliptical trainer is that there is no impact on the body, so it’s a great option for people with lower leg/soft tissue/feet issues.  The impact, of course, is still a necessity to strengthen and temper the legs for racing on the road. But for age groupers that are getting up into their 40s, and beyond, and like myself are finding more injuries creeping in from wear and tear, and developing imbalances and weaknesses forcing reduced run time, adding an elliptical session into the mix may save your legs that little bit more. But the biggest benefit I have found for runners is that it is a great tool for increasing run cadence.


Nick Croft

Nick Croft is a former professional triathlete, Australian Triathlete of the Year and two-time winner of the Noosa Triathlon.
With 19 years coaching experience under his belt, Croft provides online training programs for athletes of all ages and abilities through and runs Noosa Tri Camps in Noosa Heads, Australia.

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