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Which is the harder workout: Elliptical or Treadmill?

The motivation for this edition’s topic was originally for my own research, but I thought I may as well make a newsletter out of it. Since we are in the heart of the marathon season right now, many runners have been doing their long runs and coming up gimpy to say the least. If the pain prohibits running, or risks further damage, I usually encourage some amount of substituting an elliptical workout instead of the regular running. Since the motions are similar to running without the impact, it’s a good substitute for running for some injuries. However, some brazen patient actually had the gall to actually ask a question: “Will I get the same workout on an elliptical vs. running?”. After I fired them as a patient, I thought I’d look it up…

Cardiometabolic Comparison Of Elliptical And Treadmill Exercise Responses


Which is the harder workout: Elliptical or Treadmill?

There is enough research to show that if you take time off from running, your quickly lose much the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal fitness that you had so diligently gained. There is also enough research to show that if you take time off running but substitute elliptical, water jogging, stair master etc., the loss of fitness is minimized. Depending on the injury, ellipticalling (yes, I just made that a verb) is probably the best substitute since it most closely mimics running. How does it compare in terms of the cardiovascular workout though?

· 2005 study: 16 subjects had their vO2 max tested and then on subsequent sessions were put on a treadmill or elliptical and asked to exercise at a “heavy” perceived exertion (RPE). During each exercise session (10 minutes in duration) at the prescribed RPE, oxygen consumption and heart rate (HR) were measured continuously. In the end, they concluded that “energy expenditure is greater during treadmill compared to elliptical exercise at the same perceived exertion level.”. In other words, you get a better workout on a treadmill

· 2004 study: 24 subjects in a setup similar to the last study found that “Treadmill produces greater exercise expenditure than elliptical training with less strain or feeling of exertion. Despite energy expenditure differences, elliptical training provides a respectable, low-impact exercise alternative to treadmill running.

In contrast…

· 2004 study: Researchers tested 18 subjects again in a similar research setup an found “elliptical machine exercise appears to be equivalent to treadmill exercise for maximizing energy expenditure at the same self-selected moderate intensity.” They also found that all subjects elicited a significantly higher heart rate on the elliptical compared to the treadmill even though perceived exertion was not significantly different.

· 2004 study: OK, 2004 was apparently a popular time for researching this topic. This study had 24 women do either treadmill, elliptical or stair-climber machine with similar intensities and durations and found that “similar physiological improvements were observed using stair-climber, elliptical trainer and treadmill running when training volume and intensity were equivalent.”

In the end, it appears that with the same perceived effort, some studies show that treadmill is a better workout physiologically than an elliptical, while other studies show no difference. Whatever difference there is, it’s safe to assume that it is such a small difference that it’s not worth worrying about.

Obviously if you’re training for a race, there is no substitute for actual running. The biomechanical load placed on the muscles and the joints in running are vastly different than a elliptical trainer. That being said, an elliptical is about as close to the real thing as you’ll get and at least there is some comfort in knowing that you can replace some of your runs with sessions on an elliptical machine and get close to the same cardiovascular workout.

- Kevin Maggs, ,

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