Elliptical vs. Treadmill: Which Indoor Cardio Machine Is Right for You?
There’s nothing like walking or running in nature. But sometimes, factors beyond your control — inclement weather, family obligations, the need to multi-task — force you indoors. While you may miss the fresh air, you can still stick to your running and walking programs with the help of a treadmill or elliptical machine. Both are strong options; they’re easy to use and generally available. But is one better than the other? In the battle of elliptical vs. treadmill, which machine reigns supreme?
It depends on a variety of factors, including your goals, preferences, and physical condition. With the help of a couple of experts, we broke down the benefits and potential drawbacks of both the treadmill and elliptical so that you can determine which option is right for you.
“The elliptical was designed to mimic much of the movements we see during running,” says John A. Mercer, Ph.D., professor and acting chair of Kinesiology and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The main difference is that during running, the foot contacts the ground, and the body has to change directions from moving downwards to moving upwards.”
Most elliptical machines also include moving handles, which engage your upper body.
1. It’s a low-impact workout
One of the unique benefits of an elliptical machine is that it offers a low-impact alternative to running, as the feet do not repeatedly pound the pavement (or the tread).
“During running, overuse injuries are largely related to this impact, so the elliptical minimizes this risk,” says Mercer.
2. It works more than just your legs
Thanks to its moving handles, the elliptical offers more of a full-body exercise than traditional running, says Gowrie Hayden, Openfit lead trainer. “Pushing and pulling handles engages the whole core and helps get your heart rate up,” she says.
And, because the elliptical allows you to adjust the incline and reverse the movement, you can target different muscle groups. “Increasing the incline will engage glutes more, and you can pedal in reverse to really work the hamstrings,” Hayden says.
1. It won’t get you race-ready
If you’re training for a race or looking to improve your running endurance, exclusively working out on an elliptical machine won’t adequately prepare you. “Since there are subtle changes in movement and muscle activity patterns, elliptical training benefits may not transfer fully to running,” Mercer says.
2. It burns fewer calories than running
What if you just want to get in shape or drop a few pounds? An elliptical workout is a good choice… but it won’t offer you the biggest bang for your buck. When compared to other activities like running, hiking, and swimming, the average hour-long slog on an elliptical burns fewer calories.
A cardio room staple, the treadmill offers runners and walkers the ability to get in their miles no matter the temperature, weather, or time of day. Treadmill runners control every aspect of their experience, from the climate to their speed and incline — which may or may not be a good thing.
1. It’s very close to the act of running
“Treadmill running is a reasonable substitute for overground running,” Mercer says. The motion is as close as you’re going to get to road running, plus you can use the speed and incline settings to program-specific types of runs or walks.
2. It’s less impact than overground running
Treadmills may also provide a happy medium when it comes to impact. “It has a little less impact than running outside on pavement,” Hayden says. “But you still get some impact, which can be a good thing. That healthy impact can contribute to maintaining bone density as you age.”
1. It may still be hard on your joints
If you’re prone to joint pain or dealing with an injury, the treadmill may not be an ideal option, as it provides a higher-impact workout than the elliptical. Conversely, exclusively training on the treadmill may not be effective for serious runners, explains Mercer.
“There are subtle differences in the movements and muscle activity patterns when running on a treadmill. This is generally caused by the treadmill set at a constant speed. During running overground, your speed is always changing — even with each foot contact, you slow down and speed up.” Just like how you wouldn’t rely solely on an elliptical to train for a race, you shouldn’t run all of your training runs on a treadmill.
Should You Use the Elliptical or the Treadmill?
Again, it depends. The elliptical is clearly a better choice for anyone who requires a lower-impact workout, as it offers a full-body, cardiorespiratory workout with minimal pounding to the joints.
While the elliptical can be a part of a runners’ training plan, the treadmill is a more appropriate (though imperfect) substitute for running outside. And if torching as many calories as possible per workout is your primary goal, you may see better results using a treadmill.
All that being said, the most effective workout is the one you actually do. When choosing between the elliptical and treadmill, don’t be afraid to account for your personal preferences — they matter in the long run.
Which Is Better for Lowering Impact?
While both the treadmill and the elliptical offer a lower-impact workout than running on pavement, the elliptical machine is the better option for anyone seeking a low-impact workout. As previously mentioned, the elliptical allows you to mimic running without repeatedly transferring your weight from one foot to the other.
Try an Openfit Program
Just because you’re staying indoors doesn’t mean you can’t get instruction from a professional trainer via the Openfit app. Run with a pack in real-time in a live running class, or play a round of trivia while you walk with Every Step. Whether you’re looking to get in shape or improve your time for an upcoming 5K, our programs can help you achieve your goals. Start your free trial today!