HomeGearUsing an Elliptical in as a Joint-Friendly Alternative to Running

Using an Elliptical in as a Joint-Friendly Alternative to Running

As I’m getting older my knees are starting to squeal on my longer and high intensity runs but I still want to continue to do triathlons. I have been toying with doing some Aquabike events but before I do this, I wanted to try a few alternative training modes. I’ve just bought an elliptical machine and I’ve also started water running.

In this article I will let you know about my experience with my new elliptical machine and if it’s a good low impact cross training option for triathletes.

What is an Elliptical Machine?

An elliptical, also known as an elliptical trainer or cross-trainer, is a stationary exercise machine designed to simulate walking, running, or stair climbing without causing excessive pressure on your joints. It provides a low-impact cardiovascular workout that can be beneficial for people of various fitness levels.

The elliptical machine features two large foot pedals and two handlebars that move in synchronization with the leg motion. The user stands on the foot pedals and holds the handlebars while moving in an elliptical or oval-shaped motion. This motion engages both the upper and lower body, making it a full-body workout.

Types of Elliptical

There are several different types of elliptical machines available on the market. Here are some common types:

Rear-Drive Ellipticals

Rear-drive ellipticals have the flywheel positioned at the back of the machine. They typically provide a longer stride length, making them suitable for taller individuals. Rear-drive ellipticals tend to have a smoother and more natural motion.

Front-Drive Ellipticals

Front-drive ellipticals have the flywheel positioned at the front of the machine, often resembling a stair climber. They usually have a shorter stride length, which can be beneficial for individuals with limited space. Front-drive ellipticals can provide a more intense and challenging workout.

Center-Drive Ellipticals

Center-drive ellipticals feature a compact design with the flywheel positioned on either side of the user. This type of elliptical is known for its stability and a more upright posture during the workout. Center-drive ellipticals are suitable for those who prefer a balanced and centered workout experience.

Compact Ellipticals

Compact ellipticals are smaller, portable versions of traditional ellipticals. They are designed for individuals with limited space or those who prefer a more portable option. Compact ellipticals often have a shorter stride length and fewer features but can still provide a decent cardiovascular workout.

Cross-Trainer Ellipticals

Cross-trainer ellipticals are versatile machines that incorporate additional features and workout options. They may have adjustable incline settings, variable resistance levels, built-in workout programs, and even interactive screens or connectivity options. Cross-trainer ellipticals offer more advanced training options for users looking to maximize their workout experience.

Hybrid Ellipticals

Hybrid ellipticals combine the features of an elliptical machine with other exercise equipment. For example, some hybrid models can be transformed into stationary bikes or offer the option to engage in strength training exercises. These machines provide added versatility and the ability to target different muscle groups. When selecting an elliptical machine, consider factors such as your budget, available space, desired features, stride length, and overall build quality. Trying out different models in person, if possible, can help you determine which type of elliptical suits your specific needs and preferences.

How to Use an Elliptical

As with all exercise equipment it’s important to use the proper form and technique. Here’s a guide to how to use an Elliptical Machine safely:

  1. Maintain good Posture

Stand tall and upright while using the elliptical machine. Avoid slouching or leaning forward. Engage your core muscles to support your posture throughout the workout. Core engagement is key to a good workout so be mindful of stabilising yourself in this area.

  • Align your Feet and Knees

Position your feet hip-width apart on the foot pedals, ensuring that your weight is evenly distributed. Keep your knees aligned with your feet, pointing forward throughout the elliptical motion.

  • Use a Smooth and Controlled Motion

Strive for a fluid and controlled motion while pedaling. Avoid sudden jerky movements or bouncing. Focus on a smooth circular motion with your legs to minimize stress on the joints.

  • Optimize the use of Handlebars

The handlebars on an elliptical machine provide an opportunity to engage the upper body and increase calorie burn or develop your swimming muscles. Use them by pushing and pulling with your arms in sync with your leg movements. However, avoid relying too heavily on the handlebars for support, as this can reduce the engagement of your core and lower body muscles. I found holding the handlebars at the top gave me more of an upper body workout than holding it lower down.

  • Avoid excessive Gripping

Maintain a relaxed grip on the handlebars. Excessive gripping can create unnecessary tension in your upper body and lead to fatigue or discomfort. Instead, allow your arms to move naturally and lightly hold the handlebars for balance.

  • Customize Resistance and Incline

Adjust the resistance and incline settings on the elliptical machine to match your fitness level and training goals. Gradually increase the resistance as your strength and endurance improve. Varying the intensity can simulate different terrains and challenge your muscles in different ways.

  • Listen to your Body

Pay attention to how your body feels during the workout. If you experience any pain, discomfort, or unusual sensations, adjust your form, reduce the intensity, or take a break. It’s important to listen to your body and avoid pushing through pain or overexertion.

  • Warm-up and Warm-down

Before and after using the elliptical machine, incorporate a brief warm-up and warm-down routine. Start with a few minutes of light cardio or dynamic stretching to warm up the muscles and prepare your body for exercise. Similarly, end your session with a few minutes of slow pedaling or static stretches to gradually decrease your heart rate and promote muscle recovery.

Remember, while these tips can help optimize your form and technique on the elliptical machine, it’s always recommended to seek guidance from a certified fitness professional or trainer, especially if you are new to using ellipticals or have specific concerns or limitations.

Remember to match the intensity and duration of your workout to that of your training plan if you are substituting one of your weekly runs with and elliptical session.

Pros and Cons of an Elliptical Machine as part of Triathlon Training

While elliptical training can be a valuable addition to your triathlon training regimen, it typically cannot completely replace running sessions. Here are the pros and cons of incorporating an elliptical session instead of running in a triathlon plan:

Pros of Using an Elliptical Session

  • Low-impact workout – Elliptical training is gentle on the joints, making it an excellent alternative for individuals with knee issues or those looking to reduce impact on their lower body.
  • Cardiovascular fitness – Elliptical workouts provide a cardiovascular challenge, helping to improve aerobic capacity, stamina, and endurance.
  • Full-body workout – Elliptical machines engage both the upper and lower body, targeting various muscle groups simultaneously, including the core, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and arms.
  • Customizable intensity – Ellipticals offer adjustable resistance levels, incline settings, and workout programs, allowing you to tailor the intensity to your specific training needs.
  • Active recovery option – Incorporating elliptical sessions on recovery days or during tapering periods can provide a low-intensity active recovery workout to maintain cardiovascular fitness without placing excessive stress on the body.
  • Injury Rehabilitation and Active Recovery – If you’re recovering from a knee injury or experiencing joint pain, using an elliptical machine can aid in the rehabilitation process. The low-impact nature of elliptical training promotes blood flow and reduces inflammation, facilitating the healing process.

Cons of Using an Elliptical Session

  • Running-specific muscle development – Running involves specific muscle groups and movement patterns that are best developed through actual running. Elliptical training may not fully replicate the neuromuscular demands of running, potentially leading to a lack of specific muscle conditioning and running technique.
  • Impact and weight-bearing differences – While elliptical training is low-impact, running involves weight-bearing and impact forces that help strengthen bones and connective tissues. Depending solely on elliptical training may not adequately prepare you for the impact experienced during a triathlon run leg.
  • Specificity for race preparation – Triathlon training should focus on sport-specific workouts to best prepare you for the demands of each discipline. Running outdoors or on a treadmill better simulates race conditions, terrain variations, and the mental aspects of running in a triathlon.
  • Balance and coordination – Running requires balance, coordination, and proprioception, which are not fully developed through elliptical training alone. Incorporating running sessions helps refine these skills and prepares you for the technical aspects of the run leg.
  • Mental preparation- Running in a triathlon requires mental resilience, pacing strategies, and the ability to push through discomfort. While elliptical training can provide a challenging cardiovascular workout, it may not fully replicate the mental demands of running during a race.

In summary, while elliptical sessions can offer numerous benefits and serve as a valuable cross-training tool, they should not completely replace running in a triathlon training plan. Running-specific workouts are crucial for building running-specific muscles, improving technique, and preparing mentally for the run leg. Integrating a combination of running and elliptical sessions can help maximize your triathlon training and overall race performance.

Conclusion – Using an Elliptical for Triathlon Training

For athletes with knee issues or those who are advanced in age, incorporating an elliptical machine into triathlon training can provide numerous benefits. By reducing impact, improving cardiovascular fitness, offering a full-body workout, allowing customizable intensity, and aiding in injury rehabilitation and active recovery, the elliptical serves as an excellent alternative to running.

Embracing the elliptical as part of your training routine can help you maintain your triathlon goals while preserving joint health and optimizing performance, regardless of your age or knee condition. Elliptical sessions should not replace all of your running sessions but can effectively replace one session per week. Try to match the intensity level and duration of your elliptical workout to the running session you are replacing.

Always remember to consult with a healthcare professional or a certified coach before making any significant changes to your training routine.

Choosing an Elliptical

Whenever I choose a new piece of exercise equipment it must be a balance between value for money, technical specification, and quality.

After some searching and reading reviews, I settled on the EL700 from Decathlon. I wanted an elliptical that connected to Apps via Bluetooth, could connect to my heart rate monitor, had decent build quality and a price that would not break the bank.

I got one delivered to my local Decathlon in Malaga and we have a van so thought it was a good excuse to spend the day in Malaga and pick it up. What I did not factor in was the size and weight! The box size and weight were bigger and heavier than the website suggested and after some discussion 8 (yes 8) of the shop assistants plus a forklift trolley helped us get the elliptical in the back of the van!

How would we get it out of the van? We decided to slide it carefully out and then swiftly unbox it. The unit without packaging was 110kg (243 pounds) which meant we have put it in the road level room rather than up the stairs! We will eventually take it up but for now its in the guest room.

Display and Connectivity

The display was designed to hold a phone or tablet to run Apps and can work with the Decathlon EConnected App. (Note that the holder only works if you don’t have a protective cover on your phone). I installed this on my iPad, and it connected quickly to my elliptical machine. You can select from free sessions, guided sessions, and personal sessions that you create.

I chose a workout from the endurance menu, and I was surprised how out of breath I got and how quickly. Using the arms and legs against some stiff resistance gave me a good workout.

I recorded it on my Garmin Fenix watch as a treadmill workout and I tried to get the heart rate to show on the display, but it did not work. I have since found out you need a Decathlon heart rate monitor chest strap to show my heart rate on the elliptical display.

You can also use the built-in sessions on the display and select from performance, muscle toning, weight loss and fitness. For triathlon training I would suggest selecting “time” for your workout and keep within the heart rate zones by manually adjusting the resistance. You can also use the EConnected App to create a custom workout which has a similar profile to your scheduled run session.

The EL700 also works with an App called Kinomap. I installed the App to get a 14-day free trial and was impressed by how easy it was to set up and connect to my Elite indoor bike trainer, Stryd running pod, Concept 2 rower and EL700 elliptical. Once connected to the App I could choose from scenic videos, coaching, free ride, structured workout, map, or multiplayer options. I chose the coaching option, and these are coach lead video-based workouts. In this area you can choose from rowing, treadmill, HIIT, elliptical, resistance band and indoor cycling.

There are lots of options so it’s worth clicking on the “filter button” and select the workout you want (you can filter on type, language, duration, sound). The workouts are in English, French, Italian, German, Spanish etc. I could only find French and Spanish indoor elliptical workouts so time to brush up on my Spanish! I could find some hiking videos I could follow along in English, however.

I would recommend trying a free trial if you want something different and after the 14-day free trial it’s only $13/€12 per month.

Build Quality

The elliptical folds up for storage so I thought this might impact the build quality, but it does not, and it is close to gym quality. The resistance can be adjusted to a high resistance and more than enough for a good alternative to running.

Usability

I found the EL700 very easy to use with the resistance adjustable from the hand holds, display and App. It has a smooth, very low noise action and sturdy construction. The product does not have the standard pulse rate monitor pads on the bars but needs a connected heart rate monitor (HRM).

It has built in Bluetooth, so I grabbed my stock of test HRM’s and tried them all and none worked. I then read the manual (yes, I try things before reading the manual!) and it said it was “equipped with an analogue chest strap receiver (chest strap not included)” and I had to “contact my local Decathlon store”. I managed to locate the Domyos analogue HRM strap which use a proprietary RF connection and it only cost $12 so I bought this, and it connected easily and works well.

The EL700 Elliptical in a Nutshell

For me the EL700 has everything I need to have great workout substitute for a run session every week to lessen the impact on my knees. The connectivity and Decathlon EConnected App plus connection to my new Domyos HRM chest strap means I can log the workout on Final Surge or TrainingPeaks. I also use my Garmin Fenix watch to track my workout as a backup. The Kinomap App is also worth a try to get some video enhanced workout options but does have a monthly subscription after the 14-day free trial.

The EL700 has sturdy build quality, is quiet, and folds up so I can store it when not in use using the wheels. It has an impressive 17 inch / 43cm stride length which gives it a natural running motion feel.

The annoying thing was having to purchase a specific heart rate monitor to have my heart rate on the display. The display has Bluetooth built-in so it would have been good to connect to a standard HRM using this.

Specs: Decathlon EL 700

Flywheel: 10kg / 22 lbs

Power: Self powered

Connectivity: Bluetooth

Holders: Bottle, Phone and Tablet

Maximum weight: 150kg / 330 lbs

Incline adjust: No (the EL 900 does have incline)

Resistance adjust: Electronic

Connected Apps: Kinomap and EConnected

Noise level: Very low

Storage: Can be folded for storage and has wheels

Stride length: 17 inches / 42cm

Elliptical Best Buys

The key features to look for when purchasing an Elliptical machine for triathlon training is stability, stable foot pads, smooth and quiet action, maximum user weight, resistance levels and flywheel weight.

Best Mid-Range EllipticalNiceday Elliptical Machine

SHOKZ OpenRun - Open-Ear Bluetooth Bone Conduction Sport Headphones - Sweat Resistant Wireless Earphones for Workouts and Running - Built-in Mic, with Hair Band (Black)

$599.99 at Amazon.com

Specification

Flywheel: 8.6kg / 19lbs

Power: Self powered

Connectivity: None

Holders: Bottle, Phone and Tablet

Maximum weight: 181kg /400 lbs

Incline adjust: No

Resistance adjust: Manual magnetic – 16 levels

Heart Rate: On handles

Connected Apps: No

Noise level: Very low

Storage: Wheels

Stride length: 15.5 inches / 39ccm

Best Compact EllipticalBowflex Max M5 Trainer

BowFlex Max Trainer M8

$1,653.93 at Amazon.com

Specification

Flywheel: unlisted

Power: Self powered

Connectivity: Bluetooth

Holders: Bottle, Phone and Tablet

Maximum weight: 136kg /300 lbs

Incline adjust: No

Resistance adjust: Electronic magnetic/fan – 16 levels

Heart Rate: Integrated Contact Grips / Included Chest Strap

Connected Apps: Max Trainer App

Noise level: Medium

Storage: Compact design and wheels

Stride length: 15 inches / 38cm

Best Value for Money EllipticalYOSUDA Pro Cardio Climber Stepping Elliptical Machine

YOSUDA Compact Elliptical Machine - Elliptical Machine for Home Use with Hyper-Quiet Magnetic Drive System, 16 Levels Adjustable Resistance, with LCD Monitor & Ipad Mount

Price not available at Amazon.com

Specification

Flywheel: 9 lbs / 4kg

Power: Self powered

Connectivity: None

Holders: Tablet

Maximum weight: 106kg / 235 lbs

Incline adjust: No

Resistance adjust: Manual magnetic – 16 levels

Heart Rate: Integrated Contact Grips

Connected Apps: No

Noise level: Low

Storage: Wheels

Stride length: 13 inches / 33cm

Elliptical FAQ

Can using an elliptical machine benefit my triathlon training?

Incorporating an elliptical machine into your triathlon training can provide numerous benefits. It helps improve cardiovascular fitness, offers a low-impact workout for joint health, strengthens both upper and lower body muscles, and allows for customizable intensity levels to match your training goals.

How often should I use the elliptical machine as part of my triathlon training?

The frequency of elliptical training sessions depends on your overall training plan and goals. Aim for at least two to three sessions per week, along with other triathlon-specific workouts such as swimming, cycling, and running. Adjust the duration and intensity of each session based on your fitness level and training phase.

Can using an elliptical machine replace running in triathlon training?

While using an elliptical machine can be a valuable alternative to running, it is still essential to include running sessions in your training regimen. Running-specific workouts help build specific muscles, improve running technique, and prepare you for the demands of the triathlon run leg. However, incorporating elliptical training can reduce the impact on your joints and provide active recovery options during high-intensity training periods.

How can I simulate outdoor conditions on an elliptical machine?

Many elliptical machines offer various features and workout programs that allow you to simulate outdoor conditions. Look for machines with adjustable incline settings, resistance levels, and built-in programs like hill climbs or interval training. By utilizing these features, you can mimic the challenges of different terrains and intensities that you may encounter during the triathlon.

Can elliptical training help with open water swim preparation?

While the elliptical machine primarily focuses on cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance, it can indirectly support your open water swim preparation. By improving overall cardiovascular fitness and strengthening your core and upper body muscles, elliptical training can enhance your swimming performance and endurance.

Should I use the handlebars on the elliptical machine?

Yes, using the handlebars on the elliptical machine is recommended as it engages your upper body and contributes to a full-body workout. However, avoid leaning too heavily on the handlebars or relying solely on them for support. Maintain an upright posture and let your lower body do the majority of the work.

Can elliptical training replace cycling in triathlon training?

While the elliptical machine can provide a cardiovascular workout similar to cycling, it cannot entirely replace cycling sessions. Cycling-specific training helps build cycling-specific muscles, improves bike handling skills, and familiarizes you with the bike’s mechanical aspects. However, incorporating elliptical training can offer a complementary workout and add variety to your training routine.

Can elliptical training be part of my tapering phase before a triathlon race?

Yes, elliptical training can be a suitable option during the tapering phase. As you reduce the volume and intensity of your training before a race, elliptical workouts can provide active recovery while maintaining cardiovascular fitness. However, consult with your coach or follow a specific tapering plan designed for your race to ensure optimal performance.

Can I track my progress while using an elliptical machine for triathlon training?

Many elliptical machines come equipped with built-in monitoring features such as heart rate sensors, distance traveled, calories burned, and workout duration. Utilize these features to track your progress, set goals, and monitor your training intensity. Additionally, you can record your elliptical training sessions in your training log alongside your other triathlon workouts.

What is an elliptical machine?

An elliptical machine, also known as an elliptical trainer or cross-trainer, is a stationary exercise machine designed to simulate walking, running, or stair climbing. It features two large foot pedals and two handlebars that move in synchronization with the leg motion.

What are the benefits of using an elliptical machine?

Elliptical machines offer several benefits, including low-impact cardiovascular workouts, reduced stress on the joints, full-body engagement, weight loss and calorie burning, adjustable intensity levels, and versatility in workout programs.

Are ellipticals suitable for people with knee problems or advanced age?

Yes, ellipticals can be a great option for individuals with knee issues or those who are older. The low-impact nature of elliptical workouts reduces stress on the knees, making it a joint-friendly exercise. Additionally, the adjustable intensity levels and customizable settings allow users to tailor the workout to their fitness levels and goals.

Can elliptical training help with weight loss?

Yes, elliptical training can contribute to weight loss when combined with a balanced diet. It is a cardiovascular exercise that burns calories and helps in creating a calorie deficit, which is essential for weight loss.

How often should I use an elliptical machine?

The frequency of elliptical workouts depends on your fitness goals and overall exercise routine. It is recommended to aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as elliptical training, per week. You can spread this time across multiple sessions according to your schedule and fitness level.

How should I maintain proper form while using an elliptical?

To maintain proper form, keep an upright posture, relax your grip on the handlebars, and avoid leaning forward or resting your weight on the handlebars. Engage your core muscles, and use a smooth, controlled motion while pedaling to ensure an effective and safe workout.

Can I target specific muscle groups with an elliptical?

Yes, elliptical training engages multiple muscle groups, including the legs (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves), glutes, core, and upper body (arms, shoulders, and back). However, if you want to focus on specific muscle groups, you can adjust the resistance, incline, or use interval training to increase the challenge for those targeted areas.

Is it necessary to warm up before using an elliptical machine?

Yes, it is important to warm up before any exercise, including elliptical training. Start with a few minutes of light cardio, such as brisk walking or slow pedaling, to increase blood flow to the muscles and prepare your body for the workout.

Can I use an elliptical if I have other medical conditions?

If you have any pre-existing medical conditions or concerns, it is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional before starting or modifying any exercise program, including using an elliptical machine. They can provide personalized guidance based on your specific condition and medical history.

How do I choose the right elliptical machine for me?

When choosing an elliptical machine, consider factors such as budget, available space, desired features (e.g., resistance levels, built-in programs, heart rate monitoring), and user weight capacity. It’s also recommended to try different models in person, if possible, to ensure comfort and functionality before making a purchase decision.

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Karen Parnell
Karen Parnellhttps://chilitri.com/one-to-one-coaching
Karen Parnell is British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor and ASA Open Water Swimming Coach. She is also a qualified NASM Personal Trainer, Nivel 3 Técnicos Federados FATRI España and IRONMAN® Certified Coach as well as being a Stryd running with power coach. Karen is based near Malaga in Southern Spain where she runs ChiliTri coaching and camps. You can find training plans for swimming, cycling, running and triathlon on Training TiltTrainingPeaks and FinalSurge.

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