Cycling Vs. the Elliptical for Runners

Cycling and the elliptical machine both function as beneficial cross-training options for runners.
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Running is a high-impact sport that is very demanding on the body’s joints, especially those of the lower body. Not taking a day off can slow runners down and may lead to injuries that could prevent you from running all together. By taking a day off or cross training on the elliptical machine or cycling, runners provide their bodies with a necessary break from stress caused by running.

Cross-Training Basics

By adding cross training to your running workout, you challenge your body, add more variety to your routine and work different muscle groups. Runners often suffer injuries and must find a lower impact aerobic activity while they heal. Cycling and the elliptical machine are two forms of cross training that complement running.


According to Runner’s World, a person who loves to run outside usually wants to stay outside. This often makes cycling more attractive to runners than using the elliptical machine because it keeps them outside in the fresh air instead of feeling trapped in the gym. A main drawback for runners is that to achieve the same calorie burn, it often takes nearly double the amount of workout time as running. In an hour, a 160-pound person burns 606 calories when running at a pace of five miles per hour. On a bike and in that same amount of time, that person would only burn 292 calories when riding at a pace of 10 miles per hour.

Elliptical Machine

An inventor designed the elliptical with the goal of replicating the running motion with a machine that put less stress on the joints. According to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Bernstein, running tends to develop your hamstrings more than your quadriceps, which can create an imbalance and lead to runner's knee. He recommends using the elliptical machine because it helps strengthen the quadriceps in a low-impact way. According to a study by the Department of Exercise Science at Willamette University, pedaling backwards can further increase the challenge for the quadriceps.

Calorie Burn

When it comes to calorie burn and weight loss, the elliptical is the clear winner. This is because when using the elliptical you are standing and engaging more muscles in your body, compared to sitting down on a bike that supports much of your weight. For a 160-pound person, cycling for one hour at a 10-mile-per-hour pace burns 292 calories. For the same person, one hour on the elliptical at a moderate pace burns 495 calories.

Outdoor Elliptical

One additional option for runners that provides the mechanics of an elliptical but the freedom of the outdoors is an outdoor elliptical machine. Ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes refers to the outdoor elliptical trainer as the best cross-training device he has ever seen. The creators of this outdoor elliptical device are runners and they designed it to use the same leg motion as running.

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