Training for a marathon requires running -- lots of it. All that pounding may leave your joints and muscles feeling a bit overworked and tired. This may tempt you to transfer your runs to the elliptical cross trainer, which mimics the movement of running without the impact. While the elliptical cross trainer offers a superb way to get aerobically fit, it will not prepare your body to endure running a 26.2-mile race.
Principle of Specificity
To become better at a sport, you should train specifically for that sport. For marathon running, this means pounding the pavement, treadmill or trails for upwards of 40 miles per week. The elliptical trainer does not provide a workout specific enough to running to prepare you for a race. You do train the forward striding movement of running while on the elliptical, but you never experience pushing off or impact because your feet never leave the pedals. While this can be kinder on your joints, it is going to leave you vulnerable to injury come race day. Your heart may be able to sustain a marathon distance run after training on the elliptical, but your ankles, feet, knees, hips, back, quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes will not be ready.
A study published in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" in June 2010 found that, when working at the same perceived exertion levels, oxygen and energy levels are equivalent when working on the elliptical and running on the treadmill. This makes the elliptical an acceptable alternative to treadmill running in non-competitive training, note the University of Nebraska at Kearney researchers. Dr. Edward R. Laskowski of MayoClinic.com confirms that a treadmill is a better machine to get you ready for a road race.
Just because you can't use an elliptical exclusively for marathon training doesn't mean you should abandon it altogether. Cross training on an elliptical can be of value once or twice per week during your marathon prep time. Cross training gives your body a rest from the impact of running while stimulating muscles that may not be targeted during your runs. By working alternative muscles, you prevent imbalances that can lead to injury. If your training plan calls for six running days per week, you might substitute elliptical training for two of the easy runs -- pedaling for an equal amount of time that it would take you to run the miles called for by the plan. Avoid using the elliptical as a substitute for key workouts, such as speed intervals, tempo runs and long runs. These workouts are specific to improving your marathon performance and you will not benefit as much if you do them on the elliptical.
When preparing for a marathon, you may experience a set back such as an injury to your knees, Achilles or shins. Your first step should be to consult a health care provider to make sure your injury isn't serious. You may be left unable to run for a week or two. In these cases, using the elliptical in lieu of running may be an acceptable alternative to abandoning your training altogether. If your injury occurs in the few weeks before your race or keeps you out of running for several weeks, you may have to postpone your marathon goal. Every injury and person is different, however, so discuss your options with your doctor.
- MayoClinic.com: Elliptical Machines: Better than Treadmills?
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity
- The New York Times: The Benefits of Cross Training
- Exercise Physiology: Theory Behind Specificity
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.