Which Gives The Better Workout?

As runners, we have the tendency to have one particular view when it comes to cardio exercise: there’s running and then there’s everything else. In other words, from a run-centric point of view, running is always better than any other form of cardio like indoor cycling, rowing, and the elliptical.

But, what if we put our biases and passion for running aside and really look at the elliptical vs. running objectively. Is the elliptical good cardio? Is elliptical better than running? What muscles does the elliptical work? Most importantly, in the elliptical training vs. running matchup, which gives a better workout?

Whether you’re injured, looking to learn the potential elliptical benefits, trying to decide if you should outfit your home workout space with an elliptical or treadmill, or want to know if your argument that running is better holds up against your buddy’s assertion that the elliptical is better, keep reading for our head-to-head comparison of elliptical training vs. running.

In this guide, we’re going to look at:

  • Elliptical vs. Running: Workout Intensity
  • Elliptical vs. Running: Muscles Worked
  • Elliptical vs. Running: Calories Burned
  • Elliptical vs. Running: Weight Loss
  • Elliptical vs. Running: Physical Stress
  • Elliptical vs. Running: Enjoyment

Let’s get started!

Elliptical vs. Running: Workout Intensity

It’s difficult to compare the difficulty of a workout on an elliptical vs. running on a treadmill or outdoors because It all depends on how hard you’re pushing yourself, the type of workout you’re performing, the resistance, and even the exercise machine itself.

For example, when considering running, a recovery run or easy base run is going to be much less challenging than a hard interval workout on the track like 6 x 1000m at VO2 max pace.

Similarly, you can do an easy workout on an elliptical machine by keeping the resistance low and moving at a walking cadence. On the other hand, using the incline, bumping up the resistance, and really getting your upper body involved can make for a vigorous workout.

Studies have shown that heart rate and oxygen consumption are nearly identical on an elliptical or running.

In general, when most people compare the difficulty of a workout on an elliptical vs. treadmill, your familiarity and comfort on the machine impact how hard you can push yourself and thus the quality of your workout.

People in a gym on elliptical machines.

In other words, runners are “in shape” to run, so they can likely run at a faster pace equivalent to higher METs (a physiological measure of exercise intensity) than an elliptical workout. This is due to the fact that the elliptical motion uses different muscles and movements that runners are less accustomed to.

On the other hand, if a frequent gym-goer who loves the elliptical tries to go for a run, he or she may have to jog at an easier relative intensity to their elliptical workouts simply because the exercise is different so it feels more challenging.

Elliptical vs. Running: Muscles Worked

In general, both the elliptical and running provide a total-body workout. An elliptical machine works all of the muscles in the lower body, as well as the core and arms, provided the machine has movable handrails. Increasing the incline of the ramp on the elliptical machine targets the calves, glutes, and hamstrings more.

Running works similar muscles, though the degree of activation for the muscles involved in an elliptical vs. running workout depends on the specific settings of the elliptical and the incline of a treadmill or road.

A woman with headphones, smiling on an elliptical machine.

Elliptical vs. Running: Calories Burned

The number of calories you burn in any workout depends not only on the type of exercise you’re doing—elliptical vs. running (or otherwise)—but also on your body weight and composition and the duration and intensity of your workout. Therefore, it’s difficult to compare the calories burned on an elliptical vs. treadmill or outdoor running.

However, Harvard Health Publishing reports that 30 minutes of “general elliptical use” burns 270 calories for a 125-pound person, 324 calories for a 155-pound person, and 378 calories for a 185-pound person.

Data shows that running for 30 minutes at 5mph (12 min/mile pace) burns 240 calories for a 125-pound person, 288 calories for a 155-pound person, and 336 calories for a 185-pound person, while running for 30 minutes at 6mph (10 min/mile pace) burns 295 calories for a 125-pound person, 360 calories for a 155-pound person, and 420 calories for a 185-pound person.

Finally, running at a vigorous 10mph (6 min/mile pace) burns 453 calories for a 125-pound person, 562 calories for a 155-pound person, and 671 calories for a 185-pound person.

Therefore, running probably burns more calories, depending on the pace you run versus the intensity of your elliptical workout. “General use” elliptical speaks to moderate intensity at best, so it’s certainly possible to increase your caloric expenditures above these estimates.

The best way to estimate your energy expenditure on either exercise machine is to use a heart rate monitor or fitness tracker and then use the formula for Metabolic Equivalents (METs).

A man on an elliptical machine.

Elliptical vs. Running: Weight Loss and Fat Burning

Any form of exercise has the potential to help you reduce body fat and lose weight. The more calories you burn, the greater the caloric deficit you’ll generate, which then translates to more weight loss, so burning calories on an elliptical or running can get you closer to your body composition goals.

When considering the elliptical versus running for weight loss, the winner mostly comes down to which workout you will do longer or more vigorously to burn more calories.

For example, if you can push your body through hard or long runs on a treadmill or outside but only do moderate-intensity exercise or short stints on an elliptical, running will probably result in more weight loss over time.

However, research shows that HIIT workouts are the most effective way to lose body fat because they increase your metabolic rate even after your workout is over. Therefore, a HIIT workout on an elliptical, treadmill, or outdoor run will be better for fat burning than a steady-state effort workout.

Finally, increasing your lean body mass is also an effective way to lose body fat because muscle tissue is more metabolically-active than fat tissue. Therefore, crank up the resistance and incline on an elliptical machine to help build muscle.

A woman smiling on an elliptical machine.

Elliptical vs. Running: Physical Stress

Compared to a high-impact activity like running, striding on an elliptical machine is gentler on the joints, bones, and connective tissues. If you deal with chronic joint pain or arthritis, one of the great elliptical benefits is that it may be more comfortable than running or even walking.

For this reason, the elliptical is a great form of low-impact cross-training for runners and can reduce the risk of injuries relative to running.

Elliptical vs. Running: Enjoyment

Although it might be a stretch to strive to “love” your workout, exercise always feels easier if you enjoy what you do. It’s difficult to compare the enjoyment level of the elliptical vs. running as it is really a matter of preference.

Many people are drawn to running because it gets you outside and you can train for races. However, the elliptical machine is a rather unique movement pattern that does not translate directly to any sport. Furthermore, running can be more motivating because it’s really conducive to tracking progress and improvements with tangible metrics.

When it comes to the elliptical vs. running, what do you prefer? Is elliptical better than running? Or will you stick to the pavement?

If you are coming back from an injury or looking for other running alternatives, check out our low-impact cardio options here.

A close-up of a person's feet on an elliptical machine.

Amber Sayer

Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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