Training For A Marathon On The Elliptical Machine

It’s Marathon Season! And, as most of you already know, prepping for a marathon can be just as difficult as actually completing one. While figuring out how (and when) to start training can be a major hurdle, it’s absolutely essential when you’re prepping for a large scale run like a marathon. While many runners build up their endurance by completing daily runs on the treadmill or by simply hitting the streets, many runners (especially those with injuries) prefer a more low-impact option, and that’s where the elliptical machine comes in. While there is no exact cross-training sub for running, elliptical machines can provide very similar benefits for runners with injuries or runners who simply need to cross-train to supplement their mileage. They provide a great total-body cardiovascular workout – their oval-like motion allows the user to feel like they’re skiing, walking, and stair climbing (all at once), and they can even be programmed to move forwards or backwards. According to, “After aqua jogging, the elliptical machine is a runner’s best choice for cross-training. The movement of the elliptical closely mimics running form, but without the impact, and you can easily monitor and change your intensity level. More importantly, elliptical machines are widely available in most gyms, making them an easy cross-training solution.”

Dr. John Porcari, an exercise scientist at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse studied the difference between ellipticizing and treadmill running and found that heart rate and oxygen consumption were nearly identical when exercising at a similar rate of perceived exertion. The impact forces on the elliptical, however, were more comparable to walking than to running, making the elliptical a good (and pretty comparable) alternative for cardiovascular conditioning without the pounding. Just remember: an elliptical trainer inherently requires less effort than running because the user is not moving his or her own body weight forward in space or enduring repeated impact on the ground. Nonetheless, to achieve a close equivalent to running miles, generally add a bit more time to your elliptical workout for good measure. Insider tip: if you typically average eight minutes per mile outside, you might use nine minutes per mile as a “pace” for the elliptical and multiply nine times the number of miles you would like to “run”. The product is the total time you would exercise on the elliptical trainer: 9 minutes x 6 miles = 54 elliptical minutes ( Bonus: to more closely mimic running on the pavement, opt for a lower incline.

See below for 3 different levels of workouts to try when training for a marathon. For optimal results, mix them up.


Low-effort workouts should be performed between 65-75% of your max heart rate. To do it right, we suggest lowering the resistance and incline on the machine so it’s easy to maintain a cadence of 90 rotations per minute (you can watch this on the LCD screen that comes equipped with most elliptical machines).


Medium-effort workouts should be performed between 87-92% of your max heart rate. It’s best to aim for 90 rotations per minute (RPM), and increase the incline or resistance to elevate your heart rate. Many runners who have suffered from injuries choose this option as they will help keep their heat rate up, but are less difficult than other workout options. Tip: adjust your number of repetitions to make the workouts as long (or as short!) as you want.


Hard-effort workouts should be performed between 95-100% of your max heart rate. Like the other two, aim for maintaining 90 rotations per minute (RPM), and increase your resistance to achieve the effort level you want. This option is great for injured runners who need to get back into shape quickly. Be kind to your body by only doing 2-3 of these harder workouts per week. It’s best to mix it up so you have ample recovery time between each session.

The bottom line: it’s perfectly acceptable to use the elliptical machine to prep for a marathon, but once you’re within 4-6 months of marathon day, it’s recommended to get your scheduled runs in for optimal results. And, remember, as with any workout, it’s important to switch it up so you don’t overuse specific muscles.

And, last but not least – good luck!

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