More thoughts on elliptical cross-training

In my post yesterday I suggested that although elliptical cross training might have many benefits for the runner, it might not be good for promoting the required neuromuscular coordination.  Ewen asks whether one factor is the lower cadence on the elliptical. In fact I aim for an elliptical cadence in the range 80-90 complete gait cycles per minute which is similar to my cadence when running (around 90 left steps and 90 right steps per minutes).  I did some testing of my efficiency (i.e. heart rate v power output) at different cadences and found that there is not a great deal of difference between 70 and 90 gait cycles per minutes.  Around 80 appeared marginally more efficient than  70 but not much different from 90.  However,as I mentioned yesterday, the striking difference between elliptical cross training and running is the amount of downwards push required, presumably due to the lack of elastic recoil on the elliptical.


Although the action of elliptical is intermediate between running and cycling insofar as the involvement of trunk muscles on the elliptical is similar to running (especially if you do not use the handles), the leg action on the elliptical feels somewhat similar to cycling.  I am not a triathlete, but I understand that for the first few minutes after the bike-to-run transition, running feels awkward, and that this awkwardness can be at least partially reduced by increasing cadence towards the end of the cycling.  I suspect that the awkwardness is due to the change  from recruitment of fast twitch fibres employed to power concentric contraction, to a greater dependence on slow twitch fibres and eccentric contraction.   (I would be interested to know what triathletes understand about this).


If the downwards push on the elliptical is similar to that of cycling, then an immediate transition from elliptical to running will have some of the problems of a bike-to-run transition.   As in the bike-to-run transition, the problem might be diminished by high cadence on the elliptical, but I suspect it will always be at least a minor problem.   I sometimes use the elliptical at high cadence and low resistance to warm up for running on very cold days.  I believe it does promote muscle blood flow and joint lubrication, but I have been surprised to find that I still need to do a running warm up before I can run fluently.  Whether or not elliptical training one day affects neuromuscular coordination the next day, I d not know, but in view of the theoretical possibility of interference, I would advise a good warm up for the running session to establish good neuromuscular coordination.


Related to the issue of the greater push on the elliptical is the likely greater development of fast twitch fibres.  Ewen asks how well these fibres can be recruited aerobically.  The distinction between aerobic and anaerobic function is not an all-or-nothing distinction.  I suspect a moderate degree of hypertrophy of fast twitch fibres is useful for all except ultra-marathon runners.  Whenever stride length increases beyond about 1 metre, a quite appreciable push is required to launch the body along the required trajectory, and as I mentioned yesterday, elastic recoil is not adequate to achieve this.  (Since passing age 60 I have become increasingly aware of the need to push to achieve a fast pace – maybe this would be heresy to the Pose School, but until I meet an elderly Pose runner who can run fast, I will be inclined to hold onto my current opinion). At cadence of 180 steps (i.e. 90 left, 90 right) per minute, paces faster than about 5.5 min/Km require a  stride length greater than 1 metre.   A pace of 5.5min per Km, which is only a moderate marathon pace, is below lactate threshold pace for many runners, so as far as I can judge, an appreciable concentric push is required even when running in the aerobic zone.  I suspect that this is best achieved using fast twitch fibres.


So in conclusion, I think that the greater amount of concentric push on the elliptical might cause neuromuscular coordination difficulties during an elliptical-to-run transition, but might produce greater fast twitch hypertrophy which would be beneficial provided it is not excessive.


Two days ago, Ewen asked if I thought that my decreased heart rate at a given power output on the elliptical might translate into a lower heart rate at lactate threshold when running.  I do not think this is likely.  Instead I would expect that an increase in mitochondria, increased capillary density, increased pumping capacity of the heart, and increased ability to metabolize lactate would all lead to a faster pace and an increased heart rate at lactate threshold.  I would regard this as a benefit.  I just hope it is true.

7 Responses to “More thoughts on elliptical cross-training”

  1. Ewen Says:

    A regular running time-trial at about 85% HR effort over 5 or 6k might give you good feedback on the benefit of the training strategy.

    It’s good that a fast cadence is possible on the elliptical. I wonder what the ‘ideal’ percentage of a training week for elliptical work would be? For running, I’m doing a very small amount (by volume) of short steep hill sprints and short repeats, which I hope is developing fast-twitch strength. The elliptical might be a good way to supplement this training.

    The need to ‘push off’ does become more obvious with age. It’s relatively easy to keep/learn a fast cadence (equally as fast as elite runners), but older runners tend to have a shorter stride, which puts a limit on speed.

  2. canute1 Says:

    Ewen, Yes I agree that a regular running time trial at 85% max HR would be useful. This would have to be on a surface that is not subject to effects of weather. I do not have access to a track and I almost never run on paved surfaces, but it would be probably be best to relax this ‘rule’ for a regular time trial – our recent snow would of course present a problem but that is a rare treat in the England. The bigger issue for me is the fact that cold dry air tends to precipitate asthma. However, that problem can be dealt with by discounting time trials in which my peak flow falls below 50% of max.

    The question of ideal percentage of elliptical training is one I have been pondering. I think that it probably varies between individuals depending on age and total training load. I will post my thoughts on this in the near future.

    It s interestng to speculate on whether the shorter stride of the older runner is due to loss of elasticity of tissues or to loss of power in fast twitch fibres. I suspect it is due to both.

  3. Ewen Says:

    I guess you couldn’t have a dirt or grass surface due to the weather. We don’t have that problem as 95% of the time it’s dry 🙂

    The typical shorter stride of the older runner could be due to both, that’s why I’m becoming convinced of the importance of keeping the fast twitch fibres as strong as possible by doing appropriate training (speedwork, drills elliptical?). Maybe more as a proportion of overall training than when younger. Many older runners tend to drift towards running long when older and avoiding the ‘pain’ and ‘injury danger’ of speed training, not realising that getting out of a patterned short stride then takes a lot of work and a long time.

    I was thinking about the Pose school and short striding. Is Pose is more or less falling forward under gravity and having a fast cadence? This would seem to put a limit on stride length, and you could probably work out your maximum running speed using this method. Say if your cadence is 200/minute (high) with a stride of X metres (short).

  4. rick Says:

    Interesting website!
    I myself have spent over a year trying different running styles out to find which gives the best speed and efficiency and reduction in injury problems, pose, chirunning and evolution running.
    It wasn’t until I came across JACK NIRENSTEIN that I at last got the answers I was looking for!
    straight away I could run faster and Jack is the only person I have come into contact with who made me see why I’d been getting sciatic problems !

  5. rick Says:

    On the subject of reduced stride length, one thing you have missed is that as you get older then the efficiency of not only the muscles but also the heart and lungs reduces, so the athlete can not run as fast as when he was younger and so he will not be able to cover as much ground with each stride!
    On the subject of cadence I see you recommend 180 [ 90per leg] per minute, yet the world record marathon runner GEBRESALASSIE averaged over 200 per min!
    since following Mr Nirensteins techniques my cadence has greatly improved!
    and so has my speed.

  6. rick Says:

    p.s. moving speed = greater distance covered with each stride, Hence the aging runner who could once run at 10 mph for 10k can now only maintain 9 mph yet he still runs at 180rpm, his ground covered per stride is shorter because he is running at a lower speed!

  7. Kelsey Says:

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