Round and round and going nowhere…
In my continuing stay in running purgatory I have been spending 3 or 4 workouts a week on the elliptical machine in the gym. Let me share what I have learned.
The first thing you should know is that there is a great variety of these machines. It’s not like a treadmill where the basic mechanics have to be the same. These machines are structurally different across the board. Your experience is going to vary depending on which one you use.
The key element is that they allow you to run-ish without the lift and strike of your foot. This takes a lot of the shock out of the exercise. Essentially the road moves to stay in contact with the foot while you move. This is important to injured runners who don’t want the stress of the foot-strike but still want to exercise.
The basic design is that you perform a running motion, or in some cases closer to a shuffling motion as the machine spins. What I have found is that they vary in every dimension of the stride from machine to machine. Some constrain you to a very short stride length and others allow you to really stretch out your stride length. Some have a deep vertical pitch and some are more like stair-climbers and require more ‘push down’.
You know how it works. You put your feet in the big foot pod things and start with a running-ish motion. The foot pods are big enough to take any size foot. My size 12D’s fit with 3 inches to spare. If there is ever a need for a Sasquatch to use the elliptical it will fit their foot probably.
You can move your feet around on the foot pads but after a few weeks I have found that I find it most comfortable to align my feet with the inside of the barrier. This leads me to believe that the foot pad spacing is probably wider than my normal foot strike pattern.
It takes a few sessions to get the motion. I found I kept trying to actually run (muscle memory) and my feet would lift and slide around on the foot pad. It takes practice to run/shuffle without lifting your feet.
This is another key point; you should not jump on the elliptical and expect to knock off an hour without easing into it. First you’ll be miserable and you’ll probably hurt yourself. Like any other mode of exercise you have to ease into it. Even if you are fit you are going to have to get used to the motion.
Most of the ones I use have arms that you push and pull as you are running-ish with your feet. It isn’t really an arm exercise but it does let you keep your balance and do something with your hands. There are times when my stride gets short where I can give it a little hand/arm assistance by pushing and pulling harder on the arm-thingies.
Some of them have heart rate sensors built into the grips. I’ve had mixed success with the HR pads on these machines. It doesn’t always seem to be the right HR and it doesn’t always pick it up well. Sometimes there is significant lag. Some of them only have the HR sensors on the stationary part of the grips so that you have to stop push-pulling to get a pulse. Clearly you are better off using your own HR monitor if you can.
Is it a decent workout? Yeah, after you get used to it you can work your HR up high, sustain that effort and work up a good sweat. Is it as good as running? No, not a chance. Does it keep you from hurting your injury? Yes and no. It is still a running motion. Depending on where your injury is the elliptical may stress it.
The big question is how does the time spent on the elliptical translate when I return to running? Will I have 85% of my conditioning or 10%? That’s the big question and I don’t have an answer. Yo’ll have to tune in later in the year!