Elliptical Vs. Running: Which Gives The Better Workout?

Diving into the Differences Between Elliptical and Running For Maximum Fitness Gains

When it comes to cardio workouts, runners often hold a steadfast belief: running reigns supreme while other forms of exercise, such as the elliptical, pale in comparison.

But what if we take a step back from our running-centric mindset and examine the elliptical vs. running debate objectively?

Is elliptical training as good as running?

Both elliptical training and running can offer an effective workout, and both have unique benefits.

For example, elliptical training provides a low-impact cardiovascular workout that is gentle on the joints, making it an excellent option for individuals recovering from injuries or dealing with chronic joint pain.

On the other hand, running generally burns more calories and can offer an opportunity to connect with nature and enjoy changing scenery.

Elliptical vs running? A close-up of people's legs on elliptical trainers.

Which Is The Better Cardio Machine: 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 levels 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.1Bosch, A. N., Flanagan, K. C., Eken, M. M., Withers, A., Burger, J., & Lamberts, R. P. (2021). Physiological and Metabolic Responses to Exercise on Treadmill, Elliptical Trainer, and Stepper: Practical Implications for Training. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism31(2), 135–142. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0155

In general, when most people compare the difficulty of a workout on an elliptical to a treadmill, your familiarity and comfort with 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.

What Are The Differences In Muscle Engagement Between Using An Elliptical And Running?

In general, both the elliptical and running provide a full-body workout, engaging a number of different muscle groups.2Eken, M. M., Withers, A., Flanagan, K., Burger, J., Bosch, A., & Lamberts, R. P. (2020). Muscular Activation Patterns During Exercise on the Treadmill, Stepper, and Elliptical Trainer. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000003743

‌In particular, both exercise options work the leg muscles, like the quads, hamstring, and glutes.

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.

Do Elliptical Machines Burn More Calories Than Treadmills Or The Other Way Around?

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.

A high-intensity workout will generally burn more calories, irrespective of whether it’s on a treadmill or elliptical machine

Therefore, it’s difficult to compare the calories burned on an elliptical vs. treadmill or outdoor running.

Differences In Calories Burned

According to Harvard Health Publishing3Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, March 8). Calories burned in 30 minutes of leisure and routine activities. Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diet-and-weight-loss/calories-burned-in-30-minutes-for-people-of-three-different-weights, engaging in 30 minutes of “general elliptical use” typically burns:

  • 270 calories for a 125-pound person
  • 324 calories for a 155-pound person
  • 378 calories for a 185-pound person

In comparison, running at different paces for the same duration yields the following approximate calorie burns:

Running at a pace of 5 mph (12 min/mile) burns:

  • 240 calories for a 125-pound person
  • 288 calories for a 155-pound person
  • 336 calories for a 185-pound person

Increasing the running pace to 6 mph (10 min/mile) results in burning approximately:

  • 295 calories for a 125-pound person
  • 360 calories for a 155-pound person
  • 420 calories for a 185-pound person

Running at a vigorous pace of 10 mph (6 min/mile) for 30 minutes can burn:

  • 453 calories for a 125-pound person
  • 562 calories for a 155-pound person
  • 671 calories for a 185-pound person

While running tends to burn more calories overall, it’s important to consider the intensity of the elliptical workout.4Brown, G. A., Cook, C. M., Krueger, R. D., & Heelan, K. A. (2010). Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. an Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research24(6), 1643–1649. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181cb2854

‌The “general use” setting on an elliptical machine typically corresponds to moderate intensity at best, but users can increase the intensity to match or exceed these calorie expenditure estimates potentially.

For a more accurate estimation of energy expenditure, individuals can utilize a heart rate5Target Heart Rate and Estimated Maximum Heart Rate | Physical Activity | CDC. (2022, May 3). Www.cdc.gov. monitor or fitness tracker and apply the formula for Metabolic Equivalents (METs).

A man on an elliptical machine.

Which Is More Effective For Weight Loss: Elliptical Workouts Or Running?

Any form of exercise has the potential to help you reduce body fat and lose weight. It all depends on your fitness goals.

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.6Filipovic, M., Munten, S., Herzig, K.-H., & Gagnon, D. D. (2021). Maximal Fat Oxidation: Comparison between Treadmill, Elliptical and Rowing Exercises. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 170–178. https://doi.org/10.52082/jssm.2021.170

‌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, if you want a great cardio exercise, crank up the resistance and incline on an elliptical machine to help build muscle.

A woman smiling on an elliptical machine.

What Are The Benefits Of Using An Elliptical Over Running For Joint Health?

Compared to a high-impact activity like running, striding on an elliptical machine is a great low-impact exercise that 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 trainer offers a lower-impact option of 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 is a great aerobics cardio workout that gets you running 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 the elliptical better than running? Or will you stick to the pavement?

The bottom line is that both are effective forms of cardio workout routines.

If you are coming back from an injury or looking for other running alternatives, consider working with a certified personal trainer and check out our low-impact cardio options here:


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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. 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.

1 thought on “Elliptical Vs. Running: Which Gives The Better Workout?”

  1. I bought an elliptical to compliment my running because; The dreaded ITB and bursitis. I’ve this ailment for a while now and it has not gone away completely. I run when I can. But the elliptical is just as good IMO. I do like running outside. It’s what motivates me to get better. Still, the elliptical has an advantage in output;

    The only real metric to compare accurately is heart rate. The elliptical has proven to me that I can maintain much higher outputs for an hour than running AND not inflame my ITB. While running on a daily basis I can output a 164 comfortably for over an hour. While on the elliptical that number goes to 175. When I get done with the elliptical I don’t feel beat up.

    I still prefer running outside but I’ve got to hand it to my elliptical machine. I’m glad I have the fallback.


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