Elliptical vs. Running: Which One Gives You the Most Effective Cardio Workout?

Photo: Getty Images/ Lorado
Grab your mask and walk into any gym and you're bound to see two cardio machines getting a lot of use: the elliptical and the treadmill. At some gyms, both pieces of workout equipment are so popular that there's a sign-up list for each. But it begs the question: In the head-to-head battle of elliptical vs. running, which is the most effective workout?

There's a reason why so many people are focused on cardio at the gym. (Not to knock strength training—that's important, too!) Fitness trainer and running coach Meghan Takacs says that cardio benefits the body, brain, and mental well-being. "Cardio is a really effective way for managing stress—especially right now when so many people are feeling overwhelmed," she says. One reason for this is because cardio-based exercises—including both the elliptical and running—can release endorphins, known as the "feel good chemicals" in the brain.

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Takacs explains that cardio-based workouts also increase your heart rate, which causes you to breathe harder. "This means more oxygen is being delivered to your brain, which is good for brain health and also your body overall," she says. "Regular cardio can help someone maintain good heart health as well as lower their risk for diabetes, high blood pressure, and other health issues."

Getting your heart rate up on the elliptical and running share many of the same benefits, but there are pointed ways that they differ from one another as well. Curious to how to know which one is the best fit for accomplishing your health goals? Keep reading to see the benefits of each and advice on which one to go for.

What are the benefits of treadmill running?

As a running coach, Takacs says she always recommends running outside instead of on the treadmill, if this is something you have access to and can do safely. "When you're using a machine to run, it does some of the work for you, including setting your pace," she says. "Running outside requires more muscles. You use more of your core because you have to work harder to maintain your posture and you pull up with your hamstrings more as well."

But of course, there are times when running outside safely isn't an option, and that's when the treadmill can come in handy. "If you're training for a race, I would definitely recommend running on a treadmill instead of using an elliptical machine because the movements closer mimic what you would do during a race," she says.

Not training for anything? Takacs says there are other benefits to using the treadmill instead of the elliptical. In general, the treadmill is a more effective workout than the elliptical because it's harder work. She explains that the running movement requires more effort from the core and hamstrings than working out on the elliptical. In terms of a core and lower body workout, the treadmill, she says, wins out.

There's also some scientific evidence showing that running is good for your bones. "Running distances of up to 15 to 20 miles per week has been associated with the accrual or maintenance of bone mineral density," reads a scientific paper published in Canadian Medical Association Journal. (Sorry marathoners, but it adds that longer distances may have the opposite effect, being detrimental for bone health.) Since using the elliptical does not require the same impact as running, it doesn't bring this benefit.

Before you go for a run, warm up with this short pre-stretching routine:

What are the benefits of using the elliptical?

Still, there are times when it may make more sense to use an elliptical machine instead of the treadmill. One benefit is that it's lower impact and especially easier on the knees and ankles. "If you're recovering from an injury, the elliptical can be a good machine to use," says Takacs. "Similarly, if you're trying to prevent injuries that can happen by extensive running—like shine splits or runners' knee—the elliptical could be a good machine to use."

The elliptical machine also requires both a leg movement and an upper-body movement, which could make it a better workout for your upper body. Working out your arms and legs at the same time also requires coordination that running really doesn't. While running does involve swinging your arms back and forth too, this is often done as a way to propel yourself forward, and it requires less mental and physical effort than the pushing-and-pulling motion of the elliptical.

Besides being lower impact and incorporating the upper body more into the workout, Takacs says the benefits of the elliptical mirror those of the treadmill in many ways, namely being a good way to get your blood pumping and up your endurance.

So, which one is the better workout?

In the battle of the elliptical vs running, Takacs says she hands down says that running is the best workout—especially if you're doing it outside (though we've seen proof that an elliptical HIIT workout can pack a serious punch, too). "This is really because it requires more from the body," she says. "Especially if you have a goal of running a race, running outside or on the treadmill is going to be closer to the real thing than workout out on the elliptical."

But if running is causing you to feel pain in any way—especially on your joints—you can absolutely still get much of the same cardio benefits on the elliptical. (And hey, the bonus of some arm work thrown in there, too.) "Again, both are going to be good for your heart, brain, stress-reduction, and overall health," Takacs says. There's also something to be said about choosing a workout you actually like to do; moving your body should be fun and a source of pleasure, never something you feel like you "have" to do.

Rest assured that whichever one you're into, your body and mind will both benefit—and that's the win that matters the most.

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