Treadmill vs Elliptical Trainer


These two cardiovascular training machines can be found in pretty much every gym in the land, with versions of them found in many a home as well.
They both seem to fulfil a pretty similar purpose, but like way to many things in the fitness industry, they attract far too much absolutism.
I’ve heard trainers tell people to never touch a treadmill because they’re “dangerous” and will wreck their knees.  Then on another occasion, I’ve heard a male trainer dismiss the elliptical machine to a male client as “a running machine for wusses”.  

The truth is that in terms of cardiovascular fitness and body fat reduction studies have shown that treadmills, elliptical trainers, and indeed stepping machines, all perform much the same.

However, the machines are different and do offer different training opportunities to the engaged practitioner.  
Below I’ve listed some of the benefits and drawbacks of each machine and included advice on how you can get the best out of them in your training, including a couple of specific workout suggestions you can try next time you’re in the gym.

The Treadmill


Couple running on treadmills
  • Running/jogging/walking on a treadmill directly represents an everyday movement pattern.
  • Impact of the stride strengthens bones, great for fighting osteoporosis.
  • Allows for intense training patterns.

Potential Drawbacks

Lady training on elliptical machine
  • Repetitive impact can lead to repetitive strain injuries, in muscles, bones and tendons and ligaments.
  • Uniform environment doesn’t prepare the body for running outside in the real world.
  • Risk of injury.  It’s easier than you think to fall off a treadmill, especially during intense training.  Many people are hurt each year this way.

The Elliptical Trainer


  • Significantly reduced impact protects the body from repetitive strain injuries.
  • Easy to vary training with forward and backwards practice.
  • Handles mean that the upper body is engaged as well, increasing endurance.
  • Low impact coupled with whole-body engagement makes for a perfect warmup exercise.

Potential Drawbacks

  • Elliptical stride is different to real-world running/walking, so functional benefit is reduced.
  • Nature of the machine means it can be more difficult to increase intensity.


Variety is the spice of life.  But these machines will bring benefits, and using one shouldn’t rule out using the other.
That said, perhaps consider the following suggestions.
Avoid long runs on the treadmill, especially without varying the speed and incline, to create changes in the stride pattern.
I would advise using the treadmill for shorter more intense sessions (ensuring that you keep yourself safe) and save longer runs for outside mixing, where possible pavements, parks and trails.
Use the elliptical trainer as a warmup, and also for stamina work in the gym.  If you are looking for a longer, medium intensity workout, the elliptical trainer is going to be gentler on the body.

Sample Workouts

15 minute Pyramid Run

Great for improving stamina and cardiovascular fitness.
Set the incline on your treadmill to 1 or 2%
Then run:

  • Two minutes at 5 mph
  • Two minutes at 6 mph
  • Two minutes at 7 mph
  • One minute at 8 mph
  • One minute at 9 mph

… Then back down the pyramid …

  • One minute at 8 mph
  • Two minutes at 7 mph
  • Two minutes at 6 mph
  • Two minutes at 5 mph

(Feel free to adjust the starting point as needed for you.  EG - beginning at 4mph working to 8)

800 Metres Hill Climb

Simple one this - or so it seems...
Set the treadmill to its maximum incline.
Run for 800m - as quickly as you can.
(Tip:  Start slower than you think you need to!  You’ll thank me for it.)

Elliptical Trainer - Stamina Workout.

The aim of this workout is the keep the heart rate between 70 and 80% of maximum for an extended period of time.  
(Max Heart Rate is approximately equal to 220 – your age)

  • Set the elliptical trainer to moderate intensity.
  • Stride forward for 10 minutes
  • Stride backwards for 2 minutes
  • Repeat x3, 4 or 5 depending upon time.
  • Cooldown at low intensity (forwards) for two minutes

(You might want to grab a podcast for this one!)