If you want to join the 1.85 million people who finished a half-marathon in 2012 as reported by Running USA, you'll need to train. Training for specificity is one of the most accepted rules of running -- meaning that if you plan to run a half-marathon, you should in fact, run. Although an elliptical trainer offers a super opportunity for cross-training on days you do not run, don't use it as a substitute for essential run training.
Ellipticals and Race Training
The major drawback of an elliptical machine when it comes to half-marathon training is that it is non-specific -- you are going to run your race on a road or trail, not on a machine with gliding pedals attached to a track. While you might be able to achieve a high level of cardiovascular fitness using the elliptical trainer for regular workouts, it won't train your body to sustain the repeated impact of running 13.1 miles. The movement on an elliptical can be similar to running, but not identical. You use slightly different muscles during a run and the point of training is to get these muscles strong so you can make it through the race successfully and without injury.
When you train for a half-marathon, expect to run at least three times per week and cover between 12 and 30 miles or more per week depending on where you are in your training plan. Including cross-training on a low-impact machine such as an elliptical on days you do not run can help you improve your cardiovascular fitness while resting your joints and muscles from the rigors of running's impact. Include cross-training on one or two of your non-running days for a 30- to 60-minute moderate-intensity workout.
If an injury has you sidelined for a few days or weeks during your half-marathon training plan, an elliptical may be a suitable way to keep your fitness level up. A study published in the "Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness" in June 2004 found nearly equivalent physiological adaptations to exercise in participants who trained at the same intensity and volume on a treadmill, stair-climber or elliptical trainer. An elliptical may not be a good option if your injury is related to a stress fracture, Achilles tear or illiotibial band issues because it can still aggravate these areas. Ultimately, listen to your body and your doctor's advice. Use common sense too -- if it hurts to run during training, chances are, it will hurt during the half-marathon and may leave you in worse condition.
Before even considering a half marathon, you need to have a base level of fitness. For even his beginner plans, well-known running coach Hal Higdon assumes you are able to run at least 3 miles several times per week. If you aren't quite at that level of fitness, you could use the elliptical to help get you there. A study published in the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" in 2010 showed that, if you work at the same perceived intensity, a workout on the elliptical and a workout on the treadmill are about equal when it comes to energy burn and oxygen consumption. The elliptical, the researchers concluded, is an acceptable alternative to treadmill training when it comes to cross-training or reaching non-competition-specific fitness goals.
- Runner's World: The 25 Golden Rules of Running
- MayoClinic.com: Elliptical Machines: Better Than Treadmills?
- Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness: Physiological Changes Following a 12 Week Gym Based Stair-Climbing, Elliptical Trainer and Treadmill Running Program in Females
- Competitor: Elliptical Workouts For Injured Runners
- Running USA: Running USA's Annual Half-Marathon Report
- Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: Comparison of Energy Expenditure on a Treadmill vs. An Elliptical Device at a Self-Selected Exercise Intensity
- Hal Higdon: Half Marathon Training Guide - Novice 1 Program
- Photo Credit IT Stock/Polka Dot/Getty Images