Fitness / Running

Cardio Machines That Improve Running (That Aren’t the Treadmill)

Switch up your routine to become a better runner.

There’s far more to running than meets the eye. Despite what you may think, there are more ways to train than, well, running. The treadmill is a great place to start, but there are other cardio machines that improve running performance, too.

“If you’re a runner, cross-training is ideal for improving your overall performance,” says Aaptiv Trainer Kelly Chase, whose workout routines span almost every available machine. “I suggest training on the stair climber, elliptical, and stationary bike, as each activates our muscles differently, contributing to better strength and performance,” she says. And that’s only the beginning. Read on to discover how these machines can improve your speed, endurance, pace, and more.

Not sure where to start? Aaptiv can help. Check out our elliptical, stair climber, and indoor cycling classes in-app. 


Many people underestimate the elliptical (or cross-trainer), but it’s actually one of the most advantageous machines for runners. Treadmill aside, it comes the closest to mimicking running in terms of motion, stride, and leg muscle engagement. “The elliptical is good for runners who have had an injury or some kind of limitation. It has similar strides to running and can help build up the same muscles used for your running performance,” says Aaptiv Trainer Rochelle Moncourtois. “Ellipticals can also mimic inclines, just like a treadmill or running outside, to give you the same kind of training!” Likewise, studies have found that the aerobic benefits are the same when done at the same exertion level (which is great for sprinters and endurance runners).

Because you can pedal both forward and backward, there’s a ton of leg muscle engagement. Pedaling forward targets your biceps femoris (a muscle in the hamstring), quads, and anterior tibialis. Pedaling backward targets your rectus femoris (a muscle in the quadriceps), calves, glutes, and hamstrings. Alternating between the two will strengthen the knees, providing much-needed knee support (cue praise hands). Meanwhile, if you maintain proper form and good posture, your core will work hard to keep you balanced. As always, the option to use the handlebars is available if you want to strengthen your upper body.

Check out Aaptiv’s elliptical workouts in the app today.

Practice Running Posture

“The elliptical [is especially great] for core and upper body, which helps with posture when running,” Aaptiv trainer Meghan Takacs says. Good posture is key when it comes to running because it helps you move more efficiently and avoid injury. So, to wrap it up nicely, training on the elliptical can strengthen important muscles, quicken your pace, and improve your posture.

Let’s not forget one of the main reasons we cherish the elliptical—it’s virtually void of impact. Your feet never leave the pedals, so there’s no hard collision with any surface. This protects your legs all the way down to your ankles. In fact, working out on this machine strengthens the muscles surrounding your ankles, which protects your joints and prevents future twists and strains. If you’re especially prone to soreness or injuries, or you’re looking for a low-impact alternative while training, the elliptical is your go-to.

Stationary Bike

The stationary bike (or indoor cycle) is another low-impact option that can help you reach your running goals. “An assault bike is great for runners—quick bouts spike your heart rate, just like sprints,” Takacs says. Quick note: An assault bike, though it sounds intimidating, is just a stationary air-resistance bike.

In addition to that, all styles of the stationary bike target your glutes, hip flexors, calves, hamstrings, quads, and shin muscles—the last two being slow to develop in runners. By engaging leg muscles not commonly used while running, you create stronger legs and a more balanced body. Staying upright and maintaining good form also hits your abdominals and obliques, improving your overall balance and stability. (Are you seeing the pattern here?) Similar to the elliptical, cycling helps strengthen your knees (the connective tissue, specifically), ankles, and hips, further reducing your risk of injury. Plain and simple: Cycling hits all the muscles you need for running and then some, without a high-risk factor.

Practice Cadence and Endurance

When using a stationary bike, aim for a high cadence (rotations per minute). This will help increase your foot turnover. “Practicing your cadence on a bike can also help improve your cadence with running!” Moncourtois advises. “Both events should have a steady cadence of 90.” She also notes that the motion of pedaling a bike can help reduce lactic acid buildup from running, so it’s worth doing for a few minutes after your run as well.

You can also train by raising the resistance. This creates more of a challenge for your muscles, which contributes greatly to uphill running. All the while, the machine is low impact, so your joints won’t tire out as quickly. This means you may be able to cycle longer than you can run, thus improving your endurance.

If you’re searching for a low-impact alternative to running that doesn’t sacrifice a challenge, aim for the stationary bike. Just don’t use it on rest days because you’ll feel just as exhausted as you do on run days. Instead, implement cycling into your usual routine.

Stair Climber

Another way for runners to train without pounding the pavement (or belt) is stair climbing. This exercise helps you build two crucial needs for runners: power and endurance.

The stair climber targets your quads, calves, and glutes, building and strengthening the same muscles you use while walking, jogging, and running. This puts vigorous stair climbing right on par with high-intensity running, building those muscles and adding more power to your runs. Want to improve your hill running? Look no further. The stair climber is ideal in this case because most sets of stairs are steeper than your average hill.

Not only that, but pushing yourself up stair after stair also gives your heart and lungs an equally taxing workout. This requires you to get oxygen to your muscles faster (by way of breathing, of course), which can seriously improve your VO2 max, speed, and overall endurance. In short, stair climbing is the Daft Punk of all workouts (that is, harder, better, faster, stronger). Besides, don’t we all want to feel like Rocky Balboa?

Remember: Continually doing the same workout will keep you stagnant, even if that workout is strenuous treadmill sprints or long runs. If your goal is to become a better runner or switch up your routine, don’t hesitate to give these cardio machines that improve running a try.

Switch it up with our elliptical, stair climber, or indoor cycling workouts, in the Aaptiv app.

Fitness Running


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