How is the Distance Calculated on an Elliptical

If you’ve ever used an elliptical, you’ve probably noticed that they aren’t like most other machines. Instead of moving in a linear forward direction, the elliptical has you rise and dip with each flywheel revolution.

This can make it difficult to gauge how much work you’ve done. Luckily, most ellipticals come with a display that offers measures of different metrics – calories burned, time used, speed, and distance.

But, how reliable is the distance calculation on an elliptical? More importantly, how does the machine measure it? Let’s see.

How Is The Distance Calculated On An Elliptical?

Because of the intricate movement pattern, calculating the distance passed on an elliptical is tricky. Most manufacturers use a relatively simple formula, which may not always represent reality.

In general, ellipticals calculate and display distance based on the number of steps, the stride of which is always the same length. So, the distance you pass is only based on the number of steps you complete.

With that said, there is a lot more to consider here. Read on to find out…

Is The “Distance” Measurement Relevant In The Real World?

Say that you’ve used an elliptical for half an hour, and it reads something like, “Distance passed: 2.8 miles.” Yet, it would be impossible for you to run 2.8 miles on dry land in thirty minutes or less. Naturally, you would be skeptical of the reading, and rightfully so.

Here is the thing:

Each elliptical model has its unique characteristics that determine the distance passed. In that sense, comparing the distance you’ve passed to other activities like running and cycling or to other elliptical machines doesn’t tell you much. Instead, an elliptical gives you an estimate of the amount of work you’re doing.

And while comparing it to other activities doesn’t tell you that much, it is still a useful metric to consider because of progressive overload.

You see, the primary difference between exercising and training is progression. A person who exercises generally does a fixed amount of work each time for the sake of raising their heart rate and boosting their mood. In contrast, a person who trains and is actively interested in improving their physical capabilities aims to do more work over time.

In that sense, the distance measurement can be valuable if your goals are to improve over time. For example, if you’re currently doing about 2.8 miles in half an hour on the elliptical, you can use this value as a base. Over time, aim to do more work in the same amount of time – for example, three to four miles.

How Many Revolutions Equal a Mile on an Elliptical?

Different elliptical models display different things. Some display distance, and others only give you revolutions per minute (RPM). If the elliptical shows distance, you’re all set, and you can use that value as a basis of which to improve.

But if the elliptical doesn’t display distance, you need to understand how it does the measurement. In general, ellipticals are programmed to calculate distance based on the number of revolutions the flywheel makes and each stride’s length.

If you want to calculate it for yourself, the most straightforward approach is to find how many revolutions there are in a mile on your specific model. First, try to find this information in the owner’s manual, online, or by calling the manufacturers and asking them directly.

If you can’t find that information, get a tape measure and do it yourself. To do this, first set one pedal as far forward as it goes, then move it to the opposite direction where its heel is a far back as possible. Measure that distance between these two points in inches.

To calculate how many revolutions equal a mile, you need to divide a mile by the stride length. You then need to divide that value in half because two strides make each revolution on an elliptical.

So, here goes:

A mile has 63,360 inches. If your elliptical stride length is 32 inches, you would divide 63,360 by 32 and get a value of 1980 – the number of strides in a mile. To get the revolutions, you would divide 1980 by two and get 990 revolutions per mile. This number represents the number of revolutions you need to do on your elliptical to cover one mile.

Is a Mile On An Elliptical The Same As a Mile of Running?

Using an elliptical and running are two unique activities. While they might seem similar at first glance, there are several defining characteristics of each.

Most notably, the elliptical incorporates two unique patterns – running and sweeping, similar to that you would perform while skiing or rollerblading. Thanks to this unique movement pattern, you don’t have to lift your feet off the pedals, yet you get to mimic a running motion. As a result, the ground force impact is significantly lower, and you don’t have to worry about using an elliptical even if you’re a bit overweight.

The issue is, this movement pattern presents a problem when comparing two seemingly identical values. For example, is the distance passed similar on an elliptical and while running? Would a mile represent the same amount of work?

In general, people report that running a mile is more challenging than completing it on an elliptical, which raises concerns.

The issue is, comparing the values between running and riding an elliptical can be difficult. As we went over above, ellipticals typically calculate the distance based on stride length. This varies from model to model, and it tends to be easier to complete a mile on some machines. Plus, as you work out on an elliptical, you’re not going in a straight line. Instead, you’re following an up and down pattern, which further complicates things.

On the other hand, running is straightforward:

The distance you have to go is consistent, no matter where you are. Sure, an incline changes things up, but things are more predictable, and you can always tell what a mile represents.

So, to conclude, don’t worry about trying to compare similar values between different activities. In general, it’s easier to pass a mile on an elliptical than it is to run it on dry land. But the elliptical also involves your upper body musculature and offers a unique movement pattern, so these are two things to consider.

It’s much better to compare your performance on the same activity over time. For example, compare your running now with your running from a few months ago. Similarly, compare your elliptical performance now with that of a few months ago. So long as you’re seeing improvements within that frame, you’re doing well.

What Do 30 Minutes On An Elliptical Amount To?

Before wrapping up this guide, we’d like to illustrate what training on an elliptical for 30 minutes amounts to. There are three things to consider: caloric burn, muscles trained, and distance passed.

1) Caloric burn.

According to some resources, we burn around 2.2 calories per pound of body weight for thirty minutes of using an elliptical. For example, if you weigh 120 pounds, you should burn approximately 264 calories. If you weigh 180 pounds, that number will jump to around 396 calories.

Of course, your average speed, the resistance you’re using, and whether you’re actively using your upper body will also impact the caloric burn.

2) Muscles trained.

The elliptical sets itself apart from many cardio machines because it involves your entire body. Specifically, the elliptical trains your lower body (quads, hamstrings, and glutes) and upper body (upper back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, chest, and abdominal musculature).

Using it for thirty minutes is a great way to have a moderately-intense whole-body workout.

3) Distance passed.

The distance passed on an elliptical for thirty minutes of use will vary. For example, some experts recommend aiming for 90 revolutions per minute, which is 180 strides.

As per our calculations above, 90 RPMs would equal around 11 minutes per mile if the stride length is 32 inches. That would be just below three miles in thirty minutes.

Of course, you don’t have to start with such a tempo. Chances are, you won’t be able to even if you tried. Start with something you can sustain for thirty minutes and slowly ramp up the RPMs over the weeks. You’ll be doing three miles in no time.

As we discussed above, it’s essential to use these values as estimates rather than absolutes. Doing the same amount of work with the same intensity for the same length of time across five different ellipticals will likely show five unique measures of these values.

What matters most is that you compare the same machine’s values repeatedly and see how they change. For example, if you keep your workouts at thirty minutes but your caloric burn increases gradually, that indicates more work or higher intensity, which is good.

Similarly, if you manage to pass greater distances over time, that’s also a good sign of progress.

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