How Do Ellipticals Measure Distance?

Given the unusual range of motion afforded by the elliptical, what does it actually mean when the machine tells you you’ve done ‘1 mile’? The distance measured by an elliptical is usually based on the stride length of the machine multiplied by the number of repetitions or ‘steps’ you have completed, although there are question marks over exactly how accurate this measure of distance can be.

But How do ellipticals measure distance? The standard method for manufacturers to measure this is to take the number of steps and multiply this by the stride length of the machine. 

Exercising on an elliptical has sometimes been described as being more akin to the motion of cross-country skiing than it is to running. Given this, it’s certainly less straightforward for a cross-trainer to calculate the ‘distance’ you’ve gone than it would be on a flat surface machine such as a treadmill. 

Here, we’ll take a closer look at how exactly a cross-trainer calculates distance, how this might vary between machines, and how you can use distance measurements to gauge and plan your workouts effectively. We’ll also take a look at how, even if your elliptical trainer doesn’t have its own distance display, you can still calculate distance estimates yourself so that you have a rough idea of how far or how long you need to train in order to have ‘covered’ a certain amount of ground. 

Do Ellipticals Measure Distance Accurately?

Like many exercise machines these days, ellipticals can come with a range of measurements, stats and adjustable settings, usually found on the digital display. Distance in miles or kilometres is likely to be one of these stats, but just how accurate is this? 

Something that many elliptical users find when they first start out on the machine is that a measured mile on the elliptical seems easier to cover than a mile running outside, or even on a treadmill. There are a number of reasons for this. 

How Do Ellipticals Measure Distance?

One is that the motion of the elliptical is smoother and far lower impact than traditional running, meaning the limbs experience a less jarring workout whilst still being placed under strain. Another is that running stride can vary significantly, based on the weather, fatigue levels, gradient, and many other factors, whereas the stride length on an elliptical is fixed. 

Nevertheless, this discrepancy in how a ‘running mile’ and an ‘elliptical mile’ are experienced often has people questioning the ability of cross trainers to measure distance at all. Should we even be looking to them for distance measures, and if not, why do manufacturers insist on having them included?

How do ellipticals measure distance? 

First, let’s take a look at how exactly distance is measured on an elliptical.

The standard method for manufacturers to measure this is to take the number of steps and multiply this by the stride length of the machine. 

The machine will often measure how many ‘steps’ there have been by counting the number of complete revolutions (the number of times the machine’s flywheel is turned). One complete revolution is usually two steps, left and right. 

What does this mean in terms of numbers? Well, let’s say your stride length is 20 inches and you take 5000 steps. The machine will probably count this as 2500 revolutions (2 steps per rev). 

The distance will be 20 inches x 5000 (or 40 inches x 2500, whichever way you want to do the maths, it all works out the same!) 

This gives us 100,000 inches, which roughly equates to 1.58 miles.

How long does it take to do one mile on an elliptical?

Ok, so we have a rough idea now of how we reach these numbers. How long, in that case, will it take you to do a mile on the elliptical? 

We can actually work this out ourselves using a bit of reverse mathematics, or at least calculate how many steps it will take us to cover the distance.

We know that there are 63,360 inches in a mile. We also know that each step measured by the machine is likely to result in a certain number of inches being logged in terms of the stride length. So all that’s left is to divide 63,360 by the stride length of the machine to work out how many steps we need to take in order to cover a mile. 

Let’s stick with the 20 inch stride example – 63,360 divided by 20 is 3,168 – which means on a 20 inch stride you’ll need to do roughly 3,168 elliptical steps in order to cover a mile.  

The amount of time you’ll take to cover that distance will of course depend on a number of factors, including the rate at which you’re working out and the resistance levels of the machine. As a very rough guide, some people when they’re logging their exercise will look at equating anywhere between 8-12 minutes on the elliptical as having covered a mile of distance, but you may wish to hone this calculation down based on your own pace and overall goals. 

How long does it take to do 10,000 steps on an elliptical? 

If you’re talking about actual elliptical strides, then this is a bit like asking how long it takes to do 10,000 steps anywhere – it depends on how fast you’re walking! If you ramp up the resistance on a cross trainer, or lengthen the stride, it’s going to take you longer to cover your reps. 

However, if you’re talking about a 10,000 walking step equivalent, then there are a number of different step count conversion charts you can use to try to work out a rough estimate. One example is Big Team Challenge, which estimates that a minute of elliptical training equals roughly 203 ‘real life’ steps. Other estimates place it anywhere between 200-270 steps per minute, depending on the intensity of resistance.

If we go with Big Team Challenge’s calculation for the time being, then 10,000 ‘real life’ steps roughly equates to 49 minutes of a medium intensity elliptical workout. 

How accurate is elliptical distance and how can you use the measurement?

The reality is that ‘flat’ distance as we would usually measure it in terms of running, rowing, cycling or swimming doesn’t apply in quite the same way to elliptical miles, even though there are ways of calculating it numerically using stride length. 

You can, of course, calculate this rough distance yourself even if your machine does not have its own digital measurements. Simply measure the stride length of the machine by running a tape measure from the furthest point that the front toe reaches to the furthest point that the heel swings back to. This will give you the stride length which you can then multiply accordingly based on how many steps, or reps, you do. 

As a numerical guide, elliptical miles are perhaps at their most useful when used as a measure of personal progress, rather than as a wholly accurate measure of physical distance. As each elliptical model is likely to measure distance relatively consistently on its own terms, you can use this as a guide to gradually increase your workouts as required, or to get a general sense of how far you and fast you may be going. 

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An ex-triathlete, fitness coach and writer with a Masters in Sports Physiology. Fitness is my passion and I've had my fair share of home fitness equipment tried and tested!