by Stephanie Mumford Brown
This has been the winter of our athletic discontent, with frigid temperatures and icy surfaces that discourage running while snow deficits inhibit favorite alternatives like cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Yet we’re only a few weeks away from the spring racing season, and our legs are getting as unruly as a newborn colt’s. So, what’s a runner to do, short of a long Sunbelt vacation? Try a machine.
Treadmills are an obvious choice, but they’re big, expensive (for robust versions), and boring. I don’t have room in my home or my budget for a quality treadmill, which is why I own an elliptical machine. Also, choosing to cross-train can maintain and even increase your performance without running your body or your brain into the ground, so to speak.
My elliptical has reached the end of its unnatural lifespan, essentially brain-dead now that the electronics don’t work. So, I must decide whether to replace it or switch to a stationary bicycle or rowing machine (a.k.a. ergometer, or “erg” to its friends).
Why not just go to a gym instead? Because Covid. But also, for the same reason I run out my front door: having an exercise machine at-hand removes one big fat excuse for not using it. Here’s a look at three options:
Indoor bikes are compact, popular, close to IRL movement, and available in a wide range of prices. On a bike you can work up a good head of cardiovascular steam with low impact on your lower body. It’s an easy movement to do correctly because it’s like riding a… yeah, you already know how to do it.
Bicycling builds core strength and leg muscles, though it doesn’t use quite the same formula as running, emphasizing quads and glutes over calves. Also, it doesn’t do much for your arms. But you can bicycle for long sessions without wear and tear, building endurance (how long you can do it) and stamina (how long you can do it hard—i.e., at maximum capacity).
For me, outdoor bicycling offers a scenic and enjoyable alternative to running on days off. But as a primary exercise source for indoor weeks on end, I prefer an option that slays more fitness birds with one stone.
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The notorious Peloton will cost you at least $1,500 for the hardware, $250 for shipping and setup, and $39 monthly for the spin-class streaming goodies that make the screen meaningful. Umpteen other indoor bike models range from gym-style nonsubscription competitors by Bowflex and Diamondback (about $700 to $1,300) to a couple of Schwinn stalwarts for under $600. There’s a bunch of indoor bikes that run $250 or less but look like they might not last more than a couple winters of fervent use. (All prices in this article exclude tax.)
Ellipticals are the equipment equivalent of a centaur or gryphon or mule—an assemblage that may not look pretty but aims to bring together the best functions of multiple beasts. Elliptical users combine running, cycling, and XC skiing movements into a low-impact total-body workout. Plus, you can go backwards to give those hamstrings and calves a wakeup call.
Is the total more than the sum of its parts? Apparently, it can be somewhat harder for elliptical users to obtain a high-intensity challenge. Still, fitness studies tend to show similar cardio capabilities when comparing elliptical users with runners and treadmill users. In about the same space as a stationary bicycle, you can house an elliptical machine that’s closer to multi-functional.
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The poor thing is undeservedly out of fashion, so online deals abound. I saw commercial NordicTrack models for $1,500 and $1,700 including delivery—they’re not pony-sized, but definitely more basement than bedroom items. Schwinn and Bowflex own mid-level branding ($500 to $1,000), and there’s a rabbit warren of models for $400 or less.
Rowing offers a total workout: full-body, low-impact, intensive cardio with more of a strength element than elliptical strides. Whether in a shell or on an ergometer, this type of rowing isn’t arms-only like a rowboat. With your butt on a sliding seat, you use your legs to generate primary power, while your arms play an important secondary role.
But you have to do it correctly, and proper technique is not intuitive. Machine rowing is easier than water rowing from a technical standpoint, but it’s still more complicated than bicycling or using an elliptical. The multi-part stroke—catch, drive, finish, recovery—takes a little study. And it’s worth it.
I confess I’m into the shell game, as a member of Albany Rowing Center. ARC brings my two sports together every spring with the Ice Breaker Challenge 5K (March 26 this year), which pits runners on the Corning Preserve Trail against rowers on the Hudson River (if weather cooperates).
But I think I’d opt for a rowing machine as my top indoor choice even if I didn’t also row on water. An erg is a true all-in-one solution in the same price range as the other two machines. And when you flip an erg up on its end between sessions, it takes up less storage space than other options.
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Concept2 sets the industry standard, and this Vermont company will sell and ship you a RowErg for under $1,000. You must use a Concept2 if you want to compete in indoor rowing, which is how avid water rowers spend the winter. NordicTrack offers a model at about the same price plus a couple of more deluxe ones. The new Hydrow rower proffers a watery experience (mostly on-screen) for upwards of $2,500, while Sunny Health offers several models for under $250. As with all inexpensive exercise machines, durability is TBD, but as the winter drags on, even a modest model is looking better than none.
Stephanie Mumford Brown is Chief Wiseacre at Wiseacre Press, where she’s trying to compile the missing assembly instructions for the second half of life. She's a former journalist and marketer, now focusing on sports writing, opinion pieces, and fiction.