We’re diving into cycling for runners, examining the benefits of cycling, and comparing cycling with running – with some tips from expert guest writers on the best ways to optimize your training.
Running and cycling are two pretty intertwined activities: they’re both forms of cardio which get you outdoors and covering terrain on your own steam. It’s no surprise many runners like to hop on a bike occasionally, and vice versa.
But combining running and cycling in your training plan often leads to doubts and questions. Runners often wonder if cycling is actually helping or hindering their running game – does all that pedalling fatigue your legs?
In this post, we’re talking to the experts on:
- Does cycling help or hinder your run training?
- The benefits of cycling for runners
- Recommended cycling workouts for runners – and how to incorporate them into your training plan
- Cycling vs running: a comparison of the pros and cons of each!
Let’s jump in!
Does Biking Help Running?
If you’ve been running for some time, you know cross-training is an essential part of your running plan.
Dr. Robert Berghorn, Physical Therapist at Ascent Physical Therapy, helps runners and other endurance athletes train to compete, preserving their bodies at the same time.
He advocates for cross-training in general, but also emphasizes cycling for runners as an especially effective method.
“Cross-training, just like in every sport, is a very important aspect of a training schedule for every athlete. Cross-training allows you to get out of the usual cycle of repetitive movements, using different muscles and muscle activation sequences that either complement or enhance primary sports performance when they return.
Cycling for runners is a wonderful way to cross-train as a runner especially if you need to have a good recovery day after a hard training cycle in the off season, or if the runner is injured.
Incorporating cycling as a recovery day during or after a hard training cycle can be used as a way to flush out the legs and reduce soreness while still getting a good cardiovascular training effect at the same time.
Injured runners who cannot tolerate the impact of running but still feel fine cycling, can use this as a tool to maintain some level of fitness and cardiovascular health while recovering.”
Benefits of Cycling for Runners
As you can see, recovery and cross-training are the two major benefits of cycling for runners, but those advantages run even deeper.
By digging into those two categories, we’ve discovered these below-the-surface benefits of cycling:
- Cycling aids recovery by increasing the blood flow to your calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads – all the muscles you need for running.
- Cycling flushes out lactic acid, which removes stiffness from your muscles. As your muscles burn more energy, they produce lactic acid, which breaks down in hydrogen ions.
The hydrogen ions then lower the pH of your muscles, which slows down the muscles’ efficiency. That’s what creates the burning sensation and keeps you from getting the most out of your muscles.
- Cycling is a good use of injury recovery time. If you’re not able to run because of the impact, cycling on a flat surface can keep your muscles and lungs active and ready to get back on track.
- Cycling helps build up your cardio. Since you often cycle longer than you run, you get that additional boost of cardio training in your schedule.
- Cycling builds strength in complementary muscles. Both sports activate similar muscles, but each one targets the muscle in a different position. Using both will help build overall strength among those critical muscles used in running.
- Cycling decreases body fat. This only happens when you’re cycling uphill and increasing your resistance while you ride.
- Cycling improves your run time. It develops stamina and endurance without putting a load of stress on your leg muscles.
Adding cycling to my weekly schedule helped me personally to skyrocket my run time. When I was running only, I consistently averaged 9-minute miles on my long runs. I took a year-long break from running and replaced it with cycling (plenty of hills, plenty of long distances). When I started running again, I was able to easily hit 7-minute miles, even after the long break!
Cycling Workouts for Runners
If you want to build that additional strength and endurance, riding a few laps around the waterfront will not do you that much good. You’ll need a plan to get a good cycling workout in, at least once a week.
How to Cycle Correctly
Personal trainer and postpartum running coach, Alison Marie, gives advice on how to make sure you’re positioning yourself correctly on the bike.
“When cycling one should check that the seat height is adjusted correctly to allow for the full range of motion without overextending: at the straightest the knees should bend at about 145 degrees (this happens to be around the knee angle of the ideal “triple extension” in running as well).
Clip-in type pedals are ideal because they allow you to truly pedal through the motion instead of simply pushing the pedals down.
When cycling, the range of 80 – 100 RPMs is the ‘sweet spot’ for cardiovascular endurance. One can also use high resistance intervals to simulate something like a hill workout or speed intervals to help work on running cadence.”
Dr. Berghorn also warns about jumping too quickly between cycling and running.
“One caveat I have about going to and from cycling and running is that you need to be mindful that each activity requires different musculature. If you are a cyclist who is trying to get more into running or a runner who took an extended breakthrough cycling, returning back to running may give you a little surprise.
A good cyclist does not require the use of their calf during each revolution, acting as a strut to develop all power from the quads and gluteal muscles. When going from cycling to running therefore, the increased power and activation for propulsion of each stride through the calf can lead to tendonitis or extra aches in your calves or feet.
Despite being cardiovascularly ready to run, easing back into running after a long stint of just cycling is best in order to prevent this type of breakdown.”
Here Are Two Sample Cycling Workouts
Josh Muskin, a triathlete (Ironman and Ironman 70.3) and marathon runner, has coached thousands of triathletes and runners and highly recommends cycling for runners during training for himself and all his clients.
“I’ve found 2 main places that cycling fits in super well for running or marathon training:
- Recovery and/or use while nursing a running injury
- Brick training or Tired Leg training
1. Recovery Workout
Long runs, or even hard tempo efforts, usually result in some sore legs – compliments of lactic acid being built up over those workouts. Cycling can be used as a method to flush that lactic acid from the legs to recover more rapidly.
The way in which to do this is to get on a stationary trainer or a flat consistent road, and pedal at a very high cadence (95+ RPM), but at a resistance that allows you to move that quickly in a Z1 (maybe Z2) heart rate.
In such an activity, you’ll utilize fast-twitch muscle fibers to move quickly, but not overload the main musculature of the legs. The rapid movement, done over 30 minutes or longer, helps slowly move that static lactic acid out of the legs without taxing them significantly.
A ride like this can be done after a hard workout, or on a rest day to reset the body for the coming week.
2. Bricks and Tired Leg Training
“The other place cycling plays a role in run training is on a hard effort,” Muskin says. “Bricks consist of a steady effort on a bike, followed by a hard effort on a run.”
- Push even at a 5-6 rate of perceived exertion (out of 10).
- Hop off the bike and push hard for 2-4 miles.
This allows for a short and intense workout, on ‘tired legs’ without subjecting the body to unnecessary ‘pounding.’
I find this a great replacement for the occasional short tempo run or hard 5k, and often more impactful.”
Which is Better? Cycling Vs Running
If you’re wondering which sport is better for you in the long run, you should know there are pros and cons to both.
- Cycling is easier to hold your heart rate in a lower zone. Your heart rate directly correlates to your oxygen intake and affects all heart-related diseases and issues.
- Cycling has less impact than running. There are many more injuries associated with running.
- You can cover more distance with cycling, which can make the workout more exciting.
- Cycling workouts need to be longer. Because running takes so much more effort, a 30-minute run could be the equivalent of a 2-hour bike ride (depending on the resistance level).
- Cycling induces injuries too. Cycling is hard on the knees, which means neither sport is immune to the lasting impact on your body.
- Running burns more calories in a shorter amount of time.
When it comes to biking vs running, I advise including both in your training program. The two complement each other well.
However, if you need to choose one, then consider your goals in doing so. If you’re just trying to exercise for health, then take into account the time you have to commit.
If you’re wanting to build muscle, then either one is fine, as long you incorporate hills and resistance.
If you are prone to injury, cycling is a safer option.
If you’re training for a marathon or half marathon, focus on running but include cycling as part of your cross-training.
If the last one fits your description, download one of our free marathon training plans. They are fully customizable, which means you can pencil in your cross-training with ease.