Cycling Vs Running: Which Is The Better Choice?

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Although there are many benefits of cycling and running, some of which overlap between the two sports, many people still wonder which of the two, biking or running gives the better workout.

What are the pros and cons and differences between cycling vs running? Is biking better than running? Or vice versa?

In this article, we will look at biking vs running, honing in on the differences between cycling and running, and the benefits of running vs biking (and of biking vs running) to help you pick the best type of exercise for your individual needs.

We will cover: 

  • Cycling Vs Running: Which Gives You the Better Workout?
  • Cycling Vs Running: Muscles Worked
  • Cycling Vs Running: Calories Burned
  • Which Is Better for Weight Loss, Running Or Biking?
  • Cycling Vs Running: Injury Risk

Let’s dive in! 

A person cycling.

Cycling Vs Running: Which Gives You the Better Workout?

When you are surveying your options for cardio exercise, whether using cardio equipment at the gym or exercising outside, you’ve likely wondered whether you will get a better workout running or cycling.

Is running better than biking, or is biking better than running?

There isn’t necessarily a clear-cut answer to this question because the term “better” is ill-defined.

A “better workout” may be defined as a workout that is more difficult, intense, and more likely to boost cardiovascular fitness for most people, or “better”—sort of a global sense of a “better” workout, may refer to a better workout for a specific individual, based on his or her fitness goals and needs.

The answer to which type of exercise is better, running vs. biking, can certainly vary based on your own personal fitness goals, current fitness level, and overall health.

Two people running.

For example, for a runner who is trying to train for a 10k, running will be a more effective type of exercise to perform to train for the race.

In contrast, if someone has significant osteoarthritis of the knee, cycling is likely going to be a better workout because it causes less stress on the joints, so it can typically be performed more vigorously without increasing joint stress and pain.

It is also important to remember that you can modulate the difficulty of the workout, either running or cycling, based on your effort level.

For instance, it is possible to do a very low-intensity, easy jog at a comfortable pace on a track where there’s no incline.

You can also do a very vigorous running workout by doing 6 x 800m hard intervals at VO2 max pace or sprinting up a hill 12 times.

A person jogging.

A similar scenario can play out with biking.

You can ride on a bike path at a light resistance and a slow cadence, or you can engage in a demanding high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout on an indoor cycle (spin bike) with bursts of very high-resistance climbs and a high cadence.

However, overall, all things being equal, running is usually a better workout than cycling.

Coupled with the fact that running is a total body-body exercise, the high-impact, weight-bearing nature of running increases the workload on your muscles, heart, and lungs compared with cycling, which is non-weight-bearing, low-impact and mostly only a lower-body workout.

For this reason, it’s more difficult to consistently get your heart rate as high while cycling vs running, and you’ll get more of a full-body workout running vs biking.

Keep in mind that no matter what type of exercise you perform, you can increase or decrease the difficulty of the workout.

When you run, you can increase your speed (run at a faster pace) or run up an incline to increase the intensity of the workout, or run longer to make the workout more difficult.

When you bike, you can increase the intensity of the workout by cycling at a faster cadence or with more resistance. You can also do longer cycling workouts, which will be more difficult overall.

A person cycling on the road.

Cycling Vs Running: Muscles Worked

There’s a lot of overlap between the muscles worked by running and the muscles worked by cycling because both activities are predominantly lower-body exercises.

Cycling and running both primarily target the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves, as well as the hip flexor muscles.

With cycling, as long as your hands stay on the handlebars and you stay seated on the saddle, the muscular involvement of the exercise is essentially limited to these lower-body muscles.

Your body weight is supported by the seat, so there’s little core and upper-body muscle activation.

However, if you stand up and climb up hills outside or do an indoor cycling workout on a spin bike that involves climbing up out of the saddle, you will also activate your abdominal muscles, lower back muscles, deltoids (shoulders), triceps, and pecs (chest) to some degree.

Running is a total-body workout, so in addition to the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves of the lower body, you use all major muscles of the core and upper body.

Additionally, running also uses the adductors and abductors of the legs, such as gluteus medius, adductor magnus, and adductor longus, for lateral stability. 

These muscles are minimally active while cycling because your weight is supported on the seat, so you do not have to stabilize your body in the frontal plane (side to side). 

Finally, running or cycling uphill will further strengthen the legs by effectively increasing the resistance. 

People running over a bridge.

Cycling Vs Running: Calories Burned

The number of calories you burn during a workout depends on several factors, namely the type of exercise, intensity of the workout, duration of the workout, and your body weight.

For example, you’ll burn more calories during a 45-minute HIIT indoor cycling workout where your heart rate is getting up to 85% of your maximum heart rate or higher than you will jogging around your block for 15 minutes at a 12-minute pace.

With that said, minute per minute, running typically burns more calories than cycling due to the greater muscle involvement and weight-bearing nature of the activity. 

According to Harvard Health Publishing, 30 minutes of moderate-intensity stationary biking burns about 210 calories for a 125-pound person, 252 calories for a 155-pound person, and 292 calories for a 185-pound person, while a 30-minute vigorous stationary bike workout burns approximately 315 calories for a 125-pound person, 378 calories for a 155-pound person, and 441 calories for a 185-pound person.

Running for 30 minutes at 6 mph (10-minute miles) burns about 295 calories for a 125-pound person, 360 calories for a 155-pound person, and 420 calories for a 185-pound person, while running for 30 minutes at 7.5 mph (8-minute miles) burns about 375 calories for a 125-pound person, 450 calories for a 155-pound person, and 525 calories for a 185-pound person.

This data suggests that jogging at a moderate pace will burn about as many calories as a vigorous stationary bike workout while running at faster paces can burn significantly more calories than cycling.

A person cycling.

Which Is Better for Weight Loss, Running Or Biking?

Due to the fact that the caloric expenditure is typically higher with running vs cycling, running tends to lead to faster weight loss. 

With that said, both cycling and running can help you lose weight and burn fat.

The effectiveness of biking and running for weight loss will depend on how many calories you burn in your workouts—which is dependent on the duration, intensity, and frequency of your workouts—relative to the number of calories you’re eating.

If either type of exercise increases your appetite, the other activity might be better.

Similarly, if you can bike longer or harder than you can run, biking can be better for weight loss than running. The converse is also true.

Three people joggin.

Cycling Vs Running: Injury Risk

Injuries can occur from both running and cycling.

Running is a high-impact activity, so it’s much harder on the bones and joints. As such, it can be uncomfortable for people with osteoarthritis and can be unhealthy for people with low bone density.

Additionally, people who are overweight or pregnant sometimes find the impact stresses of running to be uncomfortable, though plenty of people with a high BMI enjoy running every day.

With cycling, the risk of injuries is lower because cycling is a low-impact exercise as your foot is always in contact with the pedal rather than landing back on the ground to absorb your body weight after being airborne.

With that said, cycling in traffic or outdoors can lead to injuries, or even death, from falls. Wearing a helmet and obeying traffic laws is a must for safety.

As can be seen, there are many benefits to both running and cycling. Running is a very efficient, total-body workout that burns a lot of calories, while cycling is easier on the joints and can potentially be more approachable for beginners, seniors, and those who carry a lot of extra weight.

Looking to take up running? If you are a beginner and want to start your running journey with us, we have an excellent Couch to 5k training plan to get you started today!

A spin class.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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