With cross training for runners, you really can’t get much better than cycling.
Not only is cycling an excellent alternative to running on easier days, it’s also a great way to maintain running fitness when you’re injured.
But that’s not all…
Cycling can boost running performance and make you a faster runner — which is what we are going to look at in this article.
In the first two articles, we looked at:
In this article, we will look at:
- The scientific basis of cycling for running performance — to see if it’s beneficial?
- The cycling workouts that I’ve found most beneficial for transferring fitness across to running.
Before diving in, here are the ways I’ve benefitted from cycling:
- It’s allowed me to maintain run fitness when injured — to the point where I lost no running speed following two weeks of just cycling in the build-up to a half marathon.
- Following 8 weeks of only cycle training — no running at all! — I was able to run a 5k to within 5% of my best running pace.
- It has allowed me to maintain my normal running pace, off half my normal running volume. This included running a 78minute half marathon at the end of a half iron distance triathlon.
- I’ve also experienced improved recovery and been able to complete a greater volume of quality training compared with running.
- And supplementing running training with special bike intervals has allowed me to achieve some of my fastest running times, over distances from 5k to half-marathon distance.
So, let’s start by looking at the Science of cycling for runners…
RESEARCH LOOKING AT CYCLING WORKOUTS AND RUNNING
Whilst there’s not a huge amount of research in this area, the available research paints a positive picture. It also provides insights into the best ways to incorporate cycle training into a running program. And also why cycling can benefit runners.
What’s interesting is that the best cycle sessions (in terms of transferability to running) are similar to the best running interval sessions — both in intensity and duration.
Two important points to consider here…
- Both the intensity of cycling intervals, and the length of recovery, are essential factors in terms of transferability to running fitness.
- While cycling intervals have proved beneficial, we don’t know whether low intensity cycling provides any meaningful performance benefits to runners.
Here, we’re going to look at:
- Sprint intervals
- VO2 max cycling intervals
- Threshold intensity intervals
Let’s start by looking at short sprint cycling intervals…
Sprint Cycling Intervals
So, can sprint cycling intervals improve running performance?… Interestingly, sprint cycling intervals can improve running performance.
When researchers (1) looked at the effect of a sprint cycling workout comprising 6 x 10s maximal sprints on running performance, they found these to be effective for improving 3km running performance.
The interesting thing here was the way the recovery period — either 30s, 80s or 120s — affected the training adaptation.
So, what did the researchers find?…
- Longer recoveries (80 and 120s) were better for increasing power on the bike,
- Shorter 30s recoveries better transferred fitness over to improved endurance running — in this case a 3.1% improvement in 3km running performance.
And this happened rapidly… after just two weeks of training — 6 sessions across 2 weeks.
So, why were the shorter recoveries more effective?… The simple answer is the shorter recoveries increased the aerobic demand, which enhanced the level of endurance training adaptation.
From this, it would be easy to conclude that runners should only use short recoveries with sprint cycling intervals.
But here’s the thing…
- The research was only a short-term (2-week) intervention. So, whilst we can say the quick recoveries gave the best ‘short-term’ benefit for runners, we can’t conclude that shorter recoveries provide a better ‘long-term’ training benefit.
- Second, whilst it was only the 30s recovery that produced a ‘statistically’ significant improvement in 3km running performance; there wasn’t much difference between all 3 recovery intervals — 3.1% improvement (30s) vs 2.4% (80s and 120s recoveries) improvement. So only a 0.7% difference!
- Third, jumping from 30s to 80s recoveries was a significant increment. And we don’t know whether using 40, 50 or 60s might have worked even better — I find a 50-60second recovery can be an excellent compromise between endurance and power.
Ok, so that’s confused things?… Well, yes, and no. It’s never as clear cut as one session is better than another. Often, there are advantages to each. And often, what works for one athlete doesn’t work for another.
What we can take away is…
Shorts cycling sprints, coupled with quick recoveries, are a potent way to boost running performance in the last couple of weeks before a competition.
That said, the longer recoveries also produced a similar benefit — with only a 0.7% difference — it just didn’t fall into the range of what scientists class as ‘significant’.
For me, I use three different approaches with 10 second sprints:
- Sometimes I use ‘short’ 20-30second recoveries
- I also use 50second recoveries, which works well as you start a 10sec sprint every minute.
- And sometimes much longer — 3minute — recoveries.
I also use more than 6 sprints for these sessions.
So, why use short, medium and long recoveries?
- The shorter recoveries make for a more intense training session — Working, aerobic fitness, cadence and power.
- Medium length (50-60second) recoveries serve as an excellent compromise between aerobic fitness and power.
- The longer recoveries allow a greater emphasis on power and maximum cadence development. We can also complete these on easier training days without interfering with running training.
Another factor to consider here: the researchers only used 6 x 10sec sprints, and we don’t know whether using over 6 sprints is even more beneficial.
If you have much experience with cycle interval training, you will view this as quite an easy session… and in reality, it is.
Whilst this might seem challenging if you’re not used to this, it’s not much more than an extended warm up compared with many cycling interval sessions.
So, how could we apply this to training?…
Here’s my take on this… Sprint training is beneficial throughout all training phases — you just need to use different approaches depending on the phase of endurance training.
During the earlier phases of training, focus more on longer recoveries, which allows for greater power development.
As you get nearer to competition, shift towards medium, followed by shorter recoveries. This will give your running performance a final pre-competition boost.
Ok, so short cycling sprints benefit running performance… what about VO2 max intervals?
VO2 Max Cycling Intervals
In a recent study, researchers also observed encouraging results when comparing the effects of running and cycling intervals in a group of female “recreational” runners (2).
During the research, the runners completed 2 weekly interval sessions for 4-weeks. The interval session comprised 6 x 2 minutes at 95% HRmax, followed by 4 x 1minute “all-out” efforts.
To compare the running and cycling intervals, the researchers split the runners into two groups — one group completing these as running intervals, the other as cycling intervals.
Here’s where it gets interesting…
Whilst the running group significantly increased their VO2max, there was no improvement in their 10k run time.
Now to the cycling interval group…
Unlike the run group, the cycling group showed no change in VO2max, however, there was one difference… the cycling interval group significantly improved their 10k running time.
So, why did the cycling intervals improve 10k time?…
Here, the researchers suggest this may be because of increases in the runners’ power. They also mention that the run intervals may have caused excessive stress, fatigue and muscle damage. And that this may have compromised the training adaptation.
One point to note here is that the run interval program may have been too much for the recreational runners (average 10k time was just under 60mins). It also highlights how bike intervals are better tolerated than running intervals.
Now let’s look at threshold intervals…
Threshold Cycling Intervals
Researchers have also found longer threshold intensity cycling intervals can benefit running performance (3, 4). And may provide a greater benefit for runners than sprint intervals.
In one study (3), researchers compared the effect of short cycling intervals (9-11 x 10, 20, and 40s intervals) against longer intervals (6-8 x 5-min intervals) on both cycling and running performance. The researchers concluded that the longer ‘5-minute’ bike intervals were more likely to benefit running performance.
In fact, amongst the group of triathletes, the longer intervals led to an average improvement of over 1 minute in their 5km run times.
Interestingly, the interval training intensity wasn’t that high — around 80% of the power at VO2max (fairly close to lactate threshold intensity). So, depending on your level of training experience, a higher training intensity may be more beneficial.
Keep recoveries short
While the interval intensity wasn’t that high, the recovery time was short — 60 seconds, or a 5:1 work to recovery ratio. Another factor here was the interval volume — the total interval volume was around 40 minutes (8 x 5minutes).
The true benefit from this session was most likely related to how the triathletes completed ‘40-minutes’ of intervals at near to lactate threshold intensity.
In another study (4), researchers compared the training benefit of running and cycling intervals. The result was 4-weeks of bike interval training (7 x 5mins at 85% HRmax), improved running performance in a group of moderate to well-trained triathletes.
The researchers noted that the equivalent running intervals appeared to result in greater levels of accumulated fatigue compared with cycling intervals.
This shows that cycling intervals may benefit runners by allowing a greater interval duration with less fatigue.
Taken together, this provides insights into how cycling intervals can benefit runners and can improve running performance.
Now let’s move on to cycling interval sessions for runners…
THE BEST CYCLING INTERVAL WORKOUTS FOR RUNNERS
First, I’m not an elite cyclist. My cycling is currently at a slightly higher level than my running (sub 16min 5k as a near V45). And I have spent periods of training time where I’ve taken cycling training seriously as both a triathlete and duathlete. I’ve also had training periods where cycling has been a greater focus than running, putting in significant amounts of training time on the bike.
During some training blocks, I’ve only cycled — 8-weeks with no running — yet retained 95% of my running speed just through cycling!
This has given me a good level of real-world cycling experience and a good understanding of how to incorporate cycle training into a running program.
Whilst I can’t guarantee that these cycling workouts will work for every runner, most runners will find these beneficial. They’re slightly less valuable for elite runners, and those whose major strength is running economy. If your strength is aerobic fitness, then cycling intervals may prove more beneficial.
These can be an excellent substitute for running intervals. For instance, I’ve used these when I had a soleus injury that prevented me from running. They can also be useful if you’re prone to running injuries during intense training.
So, here are the cycling workouts I’ve found most beneficial for running.
- Tempo and Lactate Threshold Cycling Intervals
- Supra-Threshold Cycling Intervals
- VO2 Max Intervals
- Sprint Intervals
#1 Lactate Threshold Cycling Workouts For Runners
The first workout on this list is very similar to the long intervals discussed earlier in this article. The difference is that I would use a higher intensity.
So why use these intervals? These can be an effective alternative to a threshold running training, making these an excellent way to develop aerobic capacity/conditioning, muscular endurance and push up your lactate threshold. And as we saw earlier, they can be effective for improving running performance.
In terms of specificity, they are most suited to runners targeting 10k to half marathon race distances.
And, if you’re training for a triathlon or duathlon, then they’re a great way to improve both cycling and running fitness.
Example LT sessions:
4-8 x 5minute intervals at lactate threshold intensity, 90-120seconds easy recovery
2-3 x 10minutes at lactate threshold intensity, 3-5mins easy recovery
- Reduce the recovery time e.g. 120s to 105s, or 105 to 90s.
- Increase the volume of intervals e.g. increase 4 x 5 minutes to 5 x 5minutes, or 5 x 5minutes to 6 x 5minutes, etc
- Increase the interval duration e.g. increase 6 x (5mins intervals, 90sec rec) to 3 x (10mins intervals, 3mins rec)
My preferred LT workout: 6-8 x 5minutes at LT, 60 seconds at 50% LT
Warm up: 10-15minutes including some accelerations to just above interval intensity e.g. 5-10minutes increasing from easy to moderate intensity, then 4 x (20 seconds at just above interval intensity, 40 seconds easy) followed by 1minute easy.
Cool down: 5-10minutes of easy cycling, with a gradual reduction in intensity.
What intensity should you use for LT intervals?
Here, we want the interval intensity to be close to lactate threshold intensity. If you’re familiar with cycle training and using power meters, this would be close to FTP cycling power.
And, if you’re using heart rate, this would be between 85-90% of your maximum “cycling” heart — depending on your level of conditioning. Here, we’re looking for an intensity that you could sustain for around 40-60minutes in a race situation.
For most runners, 85-88% of maximum heart rate works really well.
However, if you’re new to cycling, then it can be harder to get your heart into this range. If that’s the case, then using 80-85% of maximum may be a better option.
Another option is to use power to control intensity, as it’s the most effective way to achieve a consistent work rate.
You can read about how to estimate your lactate threshold or FTP (cycling) on the following pages:
Considerations with using heart rate to control intensity
*Important* if you’re using heart rate: remember that your maximum cycling heart rate* will be lower than your max running heart rate.
*Cycling HRmax is around 5-8% lower than running heart rate max, so don’t use your running heart rate max to set cycling intensity.
Another point here: if you’re controlling these intervals by heart rate, allow time for heart rate to rise into the target zone. For example, keeping heart rate below target for the first interval works well and allows for a more consistent work rate, across all the intervals, by reducing the effects of cardiac drift.
For the recoveries, aim for just under half the intensity of the efforts. This must be easy enough to allow you to maintain the intensity of the intervals.
Why I like lactate threshold cycling intervals:
The biggest benefit here is that you can complete a large volume of lactate threshold training, whilst at the same time eliminating the impact and fatigue that often follows an equivalent running session. For instance, if I complete 8 x 5min intervals at threshold intensity, then that’s 40minutes at threshold intensity. And when compared with the equivalent running session, there’s no significant DOMS the next day and far less residual fatigue.
In terms of volume, you can complete more of these than the equivalent running intervals.
#2 Supra-Threshold Cycling Workouts For Runners
Second, on this list is one of my favourite cycling workouts.
Here, we keep the intensity just above lactate threshold — hence “supra” threshold intervals — and near to VO2 max intensity. An equivalent running intensity would be between 5k and 10k intensity for most runners.
And whilst the LT intervals were at an intensity we could sustain for around 60minutes; this time we’re exercising at an intensity we could sustain for only around 30minutes in a race situation.
So why use this session?
The intensity falls halfway between the lactate threshold and VO2max. Making this a great intensity for boosting aerobic fitness. And the quicker recoveries mean there’s still a strong emphasis on lactate threshold, and muscular endurance.
In this way, they’re at the crossover point where blood lactate levels are accumulating, and aerobic uptake is approaching maximal uptake (~93% VO2 max).
Example Supra-Threshold session:
5-6 x 3minutes intervals at 5% above LT intensity, 75-90seconds easy recovery
- Reduce the recovery time to 60-75seconds.
- Increase the volume of intervals.
Alternative session: 5-6 x 2minutes intervals at 5-10% above LT intensity, 45-60seconds easy recovery
- Increase the volume of intervals.
My preferred session: 6-8 x 3minutes at my 20-30minute cycling power*, 60 seconds recovery at half interval intensity.
*As an example, this would be equivalent to an intensity that’s just below 5k running intensity.
Warm up and cool down as per the lactate threshold intensity.
Important point: unless you’re looking to develop cycling specific strength, keep cadence at close to running cadence.
If you are not sure how to convert running and cycling cadences, you half your running cadence to identify the corresponding cycling cadence, e.g. 180spm (running) = 90rpm (cycling)
As these intervals are shorter and more intense, heart rate is less useful for controlling intensity, and power is a better option. Another option is speed.
Why I like Supra-threshold intervals:
You get a similar training effect to the equivalent running intervals — aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, muscular endurance — without the associated fatigue, DOMS and eliminating the impact from running.
These are great for maintaining running fitness when you can’t run. As an example, using these cycling workouts helped me maintain running fitness during a 2-week break from running due to a Soleus strain.
This intensity is most beneficial for 5k-10k race distances, because the intensity falls within a similar range.
#3 VO2 Max Cycling Workouts For Runners
We complete these intervals at, or very near to, VO2 max intensity.
Because of the higher intensity, we increase the recovery period and the accepted approach is a 1:1 work to recovery ratio.
These sessions can involve either short (30s), or longer 2-3minute intervals.
The shorter intervals allow a higher work rate and cadence. Whereas, the longer intervals are better for developing cardiac stroke volume, fatigue resistance, and muscular endurance.
In terms of specificity for running, this session is more suited for 5k training, but is great for any distance from 3k to 10k race distances.
One point to note here: these are on the top end of intensity, so don’t attempt these unless you have a sufficient level of conditioning.
Example VO2 max interval sessions:
6-8 x 2minutes interval, 2minute recovery
2-4* x (5 x 30secs interval, 30secs easy), with 3-5minutes easy cycling between sets.
Easier alternative: 2-4* x (5 x 20secs interval, 40secs easy), with 3-5minutes easy cycling between sets.
*depending on your level of conditioning—only complete 4 sets if you have a high level of conditioning.
- Increase the intensity of the intervals.
- Make sets longer, e.g. increase to sets of 6 x 30secs interval, 30secs easy; or 10 x 30secs interval, 30secs easy.
My preferred VO2 max interval session: 20-25 x 30sec intervals at >130% FTP, 30secs easy
Warm up: 10minutes including some accelerations to just above interval intensity e.g. 5minutes increasing from easy to moderate intensity, then 4 x (15 seconds accelerations, accelerating to above target interval intensity, 45 seconds easy) followed by a further minute of easy spinning.
Cool down: 5-10minutes of easy cycling, with a gradual reduction in the intensity.
What intensity should you use for VO2 max cycling intervals?
Here, we are looking for an intensity that we can sustain for around 6-9minutes in a one-off effort — closer to 6minute intensity for the 30second efforts and 9-minute intensity for the longer intervals.
One factor here is your level of conditioning: the better your conditioning, the higher the intensity you can sustain across all the intervals.
The key factor is the intensity should be sustainable across all the intervals. For this reason, there needs to be an element of “controlled” effort for each interval.
I like to view these as an intense (but not flat out) effort — they should feel challenging but also sustainable across all the efforts.
For the recoveries, the intensity should be just under half the intensity (or effort) of the efforts.
Why I like VO2 max cycling intervals:
They’re a great workout for pushing the upper limits of aerobic capacity and improving anaerobic endurance and conditioning. They can be useful in the build-up to a 3k or 5k race and are one of the most time effective workouts.
If you’re pushed for time, then one of the most time effective workouts is a 25min cycling workout with 10minutes of 30/30s: 10min warm up + 10mins of 30/30 + 5min cool down.
#4 Sprint Cycling Intervals For Runners
One significant thing with sprint cycling workouts is the level of adaptability. They can also be a welcome break from the usual endurance workouts.
In fact, we can tweak these workouts to place a greater emphasis on either aerobic fitness, endurance, anaerobic conditioning, or speed/power.
They’re also great for developing cadence.
Here we have five options:
- Long recovery sprints — power and cadence focus
- Medium recovery sprints — power and aerobic component
- Quick recovery sprints — greater endurance component
- Speed endurance intervals (e.g. 30-60s efforts)
- Mixed pace sprints
As with all the cycling interval workouts, include a thorough warm up — a good example is the workout used for the VO2 max intervals.
#1 Cycling sprints with long recoveries
These shift the focus to neuromuscular coordination, developing maximum power and the upper limits of cadence.
Important: don’t set the resistance too high, so it slows cadence — we want to achieve a high cadence when doing these and if resistance is too high cadence will be lower.
One enormous advantage with these intervals is that we can use them on easier training days, without affecting recovery.
Here, we include 6-10 x 10second maximum sprints, separated by 2-3mins of easy cycling. We use 2-3minutes to ensure we can maintain the highest power and cadence during the sprints.
Although these are maximal (or close to maximal), they won’t take much out of you and shouldn’t interfere with your running training.
#2 Cycling sprints with medium recoveries
By reducing the recovery, we can also bring in an aerobic component to these sprints. Here, we’re just going to reduce the recovery to around 50seconds — so 10second sprints 50 second recovery.
So, why 50 seconds?… Well, firstly it means we start each sprint every 60seconds. This makes it quite a simple workout structure to follow.
Second, 50seconds is long enough recovery to maintain high power during the sprints. And it’s short enough to increase the aerobic component of the workout.
How many reps should you complete?… It depends on your conditioning and your training focus. My preference is to complete 10minutes of these — so 10 sprints — and combine this with another cycling workout. As an example, you could do 10mins of these + 5mins easy + 10mins of the 30/30 VO2max intervals.
#3 Cycling sprints with quick recoveries
These short endurance focussed sprint intervals, help to develop speed, power, and cadence. They can also provide a strong aerobic training benefit.
Similar to the session mentioned earlier in this article — 6 x 10-second sprints, 30 seconds recovery — however, I use a greater number of sprints, and either complete these as one set, or break these up into smaller sets.
Again, we don’t want resistance to be too high, as we want to be hitting a high cadence during the efforts.
Example session: 1-2 x (8-10 x 10sec sprints, 30secs easy recovery), 3-5mins easy between sets.
Here, my preference is to combine this with another session. As an example, I might include one small set (e.g. 8-10 x 10secs sprints, 30secs easy) as an extended warmup to a harder cycling interval session.
#4 Speed Endurance Cycling Intervals
These improve cadence, power, and anaerobic capacity (lactate capacity and endurance). The difference here is we’re bringing in an endurance component. This makes these excellent for developing anaerobic endurance and our ability to sustain a fast cadence. With this in mind, we want to use a resistance that allows you to maintain a fast cadence throughout.
An example session would be:
- 6–10 x 30sec sustained sprints, separated by 2-3minutes of easy cycling.
- 5-6 x 60sec hard intervals, separated by 2-3minutes of easy cycling.
Before, completing any of these workouts always include a good warmup.
Here’s a bonus session — one of my favourite sessions when you’re pushed for time…
#5 Mixed intensity sprints
Mixed intensity sprints are a great way to work on several components of fitness during one workout — power, cadence, aerobic fitness, lactate clearance, and muscular endurance.
They’re also great if you only have limited time and want to squeeze in a very quick, efficient work out.
Mixed intervals workout 1:
Here we’re repeating the following sequence — with each set lasting 3mins.
- 10 sec sprint, 50 secs easy/steady
- 20 sec sustained sprint, 40 secs easy
- 30 sec hard effort, 30 secs very easy
Completing 3-4 sets (no rest between sets), takes 9-12minutes with 9-12 total sprints. You can increase this depending on your fitness and conditioning.
In terms of effort:
Sprint = near maximal
Sustained sprint = an intensity you could hold for around 10sec longer than sprint interval duration
Hard effort = similar to the VO2max intervals
Advanced mixed interval workout:
Here, we’re adding in three extra efforts, with the first three efforts focusing on power and the final 3 increasing the aerobic component. Again, we’re completing the following sequence, with each set lasting 6minutes.
Only attempt this if you have a good level of conditioning. And be careful as to timing this around running sessions. Complete 2-3 sets depending on your conditioning and training focus.
- 10 sec sprint, 50 secs easy/steady
- 15 sec sprint, 45 secs easy/steady
- 20 sec sustained sprint, 40 secs easy
- 30 sec hard effort, 30 secs easy
- 40 sec sustained effort, 20 secs very easy
- 60 sec sustained effort, 60 secs very easy
Use the same intensities levels as the previous example, but the sustained effort is like the supra-threshold intervals.
How many cycling workouts should runners include?
This depends on so many variables, so it’s very hard to give a generalised answer.
First, it depends on your current running training. It also depends on your conditioning and how seriously you take your running training.
The greater your running ability, the less benefit you will probably get from cycle training. Also, if you’re an exceptionally efficient runner, these will be less beneficial.
I fall into the class of very high aerobic capacity, but not exceptional running efficiency.
For me, cycling has proved beneficial through maximising aerobic power, through increased volume of high intensity training, low risk of injury, or over-training. And the extra quad strength improves knee stability, muscle endurance and efficiency.
If you’re running 5+ days a week with 2-3 quality running sessions, then some level of modification would be needed to add in some high-quality cycling sessions on top of this.
A useful alternative to running intervals
The real benefit comes for runners who sometimes struggle with high-intensity run sessions.
If that’s you?… Then you may find that cycle training allows you to complete more quality training sessions with a reduced risk of injury, or over-training — that’s my experience with cycle training.
One important point here: it’s essential to first including some easier cycle training. This will condition your muscles for the specific demands of cycle training. A good approach is to begin with a couple of weeks’ easier/moderate cycle training, alongside your running training.
Whilst we’re on that subject, I want to mention about easier cycling workouts…
Recovery / easier cycling workouts
As we’ve seen, cycling is one of the best forms of cross training for runners. It’s also a great alternative to running on your easier or recovery days.
So, what intensity and cadence should you use for easier cycling workouts?
First, don’t match the same intensity (in terms of heart rate) as your easier run workouts — remember that cycling heart rates are lower at the same intensity.
Second, set your cycling heart rate zones based on your maximum cycling heart rate.
If you’re not sure what this is, then an approximate guide is cycling heart rates should be around 5-8% lower than running heart rates.
Keep cycling cadence close to your running cadence
In terms of cadence during easier cycling sessions, look to cycle at a similar cadence to your easier pace running cadence. For example, if your easy pace runs are at 170spm, then half that to find the equivalent cycling cadence — so, in this case, 85rpm.
So why not cycle at a lower cadence?
First, as I mentioned in the article on cycling tips for runners, we want to keep cycling as specific to running as possible.
One way to do this is by using a similar cadence.
Second, when cadence is lower, we increase the amount of neuro-muscular strain.
It also increases the strain on your knees. So, by maintaining a higher cadence, you reduce muscular strain and enhance recovery.
In terms of duration, aim to keep recovery cycling sessions to a similar length to your equivalent running sessions. After all, these sessions aid recovery.
So, that wraps up this article on cycling workouts for runners.
Hopefully, it’s given you some insights into how to use bike intervals for improving running performance. If you found this useful dont forget to share this.
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