When it comes to cross training for Runners, you really can’t get much better than cycling.
Not only is cycling a great alternative to running on easier days, it’s also great way to maintain running fitness when you’re injured.
But that’s not all…
Cycling can be an effective way to boost running performance – which is what we’re going to look at in this article.
In the first two articles, we took a look at:
In this article we’ll start by taking a look at the science of cycling for running performance, before moving on to look at the cycling workouts that I’ve found most useful as a triathlete, duathlete, and a runner.
So, before taking a closer look here’s some of the ways I’ve found cycling useful
Here’s how I’ve found cycling beneficial as a runner:
- It’s helped me to maintain run fitness when I’ve been injured – to the point where I lost no significant 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 5km to within 5% of my best running pace.
- It’s allowed me to maintain my normal running pace, off half the normal running volume. This has included running a 78minute half marathon at the end of a half iron distance triathlon.
- I’ve also seen improved recovery and been able to complete a larger volume of quality training, compared with just running.
- And, supplementing my running training with specific bike intervals has allowed me to run some of my fastest running times, over distances ranging from 5k to up to half-marathon distance.
So, let’s take a look at the Science of cycling for runners – after all you’ll want to know that cycling is actually beneficial for running, before giving it a try.
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 gives us some insights into the best approaches, and ways to incorporate cycle training into a running program.
What’s interesting – but perhaps not surprising – is that the best cycle sessions (in terms of transferability to running) are similar to the best running interval sessions.
In this regard, research highlights how both short and longer cycling intervals can be effective for runners.
Two important points to consider here:
- Both the intensity of cycling intervals, and the length of recovery, are important factors in the level of transferability to running fitness.
- While cycling intervals have been shown to be beneficial, we don’t know whether low intensity cycling provides any significant performance benefits to runners.
Let’s start by taking a look at short sprint cycling intervals.
Short sprint cycling intervals for runners
So, can sprint cycling intervals be used to improve running performance?…interestingly, sprint cycling intervals can improve running performance.
When researchers (1) looked at the effect of a cycling workout consisting of 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 improving 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 improvement happened quickly…in fact, after just two weeks of training – 6 sessions across 2 weeks.
So, why were the shorter recoveries more effective? Simply put, the shorter recoveries increased the aerobic demand which increased 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 very short-term (2-week) intervention. So, whilst we can say that using the short recoveries gives the best ‘short-term’ training benefit for runners, and may be useful in the build-up to key races. We really can’t conclude that shorter recoveries provide a greater ‘long-term’ training benefit.
- Secondly, whilst it was only the 30s recovery that showed a ‘statistically’ significant improvement in 3km running performance, there actually wasn’t much difference between all 3 recovery intervals – 3.1% improvement (30s) vs 2.4% (80s and 120s recoveries) improvement!
- Jumping from 30s to 80s recoveries was quite a significant jump. We don’t know whether using something in between that might have worked even better. Personally, I find using a 50-60second recovery can be a good compromise between endurance and power.
Ok, so that’s confused things! Well, yes and know – it’s never quite 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 necessarily work for another.
What we can take away is:
Shorts cycling sprints, especially when combined with short recoveries, may be an effective way to boost running performance in the final couple of weeks before a competition.
That being 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 both 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 a good compromise between aerobic fitness and power.
- The longer recoveries allow a greater emphasis on power and maximum cadence development. These can also be completed on easier training days without interfering with running training.
Another factor to consider here: the researchers only used 6 x 10sec sprints, therefore we don’t know whether using more than 6 sprints is even more beneficial.
If you have much experience with cycle interval training, then you’ll probably view this as quite an easy session…and in reality, it is.
Whilst, it might seem challenging if you’re not used to this, it’s not much more than the warm up section of many cycling interval sessions.
So, how could we apply this to training? Well here’s my take on this…
- Sprint training can be useful through 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 (especially over the final few weeks) shift towards medium and shorter recoveries, which may help to give your running performance a boost.
Ok, so short cycling sprints can benefit running performance…what about longer intervals?
Longer cycling intervals for runners
Research has also shown that longer cycling intervals can also benefit running performance (2, 3). And appear to provide a greater benefit for runners, than short sprint intervals.
In one study (2), 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 just over 1 minute in their 5km run times.
Interestingly, the interval training intensity wasn’t that high – approximately 80% of the power at VO2max, or, slightly below lactate threshold intensity. So, depending on your level of training experience, a slightly higher training intensity may be more beneficial.
Keep recoveries short
While the interval intensity wasn’t that high, the recovery period 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). As such, the real benefit with this session was most likely related to how the triathletes were able to complete ‘40minutes’ of intervals at near to lactate threshold intensity.
In another study (3), researchers compared the training benefit of running and cycling intervals. The end 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 suggests that cycling intervals may benefit runners by allowing a greater interval duration with less fatigue accumulation.
Taken together this provides some insights into the benefit of cycling training for runners. In particular, it highlights how ‘cycling intervals’ can be beneficial for runners.
Now let’s move on to cycling interval sessions for runners…
CYCLING INTERVAL WORKOUTS FOR RUNNERS
Firstly, I’m not an elite cyclist, and I don’t claim to be exceptional on the bike. Having said that, my cycling is currently at slightly higher level than my running (sub 16min 5k as a 40+yr old). 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.
This has given me a good level of real-world cycling experience and a good understanding of how to effectively incorporate cycle training into a running program.
Whilst I can’t guarantee that these cycling workouts will work for everyone, most runners should see a benefit. They’re likely less beneficial for elite runners, especially those whose main strength is running efficiency. If on the other hand you’re strength is aerobic fitness, then cycling intervals may prove more beneficial.
These can be particularly useful substitute for running intervals, especially if you’re unable to run due to a running injury. For instance, I’ve used these when I had a soleus injury that prevented me running but was fine when cycling. They can also be useful if you’re prone to running injuries during intense training.
So, here’s the cycling workouts I’ve found most beneficial for running.
- Lactate Threshold Cycling Intervals
- Supra-Threshold Cycling Intervals
- 30/30 VO2 Max Intervals
- Sprint Intervals
#1 Lactate threshold (LT) Cycling Intervals
The first workout on this list is very similar to the long intervals discussed earlier in this articles – the main difference is that I would tend to use a slightly higher intensity.
So, why use these intervals? These can be an effective alternative to a threshold running training – making these a great 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 session:
4-6 x 5minute intervals at lactate threshold intensity, 90-120seconds 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 gradually 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, gradually reducing the intensity.
What intensity should you use for LT intervals?
Ideally, 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 normally be around 85-90% of your maximum “cycling” heart – depending on your level of conditioning.
So, how do you control the intensity? My preference is to use power as it’s the most effective way to achieve a consistent workrate, but you can also use heart rate, speed or even perceived effort.
You can read about how to estimate your lactate threshold or FTP (cycling) on the following pages:
Essentially, we’re looking for an intensity that you could sustain for around 40-60minutes in a race situation.
Using heart rate to control intensity
*Important* if you’re using heart rate: it’s important to remember that your maximum cycling heart rate* will be lower than your max running heart rate. So, don’t attempt to complete these at 90% of your maximum running heart rate.
*Cycling HRmax is normally 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, then allow heart rate to gradually increase. As an example, keeping heart rate slightly 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. Importantly, recovery 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 should find you can complete slightly more of these than the equivalent running workout.
#2 Supra-Threshold Cycling intervals for aerobic capacity and lactate threshold
Second, on this list is one of my favourite cycling workouts. Well, I say favourite – it’s one of those sessions that you enjoy knowing that you’ve finished it! If I had to pick one cycling session to include each week, it would be this session.
It’s similar to the LT workout, but we’re reducing the length of the interval (to ~2-3minutes) and increasing the intensity to just above LT intensity. So, whilst the last intervals were at an intensity that we could sustain for around 40-60minutes, this time we’re exercising at an intensity we could sustain for only around 20-30minutes in a race situation.
So, why use this session?
The intensity falls between lactate threshold and VO2max – giving a significant training boost to aerobic fitness. And the short 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 unstable and begin to accumulate, and aerobic uptake is close to VO2 max.
It’s one of the toughest sessions, but for me it transfers well to running, especially if you’re targeting 5k-10km running distances.
For these intervals, we keep the intensity just above lactate threshold – hence “supra” threshold intervals – and slightly below VO2 max intensity. An equivalent running intensity, would be somewhere between 5k and 10k intensity for most runners.
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 10% above LT intensity, 45-60seconds easy recovery
- Increase the volume of intervals.
My preferred session: 6-8 x 3minutes at my 20minute 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. And remember to double cycling cadence to find the equivalent running cadence e.g. 90rpm (cycling) = 180spm (running)
As these intervals are shorter, heart rate is less beneficial for controlling intensity, and power is the best option.
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.
I find these particularly good for maintaining running fitness when you can’t run. As an example, using these cycling workouts helped me to maintain running fitness, following a 2-week break from running due to a Soleus strain.
For me this is a key training intensity, and the one I use most often. It transfers effectively to running, over a range of race distances. But, appears to be most beneficial for 5km to 10km race distances, due to the intensity falling within a similar range.
#3 VO2 max 30/30 Cycling Intervals
During this HIIT workout we’re alternating between short (30s) intense intervals, and short (30s) periods of easy cycling. They’re an effective way to develop both aerobic capacity (VO2 max) and anaerobic conditioning. The shorter interval duration also allows a higher cadence, making these a good option for developing leg turnover.
In terms of specificity for running, this session is more suited for 5k training, but can work well for any distance from 3k to 10k race distances.
One point to note here: these are on the high end of intensity, so don’t attempt these unless you have a high level of conditioning.
Example 30/30 session:
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 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 30/30 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 gradually increasing from easy to moderate intensity, then 4 x (15 seconds accelerations, accelerating to just above target interval intensity, 45 seconds easy) followed by a further minute of easy spinning.
Cool down: 5-10minutes of easy cycling, gradually reducing the intensity.
What intensity should you use for 30/30 intervals?
One factor here is your level of conditioning – the greater 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, so there needs to be an element of “controlled” effort within each 30s interval. I like to view these, as an intense (but not flat out) effort – they should feel quite challenging but also sustainable across all the efforts.
As an example, I would normally complete these at a power that’s more than 30% higher than the longer aerobic intervals.
For the recoveries, the intensity should be slightly less than half the intensity of the efforts.
Why I like 30/30 intervals:
they’re a great workout for pushing the upper limits of aerobic capacity and for 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 really 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 Intervals
One great thing with sprint cycling workouts, is the level of versatility, they can also be a welcome change from the usual endurance workouts.
In fact, these workouts can be tweaked to place a greater emphasis on either aerobic fitness, endurance, anaerobic tolerance, 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)
- Short recovery sprints (greater endurance component)
- Speed endurance intervals (e.g. 30-60s efforts)
- Mixed pace sprints
As with all the cycling interval workouts, you should include a decent warm up for all sprint workouts – a good example is the workout used for the 30/30 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 that it slows cadence – we want to achieve a high cadence when doing these and if resistance is too high cadence will be lower.
One big advantage with these intervals is that they can be used during easier training days, without negatively affecting recovery.
For these, simply include 6-10 x 10second maximum sprints, separated by 2-3mins of easy cycling – I use 3minutes to ensure I can maintain the highest power and cadence during the sprints.
Although these are maximal (or close to maximal), they won’t take a lot 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. In this case 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 which makes it quite a simple workout structure to follow. Secondly, 50seconds is just long enough recovery to maintain a good amount of power during the sprints. At the same time, it’s short enough to increase the aerobic component of the workout.
How many reps should you do? It depends a lot on training experience and your training focus. My preference is normally 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 short 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 tend to 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.
Again, 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 a warm up to a harder cycling interval session.
#4 Speed Endurance Cycling Intervals
These can prove useful for developing cadence, power, anaerobic (lactate capacity and endurance). The main difference here is that we’re bringing in an endurance component which make these useful for developing anaerobic endurance and our ability to sustain a fast cadence. With this in mind we want a resistance that allows us 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 decent workout.
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 the same workout – power, cadence, aerobic fitness, lactate clearance, and muscular endurance.
There 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/steady
- 30 sec hard effort, 30 secs easy/steady
Completing 3-4 sets (no rest between sets), takes 9-12minutes and 9-12 total sprints. Increase depending on your fitness and conditioning.
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 competing 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/steady
- 30 sec hard effort, 30 secs easy/steady
- 40 sec sustained effort, 20 secs easy
- 60 sec sustained effort, 60 secs easy
How many cycling workouts should runners include?
Well that’s a pretty loaded question…it depends on so many variables that it’s very hard to give a generalised answer.
Firstly, it depends on your current running training. It also depends on your conditioning and how seriously your taking your running training.
In reality, the greater your running ability the less benefit you’ll likely to get from cycle training. Also, if you’re an extremely efficient runner you’ll likely gain less benefit.
I fall into the category of a high aerobic capacity, but not necessarily great running efficiency. For me, cycling has proved very beneficial mainly through maximising aerobic capacity, by allowing a greater volume of high intensity training with reduced risk of injury, or overtraining. The extra quad strength can also be useful for improved knee stability.
If you’re currently running 5+ days a week with 2-3 quality running sessions, then some level of modification would be required to be able 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 quality run sessions. In this way, you may find that cycle training allows you to fit in additional quality training sessions with a reduced risk of injury, or overtraining – that’s certainly my experience with cycle training.
One important point here: it’s important not to just add in cycling intervals without first including some easier cycle training. This will condition your muscles for the specific demands of cycle training. So, a good approach is to start with a couple of weeks easier/moderate cycle training, alongside your running training.
Whilst we’re on that subject, I want to quickly mention about easier cycling workouts…
Recovery/easier cycling for runners.
As we’ve seen cycling is one of the best forms of cross training for runners. As well as being useful for more intense sessions, 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? Firstly, don’t try to match the same intensity (in terms of heart rate) as your easier run workouts – remember that cycling heart rates are lower than the equivalent running intensity. With this in mind, ideally you should 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 that cycling heart rates are typically 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. As an 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?
Firstly, 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.
Secondly, when cadence is lower we increase the level of neuro-muscular strain. It also increases the strain on your knees. So, by maintaining a good 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 the purpose of these sessions is to aid recovery.
So, that wraps up this article on cycling workouts for runners. Hopefully, it’s given you some insights into how to effectively use bike intervals for improving running performance.
If there’s enough interest in the cyling for runners articles, then I’ll look to expand on some of these areas in future articles, including how to incorporate brick training sessions (combined running and cycle sessions) and how to make a transition from running training to duathlon and triathlon training.
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- Etxebarria N, Anson J, Pyne D, and Ferguson R. (2013). High-intensity cycle interval training improves cycling and running performance in triathletes. European journal of sport science. 10.1080/17461391.2013.853841.
- Mallol M, Mejuto G, Bentley D, Norton L, Torres-Unda J, Arrieta H, and Otxoteko I. (2016). Effects of 4 Weeks High-Intensity Training on Running and Cycling Performance in Well-Trained Triathletes. Sports and Exercise Medicine – Open Journal. 3. 1-7. 10.17140/SEMOJ-3-139.