CYCLING FOR RUNNERS: 7 CYCLE TRAINING TIPS

Cycling Tips For Runners

In the previous article, we looked at the benefits of cycling for runners. Now, I want to expand on that by sharing some cycling training tips to help you get the most from cycle training.

I’ve used cycle training for several years to supplement my running, as well as competing in triathlons and duathlons.

This has allowed me to complete more training with a lower risk of injury, maintain fitness when injured, and increase running performance.

Beginning cycle training as a novice was a steep learning curve: here’s 7 tips that have proved valuable in getting the most from cycle training.


7 CYCLING TIPS FOR RUNNERS

Let’s start this off by taking a look at cycling cadence and why it matters for runners.


1. Keep cycling cadence similar to running cadence

The cadence you use when cycling is a crucial factor. So, how does cadence affect cycle training?

Let’s start by considering how using low and high cycling cadences affects the training effect.

Lower cycling cadences

By using a lower cadence, you increase the workload on muscles and muscle fibres.

This has two effects:

  • First, it increases the strain on your muscles and individual muscle fibres.
  • Second, when combined with greater resistance this can improve strength and strength endurance.

Higher cycling cadences

In contrast to low cadence cycling, higher cadences reduce the overall workload of individual muscle fibres.

This has three main effects:

  • First, this reduces the strain on individual muscle fibres.
  • Second, this increases the emphasis on your cardiovascular system.
  • Third, this improves neuromuscular coordination at faster cadences.

What cycling cadence should runners use?

If your main focus is running, then you should use a cycling cadence that’s similar to your running cadence.

Why does this matter?… Put simply, it keeps cycling more specific for runners.

Often, runners use a low cycling cadence (60-70rpm). When you do this, you’re training your nervous system to recruit muscles, and muscle fibres, at lower rates than when running.

You can make cycle training more specific by keeping your cycling cadence closer to your natural running cadence.

One point to remember: when comparing cycling and running cadence, you need to double the cycling cadence to know the equivalent running cadence.

For example:

  • 60rpm cycling = 120spm running,
  • 70rpm cycling = 140spm running,
  • 80rpm cycling = 160spm running
  • 90rpm cycling = 180spm running.

Whilst cyclists, triathletes, and duathletes, sometimes use lower cadence intervals to develop muscular strength, and specific cycling strength; this is less beneficial for runners.

As a runner, you don’t need to be focusing on developing cycling specific strength – unless you’re planning on competing in a triathlon, or duathlon. 

This also depends on how much cycling you are planning on adding into your training: if you are including a few cycling sessions a week, then some lower cadence cycling may be beneficial. However, if it’s just one or two, then try to stick with a cadence that’s within your normal running cadence range.

Cycling at lower cadences can also place greater stress on your knees, if you haven’t developed cycling specific strength.

That said, don’t get too fixated on cadence – you don’t need this to be an exat match for your running cadence. You just don’t want to be too far away from it. 

As an example, if your normal run cadence is 170 spm (equivalent to 85 rpm cycling), then cycling at 80 rpm would be more running specific than cycling at 60-70 rpm.

The most important point should be that you feel comfortable at the cadence you’re using.


2. Cycling heart rates should be lower than running!

Heart rates are lower on the bike. In most cases, maximum heart rate on the bike is around 5-8% lower than when running. This often equates to around an 8-12bpm difference.

For this reason, use lower heart rate targets for your cycling training zones – so, don’t try to match your running heart rates when on the bike.

And, if you don’t know your maximum heart rate on the bike, then look to reduce your normal running heart rate zones by around 5-8%. This will help to keep the intensity at a similar percentage to your running workouts.


3. Indoor cycling is more time effective

It might be less fun, but indoor cycling is for more time effective, especially for interval and threshold training.

Sure, if you’re looking to add in some longer cycle sessions, then getting out on the road is a better option. Road cycling can also be useful for easier recovery rides.

However, the one problem with road cycling is the intensity can vary due to factors outside of your control…

  • Undulations,
  • Wind speed,
  • And not to mention traffic!

All of which affect the intensity and effectiveness of cycling.

From my experience, and from the research looking at cycle training and running, it’s interval based cycle training that better transfers fitness across to running. And the most effective way to complete cycling intervals is with an indoor bike set up.

So, if you want to control all the variables and use cycling training in a way that transfers across to faster running, then indoor cycling workouts is the best option.

In terms of setup, using a road bike in combination with a turbo trainer is the easiest option. Other (more expensive) options include smart bikes – see #6 Cycling Power for more information on this.

One point here: a high-quality fan is vital during indoor cycle training.


4. Saddle height is important

Not only does correct saddle position, make riding easier and more comfortable; it reduces injury risk, allows you to train harder, and for longer.

However, if your seat is too high, or too low, it can cause problems.

Let’s take a look…

When seat height is too low

If your seat height is too low, this decreases knee extension, reduces power output and may lead to knee strain and compression injuries.

As saddle height increases – up to a certain point – we see greater knee and hip extension.

And as with running:

Increased knee and hip extension means more power when cycling!

When seat height is too high

However, when saddle height is too high, we risk overextension of the knee, and over-stretching the hamstring.

So, what’s the optimum saddle height?… The optimum saddle height (for most people), occurs when there is a slight bend in the knee, when the pedal is at the lowest point on the axle.

The following method can help when setting saddle height.

How to set the saddle height:

  • Position the pedal at the lowest point.
  • Sit on the saddle and place the heel of your foot on the middle of the pedal.
  • Your leg should be straight, or very nearly straight, at this point
  • Adjust the saddle height if necessary
  • Then clip your shoes into the pedals.

If you’ve set the saddle height correctly, then there should be a slight bend in your leg, when your foot is at the lowest point in the pedal cycle.

What about if you’re not using cleated shoes?… Here, set the saddle height so you achieve a slight bend in the leg when your foot is at the lowest point in the pedal cycle.


5. Invest in some cycling shoes

Using cleated cycling shoes – where your shoes clip/lock on to the pedals – makes for a far more effective pedal stroke.

So why are cleated cycling shoes beneficial?…

First, they keep your feet in position, allowing you to generate more power.

Second, the real benefit (and this why I never cycle without cleated shoes) is:

They allow you to apply force throughout the pedal cycle – not just on the downstroke, but also on the upstroke.

Not only does this make your pedal stroke more efficient, it brings your hip flexors and hamstrings into the equation; helping to strengthen and condition these key running muscles.

One important factor here is the position of the cleats. The cleat position is just under the ball of the foot, but we can adjust this within a small range.

One important factor is to position the cleats so your knee is aligned with your toes.

Why does that matter?… Knee alignment is a major factor in knee strain.

So, if you want to reduce knee strain – and I’m sure you do – then correct alignment is vital.

In most cases, you should position your cleats just behind the ball of the foot, and should also consider your natural running style – overpronation, supination, etc. And if you suffer with calf and Achilles strains, you can reduce this by using more of a mid-foot cleat placement.

For me, I position the cleat so it’s just behind the ball of the foot, which helps to reduce strain around the ball of the foot. However, there’s no hard and fast rule here, so you may need to adjust the cleat position to see what works best for you. If you’re still not sure then a seek help from a bike fit specialist.


6. Cycling power is the best way to control intensity

If you want to get the most from your cycling training, then getting the intensity right is vital.

Being able to measure your power output, will make an enormous difference to the effectiveness of your cycling training sessions.

What is cycling power?… It’s a measure of your work rate (in watts) that has long been used by serious cyclists to control training intensity.

This tells you the rate that you’re using energy to do work at any given moment. In this way, it’s an instantaneous measure of work.

This is where power differs from heart rate.

Power vs Heart Rate

Heart rate gives us a glimpse into our physiological response to a given work rate. In this way, heart rate is one step behind.

For instance, heart rate rises “after” there is an increase in work rate. Whereas, power gives you an “instant” snapshot of your work rate. In this way, power allows you to see an increase, or change in work rate, before it has a noticeable physiological effect (increase in heart rate).

So, by measuring power, you can keep work rate within specific training zones, in a way that we can’t achieve as consistently with heart rate. This can make power a more effective way to control interval work rate.

Another advantage with measuring power is that you can use it to assess your current performance level, using straightforward tests such as a functional threshold test (FTP cycling tests). From this we can then set training zones.

That being said, there is one downside to using power to control intensity…

Using power is not cheap

If you want to measure power, then this ramps up the cost.

This is why I first put off using power to monitor cycling intensity. Now, after several years of cycling with power, I couldn’t imagine training without power. And it’s made a big difference to the effectiveness of my workouts.

Ok, so using power to control cycling workouts isn’t cheap. There will need to be an element of expense – you’re going to need one of these options:

  • A road bike and turbo trainer capable of measuring power;
  • Road bike fitted with a power meter;
  • Smart bike like the Wattbike Atom/Pro, KICKR Bike, TACX Neo Bike Smart, Body Bike, Stages Indoor Bike.

Then there’s cycle shoes, pedals, padded cycling shorts, turbo trainer tyres, etc.

The most popular method involves using a road bike with a turbo trainer. Here, you will either need your road bike to be fitted with a power meter, or use a turbo trainer that’s capable of measuring power.

Each option has its own advantages:

  • Using a turbo trainer capable of measuring power is cheaper than buying a separate power meter
  • However, having a power meter allows you to measure power during indoor and outdoor cycle workouts.

A cheaper option… estimating power

If your indoor cycle trainer doesn’t measure power, there is a workaround where you can sometimes use training software, like TrainerRoad, or Zwift to estimates power based on the speed of your trainer. However, this requires you to connect your cycle trainer to a phone, tablet or computer.

Smart bikes

Another option includes purchasing one of the Smart bikes available from Wattbike, Wahoo, TACX, Stages and Body Bike. Although more expensive, they provide the greatest level of accuracy. They also eliminate the need for a road bike and turbo trainer, and are more suitable if there will be more than one user.

Each option has an advantage, and it’s often a trade-off between cost, accuracy, and practicality. That said, the most important factor is the repeatability of the power readings.


#7 Be specific with cycling workouts

As with running training, you need to be specific with cycling training. And each session should fulfill a specific purpose.

Whether that’s:

  • Recovery rides to improve recovery between running sessions.
  • Sprint cycling intervals to develop cadence, maximum power and efficiency.
  • Lactate threshold training intervals to improve aerobic conditioning, muscular endurance and lactate threshold.
  • VO2max cycling intervals to increase aerobic capacity

The key point is: you don’t want to be wasting valuable training time cycling without a specific purpose.

So, if your focus is on improving your running, don’t just add in lots of easy cycling miles – this won’t transfer fitness across to improved running. 

Instead, you want to be supplementing you’re running with specific and effective cycling workouts.

The most important point is they need to be purposeful and there should be a reason behind each session.

For example, you can use:

  • Longer cycling intervals to increase lactate threshold, muscular endurance, aerobic fitness and develop cardiovascular endurance and efficiency
  • Shorter cycling intervals for VO2max, aerobic efficiency and running cadence
  • Sprint intervals for power, cadence, and efficiency.

Where to go from here?… In the next article, I share some specific cycling intervals that I’ve found most useful for improving running fitness. You can learn more here: 4 Key Cycling Workouts For Runners.

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