Cycling Tips For Runners

In the last article we took a look at the benefits of cycling for runners. In this article, I want to expand on that by looking at some cycling training tips to help runners get the most from cycle training.

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

This has allowed me to increase my training volume with reduced risk of injury, maintain fitness through injury, and improve running performance.

Starting cycle training as an initial novice, was a steep learning curve: here’s 7 tips that have have proved beneficial in getting the most from cycle training.


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 an important factor. So, how does cadence affect cycle training?

Let’s start by looking at 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:

  • Firstly, it increases the strain on your muscles and individual muscle fibres.
  • Secondly, when combined with increased resistance this can help to improve strength, and more specifically 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:

  • Firstly, this reduces the strain on individual muscle fibres.
  • Secondly, this increases the emphasis on your cardiovascular system.
  • Thirdly, this improves neuromuscular co-ordination at faster cadences.

What cycling cadence should runners use?

If your primary focus is running, then ideally you should be using a cycling cadence that’s not too far away from your running cadence.

So, why does this matter? By doing this, it keeps cycling more specific for runners.

Often, runners tend to use a low cycling cadence (60-70rpm), that’s much lower than their usual running cadence. 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 your 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, often use lower cadence intervals to develop muscular strength, and specific cycling strength, this is generally 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, especially if you haven’t developed cycling specific strength.

Having said that, don’t get too fixated on cadence – you don’t need to be exactly matching 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 tend to be slightly lower on the bike. In most cases, maximum heart rate on the bike is around 5-8% lower than when running, which equates to around an 8-12bpm difference.

For this reason, you should 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 gives much greater control

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 quite significantly. This depends on a number of factors:

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

All of which affect the intensity and effectiveness of cycling.

From my own 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 through using an indoor bike set up.

So, if you really want to be able to control all the variables and use cycling training in a way that transfers across to running, then indoor cycling workouts can work really well.

In terms of set up, 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 other 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 also reduces injury risk, allows you to train harder, more effectively, 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 consequently, 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 got the saddle height correct, then there should now 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? In this case, set the saddle height so that 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?

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

Secondly, 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 also 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 can be adjusted slightly within a small range.

Ideally, cleats need to be positioned so your knee is in alignment with your toes.

Why is this important? 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, cleats should be positioned just behind the ball of the foot, and should also take account of 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 midfoot 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.

6. Cycling power is the best way to control intensity

If you really want to get the most from your cycling training, then getting the intensity right is vital. In this respect, being able to measure your power – or more specifically, your power output – will make a huge difference to the effectiveness of your cycling training sessions.

Essentially, power is a measure of your workrate (in watts) and has long been used by serious cyclists to control training intensity.

It 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 really 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. Power on the other hand, gives you an “instant” snapshot of your work rate at any given time. In this way, power allows you to see an increase, or, change in work rate, before it actually has a physiological effect (increase in heart rate).

So, by measuring power, you are able to keep work rate within specific training zones, in a way that can’t be achieved as consistently with heart rate. This can make power more effective, especially during intervals where we can instantly see work rate.

Another advantage with measuring power is that we can use it to assess our current performance level, using relatively straightforward tests such as a functional threshold test (FTP cycling tests). This can then be used to 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 accurately, then it does ramp up the cost.

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

Ok, so using power to control cycling workouts isn’t cheap. Unfortunately, there will have to be an element of expense – you’re either going to need:

  • 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.

The most common option involves using a road bike in conjunction with a turbo trainer. In this case, 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 it’s own advantages:

  • Using a turbo trainer capable of measuring power is slightly 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 work around 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 be able 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 generally provide the highest 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 and accuracy. Having said that, the most important factor is the repeatedly of the power readings.

#7 Be specific with cycling workouts

As with running training, you need to be specific with cycling training. Ideally you’ll want each session to serve a specific purpose.

Whether thats:

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

The main 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 put in lots of easy cycling miles – this won’t transfer fitness across to running.

Instead, you want to be supplementing you’re running with specific and effective cycling workouts. And to be effective these need to be purposeful – there needs to be a reason behind each session.

For example, you can use:

  • Longer cycling intervals to improve 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 and cadence.

In the next article, we take a closer look at some specific cycling intervals that I’ve used successfully to improve my running. You can read more here: 4 Key Cycling Workouts For Runners.

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