Considering adding in some cycling to your running plan? If you’re a runner looking to reduce injury risk, enhance recovery and increase running speed, then cycling is a great option.
As runners, it’s easy to overlook the benefits of cross training. It’s logical to prioritise run training. This makes sense, since training should be specific. And you can’t get more specific than running.
But what if you could use cross training, or more precisely “cycling”, to improve your running?
The good news is: cycling can upgrade your running. It can make you a faster runner. And research backs this.
In the first part of this three-part series, we consider why cycling is one of the most effective forms of cross training for runners.
7 REASONS WHY CYCLING IS GREAT CROSS TRAINING FOR RUNNERS
- Lower risk of injury
- Improved recovery and less fatigue
- Increases aerobic fitness
- Improved muscular endurance
- Strengthens and conditions key running muscles
- Improves running cadence
- Can make you a faster runner
#1 Lower risk of injury
There’s no getting away from it – running is a high impact and places a lot of stress on your body.
Cycling is non-weight bearing and much less stressful to your muscles, tendons and joints. And even if you complete a high-intensity bike session, you’re much less likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Supplementing your run training with cycling is an excellent way to maintain, or boost your running fitness, whilst reducing the risk of injury. It’s also an effective alternative to running workouts.
And if you’re unfortunate, and suffer a running injury, then cycling can be a great way to maintain your fitness, whilst giving your injured muscle or tendon a chance to recover from the impact of running.
#2 Improved recovery + less fatigue = greater training volume
So, we’ve looked at how bike training is much lower impact than running training. But there’s more…cycle training is less fatiguing than run training, making it a perfect way to increase your training volume, whilst reducing the risk of over-training.
One interesting point here: even when exercising at the same intensity, cycle training is less fatiguing. I’m not saying cycling is easier than running – it just results in less residual fatigue.
In one study – comparing bike and run training – researchers discovered that run training led to a greater accumulation of fatigue (1) than the equivalent intensity and volume of cycling.
Cycling causes less inflammation than running
In another study (2), researchers compared the effects of 3 days of increased training volume (2.5hrs day) in cyclists and runners. As you might expect, the runners experienced higher levels of muscle damage and soreness. The runners also experienced higher levels of systemic inflammation. Here, one marker of inflammation (IL-6) was 256% higher!
While we now know inflammation to play a role in the training adaptation process, too much can affect recovery and slow training progression.
It’s important to note that the increased inflammation happened following a large increase in daily training volume. So, you won’t experience this level of inflammation from your normal running training. That said, it highlights that cycling is less stressful from a physiological and bio-mechanical standpoint.
So what does this mean for you as a runner?…
Cycling is less fatiguing
Compared with running, cycling takes less out of you. And you will feel less fatigued and recover more swiftly from bike sessions – even following high-intensity workouts.
So, while running should always be the primary training focus, you can use cycle training – and specifically bike intervals – to supplement your run training positively. Allowing you to increase your training volume, while reducing muscle damage, inflammation and fatigue.
And if you struggle to recover from more intense running sessions, then bike intervals could be a useful alternative.
Cycling also works the muscles differently: running involves both concentric and eccentric muscle contractions, whereas cycling involves concentric muscle contractions.
Eccentric muscle contractions occur when your muscle fibre lengthens while under tension – particularly when running downhill. While eccentric contractions are crucial for strength development, they can lead to muscle fibre damage and increased inflammation.
#3 Cycling increases aerobic fitness
A key factor in developing aerobic fitness (VO2 max) and conditioning is the volume of training, and specifically the volume of high intensity training.
While running is very effective for developing aerobic fitness, high intensity running intervals can be very fatiguing. There’s often a very fine line between training stress, adaptation and recovery. And once you overstep that line, it compromises both your recovery and performance.
As we’ve just seen, one advantage of cycle training for runners is increased training volume. And this will benefit aerobic fitness and conditioning. That said, for runners to benefit from cycling it takes more than just getting on a bike and putting in lots of low intensity miles. In order to transfer fitness to running, cycling workouts must be purposeful. In particular, cycling interval workouts are a great way to transfer fitness over to running.
It’s important to note that cycling interval workouts are not an easy option. And when performed correctly, they’re just as tough to complete as running intervals!
The real advantage with cycling intervals comes from reduced levels of residual fatigue. This allows you to complete more intervals, recover more quickly, and gain a greater aerobic training benefit. And all with less risk of injury or over-training. And as I mentioned earlier, it’s also a great way to maintain fitness when you’re injured.
#4 Cycling Improves muscular endurance
Another advantage is improved muscular endurance.
As we’ve just seen, compared with running, you can complete larger volumes of cycling intervals. This is a key factor for developing muscular endurance and fatigue resistance.
One difference with cycling is the way muscular fatigue is much more localised within the quadriceps. Making cycling a great way to develop muscular endurance in the quadriceps – and in your glutes, calves, and hamstrings.
#5 Cycling strengthens and conditions the major running muscles
Cycle training is a great way to develop strength in some key running muscles; especially your quads, glutes, and calves. And if you’re using cleated cycling shoes, then you’ll also increase the involvement of your hamstrings, hip flexors, and shin muscles.
While cycling works the major running muscles, the emphasis on these muscle groups is different. In particular, we experience increased emphasis on our quads and glutes. In this way, cycling can compliment your running training. Helping to reduce imbalances between muscle groups, and developing strength in the key running muscles, such as those responsible for knee stability.
#6 Cycling can improve running cadence
As runners, we know the importance of running cadence. By including cycle training, and specifically cycling intervals, you can really work on developing improved leg turnover.
Compared with running, you can easily adjust cycling cadence without negatively affecting technique. In this way, you can train cadence during easier than well as during more intense bike workouts.
#7 Cycling can make you a faster runner
So, we’ve seen that cycling can compliment your running training. In fact, specific cycling training can actually make you a faster runner. However, it’s important to remember it’s not just a case of jumping on your bike and putting in lots of easy miles.
While low-intensity cycling can work to maintain a base level of fitness. And it can be useful for maintaining fitness when you can’t run, or as an alternative low impact training session. In most cases, low-intensity cycling will not transfer fitness in a way that will noticeably improve your running speed.
If you want to use cycling to improve your running, then the best approach is to use specific intervals that will transfer fitness to running. That said, if you’re looking for a low-intensity alternative to running, then an easy spin on the bike is a great option.
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- Mallol M., Mejuto G., Bentley D. (2016) Effects of 4 weeks high-intensity training on running and cycling per-formance in well-trained triathletes. Sports and Exercise Medicine Open Journal 2, 55-61.
- Nieman D, Luo B, Dréau D, Henson D, Shanely R, Dew D, and Meaney M. (2014). Immune and inflammation responses to a 3-day period of intensified running versus cycling. Brain Behav Immun. 2014 Jul;39:180-5. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2013.09.004. Epub 2013 Sep 19.