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 can be easy to overlook the training benefits of cross training. It’s natural to prioritise run training. This makes sense, since training should always be specific. And you can’t get more specific run training than actually running.
But what if you could use cross training, or more specifically “cycling”, to improve your running?
The interesting thing is: cycling can improve your running. It can make you a faster runner. And (importantly) this is supported by research.
In the first part of this three part series, we’ll take a look at why cycling is one of the most effective forms of cross training for runners.
7 REASONS WHY CYCLING IS GREAT CROSS TRAINING FOR RUNNERS
- Reduced risk of injury
- Improved recovery and less fatigue
- Increases aerobic fitness
- Improved muscular endurance
- Strengthens and conditions key running muscles
- Can improve running cadence
- Can make you a faster runner
#1 Reduced risk of injury
There’s no getting away from it – running is high impact and places a lot of stress on your body.
Cycling on the other hand is non weight baring and much less stressful to your muscles, tendons and joints. And even if you complete a high intensity bike session you’re far less likely to experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Supplementing your run training with cycling, is a great way to maintain, or boost your running fitness, whilst reducing the risk of injury. Not only can this help to reduce the risk of injury, it’s also a useful 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 great way to increase your training volume, whilst limiting the risk of overtraining.
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 found 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. As it turns out, the runners also experienced higher levels of systemic inflammation. In this case, one of the markers of inflammation (IL-6) was 256% higher!
Whilst, inflammation is now known to play a role in the training adaptation process, too much can hamper training progression.
At this point, it’s important to note, that the increased levels of inflammation, happened following a very large increase in daily training volume. So, you won’t experience anywhere near this level of inflammation, from your normal running training. However, this does highlight how cycling is less stressful from a physiological as well as bio-mechanical standpoint.
In this way, cycling takes less out of you. So you’ll feel less fatigued the following day, and recover more quickly from bike sessions – even following high intensity bike workouts.
So, whilst as runners, we should always keep running as our primary training focus, you can use cycle training – and specifically bike intervals – to supplement your run training in a positive way. Allowing you to increase your training volume, whilst 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 lengthens whilst contracting – particularly when running downhill. Whilst, eccentric contractions are important for strength development, they can result in muscle fibre damage and increased inflammation.
#3 Cycling increases aerobic fitness
A key factor in developing aerobic fitness (VO2max) and conditioning, is the volume of training, and specifically the volume of high intensity training.
Whilst running training is very effective for developing aerobic fitness, high intensity running intervals can be quite fatiguing. There’s often a very fine line between training stress, adaptation and recovery. And once you overstep that line, both recovery and performance are affected.
As we’ve just seen, one advantage of cycle training for runners, is increased training volume.
In this way you can use cycle training, to bolster your training volume. And in turn this will boost aerobic fitness.
That said, for runners to really benefit from cycling it takes more than just getting on a bike and putting in lots of low intensity training miles. When you add purpose to these sessions, and include specific cycling interval workouts – rather than just low intensity cycling – you’ll transfer over greater fitness to your running.
It’s important to note, that cycling interval workouts are not an easy option. And when done 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, with less risk of injury or overtraining. 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 of cycle training is improved muscular endurance.
As we’ve just seen, when compared with running, we can complete larger volumes of cycling intervals. Which is a key factor in developing muscular endurance and fatigue resistance.
With cycling, the muscular fatigue is much more localised within the quads. Making cycling a great way to develop muscular endurance in the quadriceps. As well as 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 of the key running muscles; especially your quads, glutes, and calves. And if you’re using cleated cycling shoes, then you will also increase the involvement of your hamstrings, hip flexors, and shin muscles.
Whilst cycling works the major running muscles, the emphasis on these muscle groups is slightly different to running. In particular, we see increased emphasis on our quads and glutes.
In this way, cycling can compliment your running training. Helping to reduce imbalances between muscle groups, whilst also 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. Including cycle training, and specifically cycling intervals, allows you to 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 as well as during more intense bike workouts.
#7 Cycling can make you a faster runner
So, we’ve seen that cycling can be used to compliment your running training. In fact, specific cycling training can actually make you a faster runner. However, as I’ve mentioned, it’s not just a case of jumping on your bike and putting in lots of easy miles.
Clearly, low intensity cycling can help to maintain a base level of fitness. In this way, it can be useful for maintaining fitness when you can’t run, or as an alternative low impact training session. However, low intensity cycling will not transfer fitness in a way that will significantly 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.
In our next article, we take a look at 7 cycling tips for runners to help you get the most out of cycle training. Then we’ll take a look at which cycling workouts are best for runners.
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- Mallol M, Mejuto G, Bentley D, Norton L, Torres-Unda J, Arrieta H, and Otxoteko I. (2017). 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.
- 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.