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Finlay McAndrew  •  Running Training •  11.06.2020 •  8 min read

The benefits of cycling for runners

As a triathlete, I have to split my training across the three main elements: swimming, cycling and running. It’s an interesting dynamic as they can sometimes work against each other. The profile of an elite swimmer, cyclist and runner are quite different. Triathletes have to try and get as efficient as possible in each discipline without negatively impacting the performance of the other ones. Increasing upper body muscles mass could improve swimming performance but that additional weight could negatively affect run performance as a result of having to carry additional non-functional mass.

Cycling can also negatively impact run performance if not balanced in the right way. Cycling shortens all the areas you need to be flexible for running. Hip flexibility is one of the most important components of running economy as it has a direct impact on stride length and stride frequency, the two components of speed. The circular motion of pedalling while cycling, involves constantly shortening the hip flexors and this could in theory impair running performance. However, despite the potential issues, cycling can be very effective cross-training for runners. I would incorporate cycling into my training even if I was just focused on running goals. I have experienced multiple benefits for my running as a result of the bike training I do.

The benefits of cycling for runners

Running can cause more muscle damage than cycling due to the impact of landing. Cycling is a great way to increase fitness levels without causing lots of muscular fatigue. So, doing one or two cycles in a week could help a runner increase their fitness levels and enable them to train more consistently because they’re able to recover better between training sessions.

Jan Frodeno cycling
Photo by Maurten

In addition to this, it’s possible to cycle for a longer duration than running, due to there being less impact involved. Simply spending more time doing more easy aerobic training, will improve fitness levels. A 90minute cycle could be easier than a 45minute run, for some, and potentially more beneficial due to the increase in time spent exercising.

Low-aerobic intensity training can help speed up recovery from hard training. Adding some additional cycle sessions into your routine could benefit your training as it may help speed up the recovery process from a hard run and improve your state of readiness for the next session.

Cycling is also a great way of improving strength for runners. One of the main limiting factors for many runners in the latter stages of runs is muscles soreness. High levels of muscle damage will result in signals going to the brain that ultimately slows us down. Doing specific strength sets on a bike can improve muscular strength and help make a runner become more resilient to the effects of muscle damage.

Cycling workouts for runners

One of the best ways for runners to train on a bike is using an indoor/turbo trainer at home. It’s safe, highly effective and very time efficient. I have included a set of example sessions that are very effective.

Strength training on the bike involves doing low-cadence work. Cadence is the amount of revolutions per minute done by a leg. 70 right-leg revolutions would be 70rpm. A lot of people naturally cycle at about 80-90rpm. Lowering the cadence increases the amount of torque required to turn the pedals and requires more muscular force. Cycling at roughly 50-60rpm is a great way of improving strength and making runners more resilient to the effects of muscle damage.

Doing 3-5 sets of 2-3minutes intervals, with equal rest, at a steady effort in a gear that lets you ride at 50-60rpm would be a good way to start this session. As you get stronger, you can increase the duration and amount of reps.

Example Strength Set

Aim: Increase leg-strength by doing low cadence efforts

Warm-Up: 10mins easy cycling

Main Set: 3x3mins at 70-80% effort in a big gear at 50-60rpm with 3mins easy cycling in between

Cool Down: 5mins easy cycling

I wouldn’t recommend that runners do specific long and hard training sessions on the bike as that could cause excess fatigue that might not translate into running fitness. Short high-intensity efforts to stimulate systems but not cause lots of fatigue can be very effective.

An example session of this could involve doing 10-20second maximum efforts but with lots of rest. 5-10 repetitions of 15secs maximum effort with 3mins recovery would be a very effective session. This doesn’t sound like much, but your legs will be screaming if done properly.

Example Power Set

Aim: Stimulate neuromuscular pathways and increase monocarboxylate concentrations. Leads to a greater ability to remove excessive lactate and protons from cells when exercising hard.

Warm-Up: 5mins easy

5mins building effort

5mins easy

Main Set: 5x20secs maximum effort +3mins very easy cycling in between

Cool Down: 10mins easy

As someone gets better trained on the bike, they could add in some maximum aerobic power sets. This would involve doing short high-intensity intervals with equal amounts of rest. An example of this would be 2-3 sets of 5-10reps of 30secs at 90-100% effort followed by 30secs at 30-50% effort. This is a more cycling specific session but could have some benefits for running performance as could improve a runner’s ability to buffer lactic acid.

Cycling for runners photo

Example MAP Set

Aim: Increase VO2 max and improve buffering capacity. MAP means maximum aerobic capacity and doing sessions of this structure will improve an athlete’s ability to work harder for longer.

Warm-Up: 5mins easy

5x10secs high cadence/50secs easy

5mins easy

Main Set: 2x(10x30secs @ 90-100% effort / 30secs @ 30-50% effort) with 5mins in between sets

Cool Down: 5mins easy

Building up your aerobic fitness on the bike involves doing steady-state efforts. That means the intensity should be sustainable for long periods of time and shouldn’t be overly fatiguing. Similar to the other sessions, it’s best to break up the session into segments. Doing 15-20minute intervals at about 60-70% effort would be a good way to start aerobic training on the bike. This workout could be repeated a couple of times with 5-10mins very easy cycling in-between or as many as 4-5 times depending on how motivated you are.

Example Aerobic Set

Warm-Up: 10mins easy cycling

Main Set: 2x20mins @ 60-70% effort at own cadence with 5mins easy in between

Cool Down: 10mins easy

All of these sessions can be done by perceived effort. You can also monitor your heart rate to make sure you are riding at the right intensity. GPS watches with heart rate should give you zones and these will be broken down into percentages.

If you’re lucky enough to have a smart trainer that measures power, you can train by watts. The target watts would be calculated off your functional threshold power (FTP). There are various tests that can be done to calculate your FTP, but the device that you measure your power with will normally give an estimate. So, riding at 60-70% would mean working out 60-70% of your FTP and riding between those values.

Training with Zwift

Zwift is a virtual training system originally designed for indoor cycling. Zwift is also available for indoor running too. It’s essentially like playing a game. The platform puts you in a virtual training world.

You need a smart trainer or power meter to play. The app connects with the power source (your smart trainer or power meter via Bluetooth) and the watts that you generate move you in the virtual world. The app has different ‘worlds’ which means you can ride on different courses and choose from hilly rides or flat rides. If you have a more advanced smart trainer, the app talks to the trainer and mimics the terrain changes by adjusting the resistance on the trainer automatically. More expensive trainers can mimic gradient changes of up to 20%.

Thousands of players can log into Zwift at a time. There can easily be 10,000+ people on at a given time all around the world and you’re all virtually cycling together. Zwift creates training sessions and races. Races are set events that require you to join and be there at a set time. There are different levels so you can race against cyclists of similar ability. It’s amazing fun and very motivational.

Benefits of Zwift races cycling for runners
Photo by Maurten

My main advice for people using Zwift is to not go hard the whole time. It is very easy to get caught up with the racing and challenges on Zwift. This can easily lead to burnout as a result of overreaching and training can become non-functional.

Read about the potential issues of over training and how to stop before it affects your performance in our article: Is overtraining affecting your running.

Add cycling sessions for improved fitness

Doing some cross-training for running is a great way to keep motivation high, improve your overall fitness and ultimately make you stronger. Cycling and running use very similar muscle groups therefore, cycling is one of the most complementary types of cross-training that runners can do. Incorporating some specific cycling sessions into training in the right way will definitely help improve running performance.

Low-aerobic intensity training can help speed up recovery from hard training.

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