When choosing how to exercise, it makes sense to spend time on workouts that will improve your cycling. Does running help cyclists?
Running helps cycling because it improves bone density and leads to higher strength due to it being a high-impact exercise. Running is also intensely aerobic and improves overall fitness. Consequently, your cardiovascular endurance and your overall stamina for cycling will improve.
If cycling is your preferred sport, either competitively or just to stay fit, and you may not be open to the idea of running, especially because it is an impact sport and you are afraid of potentially injuring your joints. However, there is merit in combining some running with your existing training regimen. So let’s look at some of the benefits and ways that running can help cyclists.
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Does Running Help Cycling? (Summary)
Running improves cycling performance and endurance by strengthening muscles, lowering your heart rate, and strengthening your respiratory system.
We’ll talk about all of these items (and more) in more depth. First and foremost, though–besides all the science–does running help cycling?
Running, if nothing else, is a great way to mix things up. You may have noticed that if you perform the same workout every day and you try something completely different that you tire easily. Our body adapts and specializes in whatever workouts you do, regularly. If you want to improve your overall fitness and strength, introducing different workouts is a good plan.
In fact, this study suggests that heavy weight training has a lot of positive benefits when paired with cycling.
One thing to bear in mind, though, when deciding to incorporate running into your training, is to realize that if you have only ever done cycling and not participated in an impact sport, that you may be at higher risk of injury.
Your body, particularly the bones, muscles, and joints in your legs, are not yet adapted to this foreign style of training. It is thus a good idea to start slowly and then progressively build your way up over time. Just because you may be prepared in the sense that you have excellent cardiovascular fitness does not mean that you should push yourself to go all out from day one.
It is better to start with short power walks or light jogs and then gradually make your way to full-out running. It is advisable to start by only running once or twice per week and then increasing from there. You also need to factor in how much you are riding and ensure that you do not overtrain.
As you might expect, make sure to go easy on the supplemental workouts (running, weight training, or what have you) if you are getting close to a race.
When your race season comes around, if you engage in this sport competitively, it is advisable to continue your running but to decrease the amount you do. This is mainly to keep your body used to this type of training and maintain some variety to your exercise plan.
Improving Your Respiratory System Improves Your Cycling
Your lungs as well as the rest of the respiratory system are crucial to cycling endurance. Your blood carries oxygen, and oxygen is what helps your muscles have the energy and stamina they need to pedal those miles.
In this study, researchers used two respiratory system training methods to try and see if our breathing can impact cycling performance. They found that a fancy treatment using a Normocapnic Hyperpnea (basically a device that stresses the lungs) improved cycling endurance by 24%.
24%? That’s huge! Your personal mileage will vary of course–as this study was performed on those with a sedentary lifestyle.
What’s interesting is that instead of using the fancy normocapnic hyperpnea device, they just did aerobic exercise, instead. The researchers found the same thing–aerobic exercise improved cycling endurance.
Now, to be clear, cycling will cause you to breathe hard. But, there’s something to be said about variety in your workouts. If you mostly cycle, running will be more difficult for you–especially if you choose to sprint.
The aerobic power you gain from running will transfer to your cycling.
A similar study here also found similar results.
Lowers Your Resting Heart Rate (Increase In Cardiac Stroke Volume)
The more blood your heart pumps with each heartbeat, the slower your resting heartbeat. A slower resting heartbeat in a healthy adult is a sign of a more efficient (and thus, more healthy heart) (source).
In the study I mention in the previous section, they also found that those who performed aerobic exercise improved their cardiac stroke volume. Which is just a fancy way of saying that their heart pumped more blood per every heartbeat.
The more blood your heart beats, the more efficient it is–the more efficient your heart, the higher your endurance as more blood will go around your body, bringing oxygen back to your muscles as you cycle.
Aerobic exercises, like running, lower your resting heart rate, and a lower resting heart rate can help your cycling endurance.
Running Is Better At Helping You Lose Weight
Improving strength and endurance in your muscles, bones, and respiratory system are crucial for improving cycling performance. However, there’s another important way that can be easily overlooked–your weight.
The lighter you are, the easier it is to move yourself and your bicycle down the road or trail.
Running is better than cycling for weight loss according to this study.
While any exercise will help in weight loss if you watch your calorie intake, the study found that for the same amount of effort the participants made, running burned more fat than cycling.
It’s so important to remember that everyone’s body is different–but it is definitely another data point to consider when deciding which exercise to add to your workout plan.
Running Improves Bone Density More Than Cycling
It is not merely a myth that running is an excellent supplement to your cycling training, but rather something which has been scientifically examined, and the truth is that it certainly has its benefits.
As you age, in general, your bone density tends to lessen, and this can cause stress fractures or even lead to osteoporosis. Various studies recently have found that cyclists tend to have even more decrease in their bone density than those who do not even exercise.
Now, this is an alarming idea, particularly since you would consider yourself to be doing the right thing by cycling, to remain strong, fit and healthy.
There is some good news: in impact sports and training, such as running or jogging, your body is experiencing weight-bearing exercise, which causes your body to ensure the activation of the muscles in the affected regions, and your muscles will strengthen.
Another benefit and probably the most important one here is that your bones will be forced to increase in density. This will ensure that you are less susceptible to injuries and general deterioration the body naturally experiences with age.
This study, in particular, found that the lumbar spine bone density for participants (all over 55 years of age) that maintained running habits had the least bone loss among those who stopped running.
Running can improve bone density (source), which can prevent bone injuries and osteoporosis.
Running Works Different Muscle Groups
It is understood that both running and cycling cause us to perform aerobically; however, the stimuli that your muscles receive from the respective forms of training are quite different.
The main difference is that cycling only causes our muscles to experience concentric contractions. In contrast, when we run, our muscles endure both concentric and eccentric contractions. So what is the difference?
In simple terms, concentric means that the muscles shorten, and eccentric refers to the lengthening of the muscles.
When cycling, your muscles contract concentrically. (source) A superior form of training would offer both kinds of contractions for the muscle; this is why it is an excellent idea to do running in terms of overall muscle activation and strength.
As far as training goes, many cyclists purely stick to riding, which can actually play to their detriment. Your muscles adapt to riding a bicycle, and in most cases, they develop in excess in some areas while remaining underdeveloped in others. If you want to become a more efficient cyclist, adding running to your training is a great way to work muscles that may not otherwise be used, such as your abdominals and other stabilizer muscles.
As mentioned before, another thing to try is heavy strength training–according to this study, heavy strength training improved cycling and running performance significantly.
Other benefits that come with adding running to your routine are that you will have greater glute and hamstring strength and if you add some additional abdominal drawing in exercises, increased strength and efficiency of the postural muscles, which aid in your posture and balance. This study found that even just running in place while drawing in the abdominal muscles improved sitting posture significantly.
One thing to mention is that your posture is most likely worse after running than after cycling (source)–which is one reason why you might want to run in the evening instead of sitting down all day (where posture muscles protect your bones). Check out our article about the ideal time to run during the day.
Although relevant to all cyclists, these benefits mainly pertain to mountain bikers and the likes of cyclocross racers who need high aerobic strength and immense muscle endurance. This is because they will likely have to climb steep hills, often need to mount and dismount their bikes, and need to be able to run and carry the bikes over areas such as sandy patches.
Additionally, a group of muscles that would be strengthened by running, which are probably often overlooked when it comes to cycling, are those found in your feet. When you run, you will be using these muscles as you have never used them before, and this will be a tremendous asset when you climb onto your bike and start peddling.
Running Brings Mental And Physical Variety To Your Cycling Training
An increase in your bone density and overall muscle activation and training are not the only things that can genuinely benefit from a change in exercise.
Your mind and other aspects of your body also experience variation. You tend to be on your saddle for more extended periods when riding, and a run can be as short as you want (depending on how fast you run).
One great thing about running, opposed to cycling, is that you can listen to music (you may do so on your bike, but it is less common, or safe), which adds a certain flair to your mental space when training. You can put on some exhilarating music and just enjoy the time spent on the road.
Also, you have a break from the long hours spent on the saddle, and in this way, running offers some comfort. You are also in a completely different position; you are standing straight up as opposed to being seated and leaning forward on a bike – which your bones might thank you for.
When you run, you can go on trails that you can’t road cycle on (mountain biking is a bit different). It’s possible to go places where there are quieter streets or even out on the forest trails. (Check out our article on trail running vs road running for more info on the differences between the two)
A more peaceful space (not worrying about being run over) means that you can truly just enjoy your time without having to be tremendously focused, as you often have to be when cycling.
So here is another reason why rotating your training is a good idea, as running will aid in giving your mind a much-needed break from the concentration required by cycling.
It Is Convenient And Takes Less Time
When you are training for cycling, you need your bike and an array of gear and equipment. It takes more time to get prepped for a ride than it does for a run and much more time needs to be spent on a bike to achieve the same results, so why not lace up and head out for a run or jog?
If you do not wish to do more long-distance running, you could even head over to a local park or field and do some sprinting; this will undoubtedly help your cardiovascular fitness and transfer well for when you need to have those quick bursts on a bike.
An easy jog on your rest days can easily fill the time without having to do all the prep.
Additionally, if you are traveling and cannot take your bike with you, or don’t have access to one, then the best alternative is the training that a good pair of running shoes offers.
It Offers A Change Of Scenery
Going for long rides, especially out of town or on longer roads, is fantastic–but sometimes it’s fun to explore your neighborhood on foot, run on the beach, or even possibly go on trail runs. There would be fewer cars around, and you could admire various homes and scenery that you would most likely not see when you’re out on a reasonably fast bike ride.
Think of it as potentially doing some exploring; you may even get lost and have to find your way back. Make it a fun and enjoyable exercise, so get creative and consider all the possibilities. You are not training to become a runner but rather to add some variation to your program.
We have mentioned a few times the idea of running on trails or simply going somewhere where you could run in the natural environment, as opposed to the road or sidewalk. Although there is a greater chance of injury, mainly due to tripping and misplacing your footing, there are benefits to trail running. (see examples in our article, here)
The variations in surface and the elevations you will experience will help give you a more diverse workout, and more of your muscles and body, in general, will be put under pressure. Also, your pace will vary quite a bit, and this is another difference from road running, where you would most likely maintain the same pace, never really altering your speed.
You can most certainly benefit from incorporating running into your cycling training, and as we have seen, there are various reasons why and how this is so. One thing you need to bear in mind, though, is that you are perhaps starting a form of training that your body is unfamiliar with, and thus you need to make gradual progress. Do not be too eager to go for a quick five-mile run straight off the bat. You do not want to injure yourself by adding running into the mix; instead, you want it to complement your current training.
Thankfully though, it won’t take you too long to build up to a point where you are running for thirty to forty minutes per session.
Before you begin to adjust your training, though, perhaps consider consulting with a trainer and asking for advice on how to make the transition and to discuss the adaptation of your routine for a bit of variation. After that, it is time to lace up and start accumulating those strides.