We’ve all heard about the benefits of cross-training for runners, and there are many options out there from low-impact exercises to yoga to strength training. In looking at cross-training, unless you are an elite paid athlete who can spend the time to do it all you should consider two elements when you choose which cross-training option best suits you.
- How close is it to running; does it work a similar set of muscles and systems?
- What do you get out of it that running doesn’t provide?
Considering these two items, cycling is great cross-training for runners and here are the 6 reasons why:
Running is an impact sport, with a tremendous amount of stress put on the foot, ankles, knees and hips as well as the supporting muscles, tendons and ligaments.
We’ve all heard the statistics, that roughly 65 – 80% of all runners will be hurt in a given year and, as mentioned in a previous cross training article you can lose as much as half your running fitness if you don’t train for a week and if you’re out for a month, you’ll likely have to start from scratch building your running endurance. The challenge is you want to improve your endurance, strength and speed but don’t want to increase your risk of injury.
Cycling is a great solution, because it is a non-impact sport that you can use as part of your recovery with a slow, easy ride between runs allowing you to improve blood flow, get rid of the lactic acid built up from your running workouts and generally reduce muscle fatigue.
And, as you’ll see below you can also utilize cycling to improve your endurance, strength and speed which will greatly benefit your running. All, while reducing your risk of injury.
One of the reasons squats and lunges are popular with runners, is they help strengthen your quadriceps and gluteal muscle groups. You get the majority of your power when running from your hamstrings, hip flexors and calves so strengthening your quads and glutes during cross-training to maintain a good balance between all the running muscle groups is important.
Cycling is great cross-training for runners because it helps to maintain that balance by strengthening the quadriceps and gluteal muscles. If you are new to cycling, check out how to properly activate your glutes while cycling as many beginners find this a challenge.
One of the best reasons to add cycling to your cross-training regimen is your ability to boost your endurance, without the high risk of injury from overuse of your muscles, tendons and ligaments from running.
Given the low-impact nature of cycling, you can spend more time on your bike than you can running (especially, if you’re a road runner); this additional time helps you build your endurance, which will translate to better long runs and increased running stamina.
There are two methods of cycling I enjoy to build endurance; the long, steady ride and a “brick” combination of cycling and running.
With the long, steady ride your purpose will not be to build strength or increase your speed but rather to find a nice comfortable pace, enjoy the time in the saddle and your surroundings while you’re building up your endurance.
A brick is a combination of cycling and running and the general rule is that your run should be 10% the distance of your cycling; so, for example, if you cycle 30 miles you should run 3 miles. Please note, the purpose of the brick is to build your endurance so the run should be at the same comfortable pace as your cycling. Or, think about it more like your long run and make sure you are running at a “conversational” pace.
Cycling as cross-training for your running can also help you build your strength; one of the great benefits of cycling is the ability to “change gears” on the fly. So, if you’re looking to build strength during a ride simply switch to a bigger gear and you will instantly feel the additional power necessary to propel you forward.
If you have access to hills, riding uphill is also a great way to build your strength; remember, running typically helps build your lean muscles but you can add more explosive power and strength through “big gear” or uphill riding.
This is one of my favorite parts of cycling as cross-training for runners; I don’t know about you, but I find that my injuries come from one of two things I’ve done wrong while running and both of them could be termed as over-use issues. Either I’ve tried adding too much mileage to quick, or I’ve overdone my speed work and tweaked something.
The great thing I’ve found about cycling is it allows me to mimic many of the speed workouts I’ll do when running. My favorite speed workouts are intervals, ladders and fartleks and you can mimic them on your bike and get many of the same benefits; below are some simple cycling workouts for each:
- Start with a 10 minute warm-up ride
- Ride for 5 minutes at your long ride pace
- Sprint for 30 seconds at max pace (think of it like sprinting)
- Repeat 5 – 10 times, depending on your fitness level
- Find your pace that feels about 75% of max effort
- Ride 75% max effort for 5 minutes
- Ride 80% max effort for 4 minutes
- Ride 85% max effort for 3 minutes
- Ride 90% max effort for 2 minutes
- Sprint for 1 minute
- Go back “up” the ladder
- This one’s simple, ride at your long ride pace and randomly throw in a sprint
- Fun to do as a group, with each person alternating choosing when to sprint
Improve Your Cadence
I have to admit, it took me a long time for the lightbulb to go on and realize that the recommended cadence for cycling (90 RPM) is the same as the universally accepted running cadence (180 SPM). The other thing that is also similar, is that the best runners and cyclists all have a quick cadence.
Given the similarities between running form and cycling form, one of the best elements of cycling as cross-training for runners is you can work on your cadence while cycling, helping you adopt physically and mentally a shorter stride and higher turnover rate which will help your run efficiency and speed.
Try this, next time you’re out on your bike sprinkle in 3 – 5 minute sessions where you drop to a lower gear than necessary and pedal at a minimum cadence of 110 RPM and do this 2 – 5 times during your ride, depending on your fitness level. Note: if you want to increase your overall time, I recommend increasing the time at that cadence rather than more reps.
If you want to improve your running, get on the bike; one of the best cross-training for runners around.
Rich Flaherty is a middle of the pack runner and triathlete, whose only real claim to fame is his daughter Bekah Brooks qualified for the Boston Marathon in her first marathon.