Cross-training is part of a well-rounded running training program. But some forms of cross-training are better than others.
For example, if you want to improve your cardio but give your legs a break, swimming is an excellent option. If you are looking for cold-weather activity, cross-country skiing is a great choice. And you should always include strength training.
But one of our favorites is cycling. You can do it outside or indoors on a stationary bike. It’s non-weight bearing, so it’s easier on your legs, and it helps build cardio.
But while cycling is great for cross-training, will it actually help with running? In other words, besides maintaining cardio, will cycling actually make you a faster and more efficient runner?
Evidence suggests that it does, so keep reading to learn how and why cycling will help you become a better runner.
How Cycling Can Help Make You a Better Runner
Cycling is quite similar to running in many ways. It’s focused on the lower body, easy to do outdoors or indoors, and a good cardio and muscular workout.
Let’s look at the other ways it can improve your running.
It’s Easy on the Joints
One of the biggest benefits of cycling is that it gives your feet, legs, and body a break from the impact of running.
Cycling is not a weight-bearing activity like running. The bike bears your weight – your legs propel you and the bike forward. This low-impact allows you to get a great workout with far less strain on the ankles, knees, and hips.
It’s also an excellent cardio option if you want to maintain fitness while struggling with an injury. Certain injuries, like plantar fasciitis, are painful when you run but can be managed more easily on a bike.
Strengthens Leg Muscles
Cycling is an excellent way to grow your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. It also strengthens the core and the hip flexors. If you cycle regularly, you can expect to run faster and further before tiring, thanks to extra muscle strength in the legs.
Cycling helps you to build those muscles without the high-impact, jarring effect that running has on your body. You can push the muscles harder and strengthen them more than when running!
Stronger leg muscles also help reduce your chance of injury. Strong calves support the ankles and knees better, and quads and hamstrings support the knee and hip joints.
Improved Cardiovascular Fitness
Both running and cycling are aerobic activities that increase your cardio system. Regular aerobic activity strengthens the heart and lungs.
The stronger your lungs and the better your lung capacity, the more oxygen you can take in. The stronger your heart, the more powerfully it can pump blood to send oxygen to your muscles.
Over time, your increased cardiovascular health can contribute to running faster and farther with the same amount of energy.
Enhances Running Economy
Your running economy is how efficient your body is at using oxygen to create energy during exercise. As mentioned above, a stronger cardiovascular system makes a big difference in taking in and distributing oxygen around the body.
But it’s not just about how much oxygen you use—cycling trains your body to use that oxygen to create more energy.
Cycling is heavy on the big muscles like quads, glutes, and hamstrings, requiring a lot of oxygen. Regular bike rides can help your body become accustomed to using that oxygen quickly and easily.
The same happens when you step out onto the road or trail. You’ll be able to take in more oxygen and your body can use it more efficiently to power you forward.
Active recovery doesn’t have to be a recovery run. Cycling can do the job just as well, minus the high impact from running.
If you struggle to run as slowly as a recovery run calls for, then recovery cycles could be a better choice, especially if you have a stationary bike.
Reduces Injury Risk
Alternating between running and cycling during your weekly routine can go a long way toward reducing your risk of injury. Consistent impact on the feet, ankles, knees, and hips can lead to overuse injuries.
But switching out some of your runs for rides substantially lowers the amount of time your feet and legs take a beating. You get all the same benefits of running, just minus the harsh impact on your body.
When you’re running fewer times during the week but still keeping your fitness with cycling, you’ll be less susceptible to developing overuse injuries.
Cycling is an amazing rehab exercise for injured runners. It uses many of the same muscles, but it’s low-impact, which takes away some of the injury risks of running.
If you’ve been struggling with an overuse injury or a nagging injury keeping you from getting back on your feet, take a break from running and build your leg strength and fitness up on the bike.
It’ll also do wonders to get the blood flowing through your body, which can help speed up healing.
Mental Break and Motivation
We all love to run… But sometimes, it’s nice to do something a little different and take a “mental break” from running.
It’s a great way to prevent hitting a wall. Alternating between running and cycling can prevent boredom, keep you challenged, and provide a new set of goals to work towards.
And it might also remind you how much you love running when you get back on your feet after a bike ride!
Adding Cycling to Your Running Routine
You don’t need to wait until you’re injured to start cycling! It can be an amazing addition to your existing running routine. Here are some easy ways to incorporate it.
If you’re following a running plan or program, you may already have cross-training on your schedule. If you’re doing something other than cycling, consider swapping it out and seeing how that impacts your training.
You can do cycling as a form of active recovery. If you choose to do this, make sure you keep your rides slow and easy—the goal here is to increase blood flow and flush out metabolic waste.
Do recovery cycles in the place of recovery runs. Your joints will thank you and it also adds some variety to your routine. Or, if you’re injured and need to stop running for a bit, cycle instead, but make sure not to overdo it.
Outdoor Cycling Workouts You Can Try
Here are some rides you can try outside—make sure you have enough space to push yourself without people, traffic, or other cyclists getting in your way.
- Time: 60 to 90 minutes.
- Intensity: Moderate (Zone 2, 60 to 70% of max heart rate).
- Terrain: Moderately flat, unobstructed.
- Purpose: Build aerobic endurance.
- How To: Start with a 10-minute warm-up at an easy pace, then increase to a moderate intensity for the main set. Maintain a consistent and comfortable pace throughout the session. Finish with a 5 to 10-minute cool-down.
- Time: 45 to 60 minutes.
- Intensity: Varied, alternating between moderate (Zone 3, 70 to 80% of max heart rate) and hard (Zone 4, 80 to 90% of max heart rate).
- Terrain: Hilly.
- Purpose: Improve strength and climbing ability by riding hills.
- How To: Start with a 10-minute warm-up, like a light walk. Then, hit the hills—2 to 3 minutes pushing hard uphill, followed by the same duration resting or riding back down the hill. Go for 4 to 6 hill repeats in total before your 10-minute cooldown.
- Time: 30 to 40 minutes.
- Intensity: High during intervals (Zone 4 or 5, 80 to 95% of max heart rate), low during recovery.
- Terrain: Flat, unobstructed.
- Purpose: Increase cardiovascular fitness and speed. Intense bursts of effort followed by recovery periods.
- How To: Start with a 10-minute warm-up, followed by 6 to 8 intervals of 1 to 2 minutes at high intensity, with 2 to 3 minutes of easy cycling for recovery, ending with a 5 to 10-minute cool down.
Active Recovery Ride
- Time: 20 to 30 minutes.
- Intensity: Very low (Zone 1, 50 to 60% of max heart rate).
- Terrain: Flat, unobstructed.
- Purpose: Enhance recovery, improve blood circulation, and flush out metabolic waste in the legs.
- How To: Maintain a consistent easy pace throughout. No resistance or sprinting.
Cycling Workouts for Stationary Bikes
You can still get an excellent cycling workout inside. Plus, you can do it while watching TV, listening to music, or when the weather is bad.
Here are some stationary bike workouts you should include in your training.
- Time: 45 minutes
- Intensity: Moderate (60 to 75% of max heart rate)
- Purpose: Improve leg turnover and cadence control.
- How To: Warm up for 10 minutes. Then, perform a pyramid workout: 1 minute at 80 RPM, 1 minute at 90 RPM, 1 minute at 100 RPM, and then back down. Repeat this pyramid for 20 minutes, then cool down for 15 minutes.
- Time: 30 minutes
- Intensity: Starts moderate and ends high (70-90% of max heart rate)
- Purpose: Build strength and endurance.
- How To: Warm up for 10 minutes. After that, increase the resistance slightly every 5 minutes while keeping your cadence steady. The last 5 minutes should feel challenging. End with a 5-minute cool down.
- Time: 25 minutes
- Intensity: Very high during intervals (up to 95% of max heart rate)
- Purpose: Boost anaerobic capacity and power.
- How To: Warm up for 10 minutes. Then do 8 rounds of intervals: 20 seconds at maximum effort followed by 10 seconds of rest. Then cool down for 5 minutes.
Tempo Ride with Sprints
- Time: 40 minutes
- Intensity: Tempo (75-85% of max heart rate) with high-intensity sprints
- Purpose: Improve sustained effort capability with bursts of speed.
- How To: Warm up for 10 minutes. Then cycle for 20 minutes at a tempo pace. Every 5 minutes, do a 30-second sprint at maximum effort. Finish with a 10-minute cool down.
In a brick workout, you combine two types of exercise. In this case, it would be running and cycling—like a short duathlon! You can start with either exercise, do it for a set period of time, and then switch to the other and do it for the same amount of time. For example:
- 20-minute run, followed by a 20-minute cycle
- 45-minute cycle, followed by a 45-minute run
It depends on your fitness level as to how long you exercise for. The key is to start small and build your way up over time.