Running vs. Biking – Which Is a Better Workout?

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Trying to choose between running vs. biking to get a great workout? Both are excellent choices and have the potential to become your go-to cardio exercise for everything from calorie burn to enjoyment.

But which is a better workout? Does one win over the other? How do you choose which one to do? Our detailed comparison will pit the two against each other so you can see which one comes out on top in specific areas.

By the end of this article, you should have a better understanding of which will work better for your fitness routine!

Which Provides a Better Workout: Cycling or Running?

The truth is, both running and biking can give you a phenomenal workout. It’s hard to say which provides a better workout because a “great workout” means different things to everyone!

Are you aiming to burn as many calories as possible? Build muscle? Boost your cardiovascular system? Your goals are the best indicator of which one might be the better choice for you.

That being said, let’s dive into the differences between the two, the pros and cons of each, and the specifics of both exercises.

What Are the Main Differences: Cycling vs. Running

Some specific differences between running vs. biking could be the deciding factor for you.

Weight-Bearing vs. Non-Weight-Bearing

Running is a weight-bearing exercise, while biking is not. Weight-bearing activities significantly strengthen bones and increase density, which is especially significant as you age.

That doesn’t mean that cycling doesn’t strengthen your bones. But it does differently, mostly by building muscle around the bones for extra support.

What Muscles Are Used: Cycling vs. Running

Running and biking use basically the same muscles. The main muscles are the lower body—the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. The upper body muscles are recruited mostly for stabilization—the back and arm muscles.

It’s important to note that while you don’t move your arms much for cycling, they still get a workout if you’re biking on the road. On a stationary bike, you’ll use your upper body muscles less, unless you’re really riding hard.

But cycling on the road requires you to stabilize yourself and balance in the saddle, as does riding a bicycle on rollers. You’ll likely get more activation of the stabilizing muscles on a real bike than you will running, but more activation running than on a stationary bike.

Low Impact vs High Impact

Running is a high-impact activity, even at slower speeds. Biking is a low-impact activity that’s much easier on the joints. Those with joint problems will appreciate the low-impact nature of being on the bike.

Intensity

Both biking and running can be done at high intensity. If you’re a fan of HIIT workouts, both will give you what you’re after. You do have the added advantage of being able to stand up in the saddle and add that little bit extra with cycling.

Distance Covered

Due to the way a bicycle works, you cover more distance with every “stride” than you do running. This means that in the time it takes you to cover a certain distance on foot, you can get much further on a bike.

In general, the ratio of run to bike miles is 1:3 to 1:2. That means that for every one mile you run, you can get 2 to 3 miles on the bike at the same intensity level.

Which Burns More Calories: Cycling vs Running

Your calorie burn depends on multiple factors, some of which are within your control and others which aren’t. Cycling and running generally burn a decent amount of calories—in fact, pretty close in numbers, according to Harvard Health.

Across three different weights, running at 5 miles per hour OR cycling at 12 miles per hour burns:

  • 125-pound person: 480 calories per hour
  • 155-pound person: 576 calories per hour
  • 185-pound person: 672 calories per hour

However, this doesn’t really take into account the many factors that influence calorie burn, so it’s more of a rough estimate than set in stone.

Factors That Influence How Many Calories You Burn

Knowing what factors contribute to calorie burn can help you to maximize yours during exercise. Here’s what influences how many calories you burn during exercise.

  • Intensity: The more intensely you work out, the more calories you’ll burn. “Intense” is considered to be the point where you’re breathing too heavily to continue a normal conversation during exercise.
  • Duration: The longer you work out, the more calories you’ll burn, regardless of what your intensity is.
  • Muscle Mass: Muscle burns more calories than fat does. So the more muscle mass you have, the more calories you’ll burn per session.
  • Weight: The more you weigh, the more energy it takes to move during exercise. This equals more calories burned during every exercise session.

What Are the Best Ways to Maximize Calorie Burn?

Whether you choose running or biking, there are small hacks to maximize your calorie burn. Next time you workout, try one of these tricks:

  • Do a Tabata/HIIT workout instead of steady state
  • Limit rest time to 1 minute max, and make it active rest
  • Exercise within your heart rate zones70 to 80 percent of your max heart rate is the optimal zone for fat burning
  • Add an incline when running or resistance when cycling for extra calorie burn
  • Try a weighted vest to burn more calories when running

Does Cycling or Running Build More Muscle?

Cycling builds more muscle than running does, especially in your lower body. You may see information about running “toning” your muscles—simply stripping the fat off your muscles so they’re more defined!

You’ll likely build some muscle in your lower body when you run regularly. However, it won’t be as much muscle as cycling builds. For both running and cycling, you’ll notice a definite muscle concentration in the lower body rather than the upper body.

Which Is Better for Weight Loss?

Weight loss ultimately comes down to being in a calorie deficit, which means consuming slightly fewer calories than you’re burning. Take note that you need to be eating a little less than your total calorie burn for the day—NOT just the calories you burn during exercise.

You can use a calculator such as this one to learn how many calories you burn daily and find out how many you should be eating for weight loss.

Running and cycling both burn a decent amount of calories per workout. As long as you’re in a calorie deficit, you can expect to lose weight regardless of which one you’re doing.

Which Is Safer, Running or Cycling?

Running is a high-impact activity, meaning you’re more at risk of developing overuse injuries when you run than when you cycle.

Runners tend to develop foot and lower leg injuries, whereas cyclists may suffer from back pain, neck pain, and pain or numbness in the genital and rectal area.

Whichever one you do, it’s important to warm up effectively before beginning your exercise. This will minimize the risk of injury during your workout.

Cycling on a real bike does have one big risk—falling off the bike at high speed. Broken bones, head injuries, and nasty scrapes can happen from a fall off a bicycle.

Running carries fewer of those risks. Although there’s always a chance of falling, you won’t be going at such a high speed, which affects the severity of injuries sustained.

Pros and Cons of Cycling

Want to give cycling a try? Here’s a quick summary of the pros and cons of biking.

PROS:

  • Low-impact and easy on the joints
  • Builds muscle mass faster and easier
  • Versatile enough for steady state and HIIT cardio
  • Can be done indoors or outdoors
  • Scalable—add resistance for a more challenging workout
  • Great calorie burner for those looking to lose weight

CONS:

  • Expensive—requires equipment and accessories
  • Risk of serious injury if you come off the bike at speed
 

Pros and Cons of Running

What about choosing running as your form of exercise? Here are the pros and cons for you to think about.

PROS:

  • More affordable to start and maintain than cycling
  • Easy to do steady state or HIIT cardio based on your needs
  • Can be done indoors or outdoors—almost anywhere!
  • Scalable—add incline or a weighted vest for more challenge
  • Great calorie burner for those looking to lose weight

CONS:

  • High-impact exercise can be hard on the joints
  • Doesn’t build muscle as easily
 

Factors to Consider: Cycling vs Running

Still trying to decide between running vs biking? Here’s what you’ll need to consider to make the right choice for you.

Accessibility

What would be easier for you to do based on the space you have available? Are there biking trails nearby, or do you have a bike lane on the road that offers you a safe space to ride? Or is it easier and safer for you to run around your neighborhood?

Expenses

Running requires a new pair of running shoes, some comfortable clothing, and perhaps an investment in a treadmill. Biking, however, requires an investment in an excellent bike, a quality helmet, cycling shoes, clothing, and regular services. Take this into consideration before choosing!

Types of Bikes/Shoes

Are you planning on riding or running on the road or on trails? You need to invest in equipment that’s right for your goal. You can’t take a road bike on a trail, and you shouldn’t take a mountain bike or gravel bike on the road too often.

The same is true for shoes. If you want to run on the road, you can buy a normal road shoes. But if you want to run trails, you need trail running shoes, which are often more expensive as they’re specialized.

Accessories

For cycling, you’ll need a puncture kit. You may also want to consider a bike computer, power meter, and cadence sensor if you want to track your metrics accurately.

For running, you want to invest in a running power pod, but you’ll be able to get most of your metrics fairly accurately on a smartwatch.

Maintenance

Running shoes don’t need maintenance, although they do need to be replaced every few hundred miles. On the other hand, bicycles, stationary bikes, and treadmills require regular maintenance to ensure that they’re still working optimally.

Make sure you have the time and inclination to maintain equipment before buying something. If you don’t maintain it, it won’t last, and then your investment will be wasted.

Your Budget

While running and biking cost a bit, cycling is more expensive. If you’re on a budget, running is likely to be the better choice for you, unless you can find a top-quality bike plus equipment for a super low price.

Convenience

The space you have available at your home makes a difference too. Do you have room for a bicycle, a stationary bike, or a treadmill in your home? If not, you may be limited to running outdoors—or joining a gym so you can use their equipment.

Which Do You Enjoy More?

Ultimately, it comes down to two things: which exercise works best for your body and your goals, and which one you enjoy more. Enjoyment is a huge factor, and if you find that you particularly enjoy one over the other, that’s most likely the one you’ll have the best results with.

Who Should Consider Cycling?

People with weak or painful joints should opt for cycling rather than running. It’s also a good choice for those with the budget to invest in all the equipment necessary for safe exercise.

If you’re looking for an exercise that builds serious muscle mass in the lower body, cycling comes out on top.

Who Should Run?

Those who prefer weight-bearing exercise can choose running, as long as they have strong joints. If you’re new to exercise and are looking for the most accessible form of exercise, running is also your best bet!

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AUTHOR

Ben is an avid road and trail runner, and has completed multiple marathons and ultras. A former running store owner, he now shares his knowledge and experience writing these articles.