Cycling to Build Strength and Endurance for Your Running
Serious runners tend to imagine that a divide separates them from avid bicyclists. After all, we runners seem like a rangier species than the helmeted, spandex-clad folks who roll past us on the trails or paths. Runners fight for each mile. As cyclists coast downhill, they carp about traffic and road conditions.
That’s the unfortunate assumption, at least. It turns out, however, that bicyclists have plenty to teach us. I came to running through cycling. I had moved to a place that was not conducive to bicycles and decided to get my exercise in other ways. Five years later, as I train for my first marathon, I’ve begun to depend on bicycling again as a way to build endurance and speed and avoid the problems of overtraining.
Cycling can have a dramatic effect on your performance, whether it is short- or long-distance running. In purely physiological terms, bicycling and running share many of the same muscles, with an emphasis on quadriceps, calves, and hamstrings. But where running is high-impact, cycling is low-impact, which means that it causes less stress to your joints. So, if you have knee, hip, or ankle pain, give cycling a try. Your joints will thank you.
Additionally, cycling can be a powerfully rejuvenating force when it comes to training for a race. If you wake up and are feeling sluggish, or if the thought of running is not an attractive one, you may be exhibiting the signs of overtraining. A break from running can prevent injuries and keep you buoyant. Introducing new strategies for cross-training, such as bicycling, can keep you active and your routine varied. And on those days when I reluctant to rest, or on evenings before a race, an hour-long ride at a moderate pace bike ride keeps my energy up, my mind at ease, and my muscles loose.
Finally, as the weather heats up, cycling can be a safer midday routine than running. In hot and humid weather, I turn into a bag of useless flesh. (I should probably prepare better). So, if I am unable to run in the early morning or late evening, I take my bike out for an afternoon spin. The air flow from the increased air speed cools your core as your muscles pump.
Below are some recommendations for how you might supplement your training regimen with some cycling.
Cycling to build speed
Time: 1 hour
The focus of this workout are the glutes, the hamstrings, the quads, and the calves. It will build explosiveness and power. As you sprint, really pull on the pedals in addition to pushing (this requires clips). You’ll notice that your hamstrings will be heavily recruited, as well as your quadriceps. I occasionally use this as an alternative to a speed workout, which can really destroy my shins and knees. During the long, dark winters, I do this workout inside three times a week on my stationary bike.
- Ride for ten minutes at a moderate pace, as a warm up.
- Sprint as hard as you can for 1 minute. Try to keep the RPMs high.
- Ride for two minutes at a moderate pace.
- Repeat steps two and three ten times.
- To cool down, ride at a moderate pace for ten or fifteen minutes.
Cycling to boost endurance
Time: 90-120 minutes
After I did my first bicycle tour (10 days, 1,000 miles) I was amazed how much further I could run. The slow burn of a moderate bicycle ride can have tremendous effects on your slow-twitch muscles. For an endurance ride, choose a relatively flat route of 25-50 miles. Most cyclists pedal about 80-110 times on a flat route, which is quite a bit slower than the cadence of a distance runner. If you are interested in cycling purely to improve your running, try to match your cycling pedal rhythm to your running cadence. For example, if your cadence is 170 per minute, you should be pedaling 170 times per minute (one revolution is made up of a pedaling motion from each foot.) This will probably require you to shift down a little.
Finally, a long, slow ride is one of the most effective ways to lose weight. Simmering in the aerobic range (50-75 percent of your maximum heart rate) for a few hours can replace excess fat with lean muscle.
Pointers for beginning cyclists
It is possible to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on biking equipment. But why? If you are interested in biking mostly as a way to boost your running performance, there’s no need to dive into the cycling world too deeply. Really, all you need is a bicycle and a helmet. Pedals with clips on them can engage the hamstrings much more. But something other than that? It’s not necessary. Save your money for race entry fees, shoes, and nutrition. Borrow a bike if you are unsure that you want to commit, or if you are short on dough.
If you are interested in getting seriously into cycling as a sport…well, that’s another matter. Start saving your money now.
Though you may think of running as a purer lifestyle than the world of cycling, it is possible to harness the effects of cycling without getting waylaid by the frills. At the very least, riding once or twice a week can remind us what we love so much about running.