Ask a cycling coach: “If I can’t ride a bike, is it worth running instead?”
Any cyclist who has the (annoying) pleasure of running will be able to tell you that you’ll come home after 20 minutes of running more tired than you would after a one-hour bike ride.
It’s not about answering whether cycling or running is better, it’s about exploring whether adding running to your training is the perfect solution for time constrained cyclists – and whether it’s better than opting for a short, sharp HIIT session, like these 30 workouts cycling per minute.
James Spragg takes us through the similarities and differences between running and cycling, as well as the all-important details of how to add jogging to your cycling training plan, if you’re looking to go down that path.
Sports scientist and coach James Sprague is one of the experts who will answer your questions in the ASK A CYCLING COACH series released every Wednesday. He works in both research and applied settings, and currently runs Intercept Performance Consultancy.
Running is a popular cross-training for cyclists, even professionals. But that doesn’t mean that there are also some key differences between cycling and running.
“I have enjoyed wearing my running shoes this off-season. On Sunday I ran my first ever race. It was a really challenging 15km on some very hilly, technical trails.” Anyone else enjoy cross-training like Jimmy? ✋ ⬇️ #MondayMotivation pic.twitter.com/lwnvwue2ORNovember 15, 2021
When cycling, we just hit the pedals. Yes, we’re raising the legs a little bit in the second half of the pedal stroke, but if we’re moving well, it’s more about getting the foot out of the way and not applying any more negative pressure than it is about producing any actual force.
When pedaling, we use the large muscle groups in the upper leg (the quadriceps, quadriceps, and hamstrings) in a concentric fashion. What this means is that muscles shorten because they produce force. At the same time, we use the muscles of the lower leg. Primarily the calf (the calf) and the tibialis anterior (the muscle under the front of your leg) stabilize the ankle. This allows efficient transfer of power from your leg, through the foot and pedal to the cranks.
However, running is completely different.. When running, we still use the muscles of the upper leg, but now we use them in a focused and eccentric way. Eccentric movement is where the muscle lengthens under load.
As we take a step forward, we need to soften the landing stroke – this cushioning is achieved in two ways – first through eccentric contractions in the quadriceps, and secondly through flexural storage in the muscles and tendons of the lower leg. When we land, some of the shock is absorbed by flexion of the leg (eccentric contraction) and the rest is absorbed by the lower leg; This energy is stored – a bit like stretching a spring. As we approach the next step, this energy is released, and it propels us forward.
So even though the muscles used are very similar when running and cycling, the way they are used is completely different.
But is this important?
Well, the answer (as always) is yes and no. First, running and cycling are great ways to get aerobic exercise. You will be breathing hard and your heart rate will be gentle and elevated. Therefore, from a cardiovascular standpoint, jogging can be very beneficial. It’s usually harder to stay at lower intensity levels when running than when cycling, so even a 20-minute jog will likely feel your 20-minute threshold effort and get the same kind of cardiovascular benefits.
However, due to differences in how muscles are used, the damage to your muscles may outweigh the cardiovascular benefits.
Since cyclists are not used to eccentric loading of the upper leg or flexible loading of the lower leg but are in reasonable shape, it is very easy for them to break out and completely destroy their legs in the first 20 minutes. The best case scenario if you start running suddenly is a bad case of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) – your legs will be incredibly stiff, tactile and useless on the bike. The worst case scenario is that you could hurt yourself and end up spending a lot of time off the bike.
How to add running to your cycling training routine
However, with enough time and patience, it is possible to add running to your cycling training program. This way you can get the benefits of a short but strenuous workout, without the risk of injury. This is likely to be especially useful on the bike on those extended efforts just below the threshold.
To do this, the key is to build any run with incredible care. The first sessions shouldn’t feel aerobic at all – the sole purpose of these sessions should be to give both men a little taste of the new moves. I would suggest keeping these sessions very short (max 20 minutes) and suggest running only once every three days to start – this gives the muscles and tendons enough time to adapt and recover between sessions.
Only once you can do 20 minutes at 5/10 intensity without any stiffness or pain either during the run itself or the next day, I suggest you go for longer or harder.
So running can be a good addition to your training plan – especially if you’re targeting gains in and around your threshold, but implementing it will take time and patience. Trying to rush the process could result in injury which will only reduce the amount of training you can do.
In this age of online training plans and workouts, have you ever found yourself with a burning question you’d like to ask directly to a cycling coach? Well, now is your chance to ask! In this series, we’ll ask your questions to expert trainers – send them to the Cycling Weekly Fitness Features Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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