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Cycling vs. running: Why both are important for whole-body fitness

Two runners on a trail run in the mountains.
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So, you're a cyclist who wants to get faster and stronger at cycling. What if I told you the key was to stop cycling so much and add some running into the mix? Did I just lose you? While there are some obvious differences between cycling vs. running, these very differences can help improve your strength, muscle balance, and speed.

Creating balance for efficiency

The majority of athletes are creatures of habit. We settle into training routines and do our best to stay on track. But to do the same movement over and over again, such as cycling or running, is certainly going to develop certain muscle groups well but at the same time leave other supplemental muscles groups underdeveloped. One of the greatest takeaways from adding running to your routine is improved strength of postural muscles, hamstring, and glutes.

Creating balance in our muscles helps for the highest power output because, simply put, more muscles are engaged and firing, leading to increased efficiency, which essentially means more output with less effort. Sounds great, right? In addition, repetitive movement, no matter the sport or activity, causes the body to reach what's often referred to as a plateau. Adding in cross-training keeps the body in a constant state of adaptability that is key for injury prevention and maintaining peak fitness.

Choosing to add running into your training schedule also allows for certain muscle groups to "take a break" from cycling. For example, cyclists are bent over with a closed hip joint 99% of the time they are on the bike. Often this leads to added stress to the hip joint and allows for poor posture and underdeveloped back muscles. Running opens up the hip joint, demands better posture, and builds better back and postural strength.

Cardio for cardio

One might think, "Why bother running for cardio when I can just continue to cycle to improve my cardiovascular fitness?" The argument shouldn't be cycling vs. running, then, but rather how running can be a supplemental activity for your cycling or vice versa.

Essentially, running requires engaging more muscle mass and, in turn, more oxygen demand to keep all those muscles firing during the run. The key difference as to why? You're standing vs. sitting while on the bike. This is why you'll feel fatigued after a half-hour run relative to, let's say, a two-hour ride. Running allows you to elevate your heart rate quicker and keep it elevated for sustained periods of time. Which, I must note, is another added benefit; equal workout in less time.

Over time, research shows you'll see increased VO2 max (your body's ability to use oxygen during intense exercise) on the bike because of the work you put in on the run.

It's all in your head

Well, that's not entirely true, but let me explain. While the purpose of this article is to cover the positive impact running can have on your cycling, the mental benefits are also worth considering.

Simply switching up your routine and adding variety to your training can keep you stimulated and excited to keep getting out the door. When running, you're moving at a slower speed, possibly exploring new routes and keeping your eyes focused from a different perspective. This will allow you to literally see the world in a new way.

Running is a simple sport. If you're short on time, traveling, or just not feeling up to getting the bike out of the garage, running allows you to simply throw on a pair of shoes and go. If you're traveling and need to keep training, traveling with a pair of running shoes is entirely more convenient than with a bike and other gear necessary for cycling.

Start slow

Yes, you are a cyclist and likely have a lower resting heart rate than your next-door neighbor. You're likely in better shape than anyone sitting at the family Thanksgiving dinner table. I can totally understand how you'd want to get out and run fast.

While there are certainly physiological parallels and overlap between cycling and running, most notably cardiovascular health, there are key differences that make it incredibly important to start out running slow when introducing running into your routine.

The demand on your joints is something your body is likely not accustomed to. Starting out slow is less stress on your body. In addition, you're going to be engaging different muscles groups. These muscles will need time to adapt to the new demands placed on them.

As covered above, running demands more of your cardiovascular system. It's going to be much easier to get your body into an anaerobic state while running than it is while cycling. It's important to keep below the anaerobic threshold when starting out.

Just remember, you don't have to love running. It is likely not going to take the place of cycling in your life, but there are many key benefits to adding it into your routine. Even if it's one or two 30-minute runs per week, I hope you'll consider it!

Our writer's advice is intended for informational or general educational purposes only. We always encourage you to speak with your physician or healthcare provider before making any adjustments to your running, nutrition, or fitness routines.

Written By
Tim Kelly

Marathon Runner & Coach

Tim Running

Ohio native that loves travel, gardening, and helping people do more with their running than they thought possible. 8+ years as a running coach. 12 years as a runner and cyclist.