Add bike intervals to your run training to increase strength and endurance.

A bicycle can be among a runner’s most valuable tools for training the body to shift into higher gear, develop quicker turnover, create more power and reach peak racing shape.

Petra Kilian-Gehring, coach and co-owner of Speed Cycling in Madison, Wis., says the biggest benefit runners can get from road biking is the ability to do more work with less stress on the body. Specifically, that means increased cardiovascular fitness that is directly applicable to running, but with less recovery time as a result of the decreased impact.

Getting Into It

Begin by replacing one or two of your weekly easy runs with a 60- to 90-minute bike session. After a few weeks, replace one of your weekly fast running workouts by ramping up the intensity and adding intervals in the middle of a ride. “The best bike workouts mimic running workouts,” says Meghan Kennihan, a certified running and cycling coach in LaGrange, Ill. The primary goal should be to mimic the neuromuscular cadence of quick leg turnover while running.

For example, if you’re due for a 10 x 400m workout on the track, complete fast bursts of speed on the bike that equal the amount of time it takes you to run a 400. If you normally run a quarter mile in 90 seconds, do 10 x 90 seconds with 90 seconds of easy riding in between each sprint. You can also mimic mile repeats and tempo runs on a bike as long as you’re riding for the equivalent duration with a quick-cadence, low-watt output.

Try to find a mostly flat or mildly rolling section of road for these workouts (avoid steep hills at all costs!), which allows for a balance of moderate resistance and a quick cadence of around 90 RPM. “Since a runner should take around 180 steps per minute, when you get on the bike 90 RPM is replicating that cadence,” Kilian-Gehring says.

Heart rate is the other way to keep track of your effort level. Although your heart might not be beating quite as fast on the bike, the level of muscle engagement makes it just as tough. Wear a heart-rate monitor for the first few bike interval sessions to get a feel for where your heart rate is during speed bursts. Your heart rate will spike, but you’re aiming for controlled efforts, not redline surges.

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What You’ll Need

Although biking is definitely a more expensive sport than running, an entry-level road bike will suffice. You can do intervals on a mountain bike, but only if you’re on a surface conducive to fast-paced spinning. You can also do intervals on a spin bike at a gym (most spin bikes have a pre-programmed interval workout mode), but make sure you start with a good warm-up and stick to your workout plan. Most spin classes aren’t geared toward runners who are cross-training. (No matter what kind of bike you’re on, a good fit is crucial to ensure increased blood flow and reduced muscle and stiffness.)


Although bike intervals can contribute greatly to running fitness, nothing can replace the specificity of running workouts. “You still need to engage the running muscles and build up the body’s running structure,” Kilian-Gehring says. By adding biking into your running regimen, you’re able to build fitness without wrecking your legs. This translates into bumping up not only strength, but also that anaerobic threshold, allowing you to run faster, longer.

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This piece first appeared in Competitor magazine.