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At first glance, the similarities between running and bicycling seem striking. Both activities require serious aerobic fitness, and both depend on lower-body muscles to provide the bulk of the required power. But the differences are also profound. Just look at the equipment necessary for each activity.
There are also differences in the physical requirements and training demands of cycling and running. In those differences, however, lies a great opportunity for effective cross-training. Runners who incorporate cycling-based training into their routines get a break from the relentless pounding that running inflicts; and cycling also greatly strengthens the quadriceps, a muscle group that many runners incorrectly assume is always adequately stimulated by running alone.
“Cycling can give runners a very nice aerobic boost,” says Travis Macy, a running and multisport coach who ran cross country for the University of Colorado before turning to ultra-distance running and mountain biking. “It also provides a new experience, decreasing the mental burnout and physical overtraining that can occur when an athlete focuses on just one activity.”
Macy advises competitive runners to try cycling after their goal race seasons, as they resume base training. He recommends building toward long rides of 90 to 120 minutes at a moderate pace for extended aerobic work. Recreational runners can also benefit from rides in the 60- to 90-minute range. As cycling fitness improves, he suggests incorporating high-cadence bursts at 100–120 RPM for a few minutes at a time to boost the workout’s intensity.
Even the rustiest, dustiest old clunker can likely be spruced up by a skilled mechanic for a reasonable fee. Take your old bike to a dedicated cycling shop and ask for a general tune-up. This will ensure that the brakes work properly (something you don’t want to find out about the hard way), the shifting functions correctly and the tires are in decent condition.
Once you’re confident that your bike is ready for action, begin cycling training by replacing one or two of your weekly recovery runs with a cycling day. Many running schedules include two or three “recovery runs” each week. But honestly, when is the last time that an “easy run” truly left you feeling recovered? A gentle 30- to 45-minute bike ride can flush out your muscles while leaving you energized for your next hard run.
If you’re eager to jump into cycling workouts with a bit more intensity, make sure your steed is set to handle the increased challenge. Equipment-wise, there’s no need to break the bank. New tires, perhaps a bit skinnier and run at a higher pressure than your old set, will deliver a far livelier ride. A new saddle, maybe a new chain or some cycle-specific apparel could help prepare you for the next level.
After a month or so of easy riding, try upping your commitment a notch. Just as with running, one of the simplest yet most effective ways to increase the demands of cycling is to head for the hills. Seeking out steeper riding circuits will ensure that your aerobic and anaerobic systems get pushed to new levels. Stuck with flat roads? Keep shifting up to a harder gear until you struggle to maintain a constant 80–90 pedal rotations per minute for 60 to 90 minutes. If running is your main interest, however, be sure not to treat these more demanding bike rides like easy run days.
If you’re enjoying long, hard rides, it may be time to think about some serious bike upgrades. The usual logic for maximizing your purchasing power in cycling is that lighter, stiffer wheels deliver the best bang for your buck. Here’s another option: Get a professional bike fitting. A pro bike fitter will check out every detail of your saddle height, handlebar height and other parameters can lead to substantial gains in both comfort and performance.
To continue upping the intensity of your cycling workouts, there’s one priceless piece of advice that works the same way in cycling as it does in running: Seek out good athletes and try to hang with them. Intervals, hill repeats and other programmed workouts for cyclists are similar for riders and runners, though biking sessions often require an increased time investment. They can also be a blast, especially as you learn the subtleties of drafting, the all-important tactical component of bike racing.