Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
When runners consider cross training, myriad options come up — ranging from a variety of non-impact exercises to strength training. Not all options are created equal, however. When selecting the type of cross training, you need to consider how specific the work is to running — does it work similar muscles and systems — as well as the reason for cross training—what does it offer that running doesn’t, e.g., less impact.
With this in mind, cycling makes for one of the best cross training options. Here are six reasons why:
1) Mimics Movement
In respect to muscle activation, the position and movement of the body while cross training should mimic running form as closely as possible.
Cycling out of the saddle, with the body as vertical as possible, mimics the posture of running. This is especially true in regard to the foot strike position beneath the body.
While not a bike per se, the ElliptiGO is an excellent exercise option that also places the body in a vertical position with the ‘foot strike’ occurring beneath the rider. Plus, the ElliptiGO has the additional advantage of requiring greater hip extension — the leg driving behind the torso similar to good running form — than a traditional bike.
2) Strengthens Calf Muscles
Running places a lot of stress on the calf muscles—especially running with a midfoot strike. When landing with a midfoot strike, the soleus (deep calf muscle) is most affected.
When cycling, the balls of the feet are placed on the center of pedal. Therefore, the contact point of the foot on the pedal is the same as the foot contact point with the road when running with a midfoot strike. This means that when pedaling — especially standing up, out of the saddle — the calves must activate to stabilize the foot on the pedal.
Strengthening the calves results in the stiffening of the calf/Achilles complex, which acts as a large source of energy while running as one of the body’s natural spring systems.
3) Strengthens Shin Muscles
The shin muscle (tibialis anterior) activates to pull the pedal upwards during the upstroke of the pedal stroke while in a seated position. This is most often the case when riding up a hill. To engage the tibialis anterior, the foot must stay horizontal during the upstroke and you must have some sort of cage, strap or clipless pedals to be able to pull up.
Since this activation during the pedaling motion strengthens the tibialis anterior, it may help to prevent muscular-based shin splints while running.
4) Engages the Core
A strong core is important for proper running form, as well as for decreasing the chance of injury due to mechanical compensations when other muscles have to engage to keep you upright, balanced and moving forward. To improve your core while on the bike, you need to ensure that you are using proper cycling form to engage the core, both in and out of the saddle.
—Uphill Seated Cycling Form
Cyclists with a weak or unengaged core often exhibit excessive side-to-side (tilt and rotation) movement of the upper body when riding uphill. Conversely, if your core is engaged, there should be little to no upper body movement.
To test your core engagement, ride in the seated position up a moderately steep hill but do not grip the bars — rather, place your palms on the bar while keeping your fingers loose. This lack of support from your hands/arms will place a greater emphasis on your core. Riding uphill using this form while focusing on not bending or rotating your upper body from side-to-side will increase your core strength.
—Out of the Saddle Form
Most amateur cyclists do not have proper form when riding out of the saddle. They keep the bike in a vertical position and move their body and hips up and over the bike (think: spin bike). The proper form, however, is to tilt the bike side-to-side and maintain a near motionless and upright torso position. From a performance standpoint, this allows the hips to stay in the same plane and minimizes a dead spot in the pedal stroke. From a muscle-building perspective, riding out of saddle with good form places an emphasis on the core to tilt the bike laterally, as well as to keep the body stationary and centered over the bike.
5) Builds the Aerobic Engine
A lot of running injuries come from overuse. Whether you’re talking about a long run or cumulative mileage, the greater the time on your feet, the greater the chance for injury. The most common reason for this is fatigue, leading to the breakdown of running form.
Cycling, with the focus on endurance riding, allows a runner to get a great aerobic workout with virtually no impact on the body. As an added benefit, when going up a hill, a cyclist can shift gears to reduce or maintain their effort — an option that isn’t available to runners!
6) Boosts Anaerobic Systems
Cycling is just as applicable to high-intensity interval-based training as it is long steady distance. Whether done outdoors or indoors on a stationary bike, doing intervals on a bike is a great way to replicate the intensity of a running workout, but without the impact. Note, while they strengthen heart, lungs and overall muscle tone, cycling intervals will not improve the specific running muscles and neuro-muscular pathways, so cycling workouts should be used in addition to, not in lieu of, running intervals whenever possible.
Rick Prince is the founder of United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA), a science-based endurance sports education company that offers running and triathlon coach certifications.
Originally published August 2019