Post written by Susan Lacke.
Admit it — you runners love to poke fun at us cyclists.
We’re dork-ish looking people in our helmets and padded-ass shorts who think it’s fun to spend hours pedaling away through roads and up mountains, pretending we’re in the Tour de France.
But those of us who both run and cycle know a secret: cycling helps make you a better runner.
Many runners turn to cycling after injury- that is, they’re forced into riding a bike to stay sane while rehabilitating a stress fracture or joint pain. However, they soon discover something remarkable when they return to running — cycling actually made them better than ever before!
How cycling can make you a better runner
If you’re a runner, you might want to consider joining the ranks of Lance wannabes. Even if you’re not injured, riding a bike is an excellent cross-training activity, one which can improve your running performance significantly. Here’s why:
1. It’s a great form of active recovery.
It’s a story as old as running itself: You do your long run on Sunday, and come Monday morning, you don’t want to get off the couch, much less do any sort of active movement. For many, an easy jog the day after a long, hard run is about as much fun as a root canal.
But active recovery, such as moving your legs with an easy bike ride, can increase blood flow, flush out lactate, reduce muscle and joint stiffness, and help you get back on the trails sooner than if you were to just sit on the couch drinking beer. (Not that I’m saying sitting on the couch drinking beer is bad. Just, you know, do it after your bike ride.)
2. You’ll build strength in complementary muscles.
If your workouts are exclusive to running, you’re only building up certain sets of muscles to perform certain functions. Though your running muscles will become stronger initially, at some point you’ll plateau, because doing the same thing every day will eventually stop yielding results.
When you start cycling, you’re using muscles in your legs and core that complement the muscles used for running, making you stronger, more efficient, and yes — faster.
3. Leg turnover will increase like whoa.
Pedaling a bike requires consistent motion and a steady, smooth cadence. Sound familiar? That’s because the exact same thing is true for running. The world’s best marathoners have a leg turnover rate of about 180 steps per minute. ChiRunning, a form of run coaching with a focus on efficiency and injury prevention, suggests a cadence of 174-180 footfalls per minute.
Your cadence on the bike can transfer to running. Start by trying to achieve a 90 rpm (or revolutions of both pedals per minute) on the bike in an easier gear. Once you can hit this rate, move to your harder gears while maintaining the 90 rpm cadence.
4. Your ankles, knees, and hips will thank you.
Runners, especially those who do longer races like marathons and ultras, put a pounding on their body. Because of this, it’s hard for some to maintain high mileage without injury.
Cycling gives you a good workout without the impact of a run. If you’re not comfortable with replacing an entire run workout with a session on the bike, even substituting a portion of your run with a cycling workout can make your joints happy. Which brings me to my next point:
5. You can replicate the feeling of a long run…without actually doing a long run.
The secret to this is the brick workout, where you go from a bike ride to a run with no interruption in between. Though the term “brick” refers to the two disciplines pushed together in one workout, some athletes will swear it actually refers to the fact that running off the bike makes your legs feel like bricks.
If you’ve never done a brick workout before, you should ease into these gradually. Start with a 10 mile bike ride at a hard pace, immediately followed by a 1 mile run. Your legs will feel sluggish, as if you’ve already run a long way, but they won’t have taken the pounding they otherwise would have. Focus on good form and finishing strong. If the 10:1 brick feels good, gradually increase your mileage for the bike and the run (or immediately repeat the 10:1 brick for a different kind of challenge!).
Bonus benefit: Add a swim, and you’re a triathlete!
As your Resident Triathlete, did you really think I’d let you read this article without me trying to convert you to the church of SwimBikeRun?
Tips for getting started with cycling
- It doesn’t matter if you have a mountain bike, a road bike, a hybrid, or a triathlon bike. What does matter is having a bike that fits. If you don’t have a bike yet, or if you’re riding the too-big (or too-small) wheels your neighbor gave to you for free, read this guide to buying your first bike.
- Essential items: A helmet, glasses, bike shorts (these are padded in the crotch and butt), and a seat bag with a spare tube, multi-tool, and inflation device.
- Optional Items: Cycling gloves, chamois cream, bike shoes and pedals which clip together, an indoor trainer, and a bike computer.
- Before you go on your first ride, make sure you know how to change a tire if you get a flat. If you don’t have a cycling buddy to teach you how to do this, go to a local bike shop, and they will be happy to teach you.
- Be safe and obey the rules of the road. Don’t be a bike salmon – ride with traffic, not against. Find routes with designated bike lanes and wide shoulders, and stop at every stop sign and red light (yes, even if you think no one else is around).
Surely there are lots of cyclists out there in the NMA audience. If that’s you, help us out! How else does cycling help you run? Got any tips for beginners? Leave them in the comments below.