In general, running can be a beneficial cross-training activity for cyclists, but there are certain factors to consider when prescribing frequency, duration and intensity. You should think about your age, goals, physical history and type of cycling you do before programming too much running into your training plan. Your training phase should also be considered. For instance, if you’re in the middle of racing season, you likely won’t be doing as much running.
As with most physical activity, going too hard, too long or too frequently can lead to injury. However, the right mix of cross-training can extend your career and improve performance greatly. This is where a coach’s input is invaluable.
Sean Ahmadi, cycling coach and personal fitness trainer, in Austin, Texas, explains the many reasons he prescribes running specifically to his cyclists, as well as the factors that go into his programming decisions. The bottom line? There is no “one size fits all” solution because there are so many different types of cyclists.
The Benefits of Running for Cyclists
Increased Bone Density
Unlike running, cycling is a non-impact sport. While it’s fantastic for fitness and cardiovascular health, cycling does not provide weight bearing stress to increase bone density, which starts to decline for most adults in their 30s. Loss of bone density can lead to serious health issues like stress fractures and osteoporosis. When you run, dance, jump or perform other weight-bearing exercises, your body triggers a series of reactions to activate the surrounding muscles and strengthen the bones. The stronger the bones and muscles, the fewer injuries and long-term deterioration you are likely to sustain as you age.
Increased Cardiovascular, Muscular Strength and Exercise Tolerance
In addition to greater bone density, running as a cross-training exercise can also provide a completely different aerobic experience for a cyclist, leading to increased capacities and muscular endurance.
“For the roadie, running is a good idea at the beginning of the season when the focus is more on cardiovascular fitness,” says Ahmadi, who works with athletes of all ages, cycling specialties and fitness goals. “Running uses more muscle mass than cycling does (you are standing vs. seated), so you get more bang for your buck.”
More benefits of running include increased hamstring and glute strength, as well as improved and strengthened postural muscles. This is especially beneficial for mountain bikers and cyclocross racers who need not only high-end aerobic strength but also muscular endurance to climb technical steep hills, mount/dismount the bike, run through sand and pick up and carry their bikes. With these athletes, Ahmadi often programs short explosive sprint training and hill work that progresses throughout the season.
Younger athletes, he says, can handle more workouts per week. “I have the pleasure of coaching several junior athletes that also did cross-country running,” he says. “I found that with hard run workouts, they were able to keep their lactate threshold high, as well as their VO2 max, so they had a very easy time transitioning to cycling and races.”
As you age, however, you need more time to recover from hard workouts, so recovery may take priority over some of the reasons for running.
It’s always great to take a break from your main sport and do something else that will benefit you both physically and mentally, stresses Ahmadi. Having another sport, like running, is also useful if you’re traveling and won’t have access to a bike. It’s easy to pack a pair of shoes and head out for a healthy, mind-clearing run.
The mental benefit of checking out during a run also cannot be underestimated. Cycling, especially on busy roads or technical trails, requires a tremendous amount of focus and caution, which can lead to exercise and training fatigue. Shutting off the brain for a short run may be just the remedy necessary to allow you to nail your next tough cycling workout.