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15 Essential Reasons Why Cycling Helps With Running

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Cycling can be really useful to runners as a form of cross-training. It has obvious similarities, being a cardio and endurance exercise.

But there are also lots of fantastic benefits that are due to it being slightly different.

I’ve been switching things up between cycling and running for the last decade at least, and in this article, I’m going to look at the most critical 15 benefits of why cycling is good for runners. These include:

  1. Develop complementary muscles
  2. Different muscles have different importance
  3. Cycling is low impact
  4. Use cycling as a rest day
  5. Build muscles through resistance during cycling
  6. Help with slight muscle injuries
  7. Integrate cycling into your daily routine
  8. Cycling is better for knees
  9. Issues with runner’s knee
  10. Running and cycling have similar cardio levels
  11. Running and cycling are similar endurance exercises
  12. Keeping a sense of freshness in your training
  13. Changing with the seasons
  14. Importance of cross training
  15. You can cycle at an intensity that suits you

Let’s take a look at these in more detail:

reasons why cycling helps with running

1. Develop Complementary Muscles

This is a biggie to start with!

Cycling and running actually use very similar muscles, but they use them in a slightly different way.

In cycling, the main four muscle groups are:

  1. The quads
  2. The hamstrings
  3. The calves
  4. The glutes

And guess what?! These are the most important four in running also – with the core also being very important in running as well, I should say.

But the thing is – the muscles in each activity will be moving and operating in a slightly different way.

Let’s take the quads as an example. In cycling, the quads are activated from the top of the pedaling motion all the way to the bottom of the stroke. Then they are more at rest as the pedal rises from the bottom to the top.

It is essentially a pushing motion, downwards on the pedals.

In running, things are different. The quads are used in running to straighten your leg and lift your knee. (Source)

Here is a table that outlines the different roles and uses of the separate muscles during both cycling and running:

Muscle GroupUse In CyclingUse In Running
QuadsPush downwards on the pedals from the top of the pedal revolution to the bottomHelp to lift the knee and repetitively straighten the leg
CalvesWork alongside the quads to push downwards on the pedalsThe main source of propulsion off the ground
HamstringsHelp reset the leg from the bottom of the pedal revolution to the topThese help to maintain the bend in the leg
GlutesWork in unison with the quads to push down on the pedal from the top of the pedal motion to the bottomAbsorb impact as your foot hits the floor, and also help propel you forward
CoreAre used in maintaining balance and body postureKeeping stability and helping your body with energy efficiency

But how do all these different roles of the muscles during cycling help runners?

Well, these different uses help to further condition the key muscles that you use when you run. They develop muscle endurance, and muscle capabilities.

2. Different Muscles Have Different Importance

To build on the last point, the different muscle groups not only work differently during cycling and running, but they also have a different levels of importance.

Let’s take the calves, for example.

The calves are undeniably the most important muscle used in running. They are the main muscle of propulsion from the floor.

In cycling, the calf muscles are still important, but nowhere near as important as the quads or glutes.

The calf muscles are activated during cycling at the same time as the quads and glutes. They are used to push downwards on the pedal. This essentially happens from the top of the pedal stroke to the bottom.

You can see that cycling will be exercising and developing the calves, but doing it in a slightly different way.

Here is a table that shows the relative importance of the main muscle groups used in cycling and running:

Muscle GroupImportance In CyclingImportance In Running
CalvesMediumHigh – they are the main source of propulsion
QuadsHigh – the most important muscle for forward motionMedium-High – the second most important muscle after the calves
GlutesMedium-High – the second most important muscle after the quadsMedium – Important for stability and propulsion
HamstringsMedium – they are used in the upstroke of the pedals, at a time when the quads and glutes are less activatedMedium – Important for keeping the legs strong and moving efficiently
AbsLow-Medium – they are important for maintaining balance and good postureMedium-High – Essential for body position and

3. Cycling is Low Impact

Probably the biggest difference between running and cycling is that cycling is low impact, whereas running is high impact.

What does that mean?

A high-impact activity puts a level of stress caused by repetitive impacts on our joints. This is when a joint is being pounded repeatedly.

The main three joints that are affected by running are:

  1. The hips
  2. The ankles
  3. The knees

On the other hand, cycling is low-impact. There is no repetitive pounding of the joints through movement, and all the motion is smooth and fluid.

This is the biggest reason I have seen why many people transition from running to cycling at a given point in their lives.

If you are feeling any pain or stiffness in any of the key running joints, then adding cycling to your training schedule makes a lot of sense. It takes the pressure off these joints while giving you many of the same benefits of running.

4. Use Cycling As A Rest Day

Linked to the last point, many runners use cycling successfully as a rest day.

Research suggests that you probably don’t want to run every day. An optimal quantity of running appears to be three or four times per week. (Source)

This means you will be improving at running and developing the key physiological traits required, but also that you are less likely to become injured.

On the days when you are not running, it makes sense to either rest or try another form of cross-training (such as cycling!)

Experts seem to suggest that you should have one full rest day per week.

If you follow the schedule of four days of running, and one full rest day, it makes perfect sense to be cycling on the two remaining days. This schedule is kind to your body, integrates rest with activity, and you develop almost every day.

5. Build Muscle Through Resistance During Cycling

A key difference between cycling and running is that cycling can potentially help you build some more muscle mass (if you do it in the right way).

How does this work?

Normal resistance training, such as when we lift weights, works by applying force against an opposing force. This creates micro-tears in the muscle, which then build back stronger and bigger.

Running is more a way to reduce fat, and tone up. There is only minimal muscle development.

However, with cycling, you can build some level of muscle by upping the resistance. This forces the muscles to work more powerfully against the resistance, causing some micro-tears in the muscles.

This is especially true if you do any of the following:

Climb Hills

If you’re cycling outside, then try to integrate climbs into your rides. Getting out of the saddle adds body-weight force into the equation, and means your muscles have to work much harder.

Put The Resistance Up As High As Possible

If you’re cycling indoors, then you can replicate the effect of cycling up hills by turning up the resistance as high as you can manage. Coming up out of your saddle helps to build muscle also.

Speed Interval Training

The idea of this is to integrate sprints into your ride. Breaking your journey into sprints and periods of relative rest will help to generate more muscle development.

6. Help With Slight Muscle Injuries

Tweaks and slight strains often come along with running regularly. Cycling is not a cure for these, but you can find that cycling will not exacerbate the same injuries.

Therefore, you can cycle with a niggle you have developed from running, and the injury will still be healing while you get all the many benefits of the cycling exercise.

I occasionally get a twinge in the hamstrings while running (I’ve no idea why!), but I find this is not a problem area while cycling.

Please note – you don’t want to be either running or cycling with full muscle strains, and rest is the best cure. Speak to a medical professional if you are unsure.

7. Integrate Cycling Into Your Daily Routine

A key reason why many people I know enjoy cycling (and this is also a big reason for me), is that you can often integrate it quite easily into your daily routine.

For example, you can:

  • Cycle to work
  • Cycle to collect groceries from the store
  • Cycle at lunchtime at work
  • Commute to the gym or friend’s houses

Cycling covers a much larger distance than running over the same timeframe, and so lends itself well to being a practical means of getting around. Also, as long as you don’t completely overdo it, you can often arrive at your destination in a reasonably non-sweaty and socially acceptable state!

This makes a bit of practical cycling added to your schedule a brilliant way of increasing endurance and cardio for your running – but doing so in a really time-efficient way.

8. Cycling Is Better For Knees

Generally speaking, cycling is much kinder to knees than running.

This is largely because cycling is low-impact. This means there is much less pressure and stress on the knees from the continual impacts that you experience while running.

I mention knees in particular because they are such a problem area for many runners.

If you have knee problems, that you think might be exacerbated by running, then cycling offers many benefits such as:

  • It strengthens the muscles around the knee (particularly the quads which are the most important muscle for knee health
  • You can really ‘take it easy’ on a bike, and only cycle at a speed that is kind to your knees
  • The cycling motion is fluid and works with the knees’ natural movements

If you have any issues with your knees, an excellent Youtube video is this one from Bob and Brad, the self-proclaimed ‘Most Famous Physiotherapists on the Internet’.

They talk about knee pain, cycling, exercises, stretches, and a whole load of other things:

9. Issues With Runner’s Knee

I’ll throw this one in as well because this is such a common condition.

Runner’s knee is often experienced by runners (as you can probably guess from the name). It is a sharp pain in the center of the patella (knee cap). (Source) It can be caused by a range of things, with running being a central one.

Cycling does not cure runner’s knee. The only thing to do that will help it heal is rest.

However, cycling certainly does not exacerbate runner’s knee further. Also, I recently spoke to a runner that got back into cardio through cycling after resting from runner’s knee.

Cycling gives you another potential string to your bow to play around with if you ever suffer from this condition (hopefully you never will!). It’s there if you need it.

10. Running And Cycling Have Similar Cardio Levels

One of the beauties of training in both running and cycling is they have very similar cardio levels.

Most runners will experience a heart rate of somewhere between 100 and 160 beats per minute while running. This will of course depend on your age, your fitness level, and a few other factors. (Source)

Someone cycling at a moderate intensity will have a heart rate somewhere between 90 and 130 beats per minute, while someone cycling at a high intensity will have a heart rate between 120 and 160 beats per minute.

You can see the very similar levels that the two activities share.

11. Running And Cycling Are Similar Endurance Exercises

A key feature of both running and cycling is also that they work on developing endurance.

Endurance is experienced in both in the following ways:

  • A high level of cardio training
  • Continued effort over a sustained period of time
  • Continual repetitions of the same movement sequence
  • Aerobic exercise

12. Keeping A Sense Of Freshness In Your Training

Many people cross-train because of the mental and psychological advantages that it ignites.

Some people will find just training in one discipline to be repetitive or dull, and they need something different to just spice things up and get them focussed again.

Training without enthusiasm is no good for anyone.

Cycling offers a really positive cross-training opportunity, and also just a total change of scenery. This can help you recharge and return to running with a vengeance!

13. Changing With The Seasons

One big bonus of adding cycling to your training repertoire is that you can then mix things up at different times of the year.

I know several people that cycle in the summer and run in the winter. I saw an interview with the great cyclist Miguel Indurain recently, and even he said he doesn’t cycle in the winter, and just has a few months off. (He is in his fifties now I should say. This wasn’t the case when he was training for the Tour de France).

But you might find that either running or cycling is more appealing at certain times of the year.

If you live in a climate where both running and cycling become impossible outdoors at different times of the year – either through extreme heat, extreme cold, or snow – then there is always the possibility of indoor cycling.

Indoor cycling on a stationary bike has many of the benefits of outdoor cycling, but can be done whatever is happening with the seasons or weather.

14. Importance Of Cross Training

A lot of the benefits that I’ve already described can be summed up in the concept of cross-training.

What is cross-training?

Nuffield Health defines cross-training as, ‘essentially adding different types of training into your routine to achieve a more rounded set of skills that your body can call on when needed.’ (Source)

Cross-training is using different disciplines to train specifically for your primary discipline.

Research suggests it has many positive benefits, including:

  • Developing endurance
  • Injury prevention
  • Adding variety
  • Develops strength
  • Develops key skills such as flexibility and balance.

I found this brilliant youtube video about the best types of cross-training for runners (in which cycling features heavily). You can check it out here:

15. You Can Cycle At A Lower Intensity

This is a biggie!

One massive advantage of cycling is that you can choose the intensity to suit you. This is anywhere from rolling down the road, not even turning the pedals, to going up near a vertical hill-climb.

This makes cycling a perfect activity for rest days from running. You can really take it easy, but a bit of exercise during these particular days helps many people to avoid stiffness.

Also, the low-intensity option is good for those returning from injury.

It’s also good if you have only limited time, or no ability to have a shower afterward.