How Running and Cycling Complement Each Other
Cross-training with running and cycling can be good for your body and your mind.
For most of my life, running served as my primary form of cardio. Then, in my early 20s, urged on by a friend, I started watching the Tour de France. The ability of the athletes blew me away—climbing mountain after mountain, racing day after day for three weeks. I began to lust after a road bike, though the cost deterred me for more than a decade.
At the onset of the pandemic in 2020, I had a few nagging injuries, including a pulled groin and a stiff lower back. Running did nothing but exacerbate them. Motivated by the injuries, I finally decided to invest in a road bike. Miraculously, I managed to find an entry-level bicycle at a shop about 15 miles away—after all this was the great bike shortage of 2020—and from then on, I became a cyclist.
For more than two years, that’s all I did for my cardio. I loved the feeling of being outside on the bicycle. Recently, my wife encouraged me to get back into running. With no more nagging injuries, I’ve appreciated the balance I’ve found between both activities.
But let’s go beyond enjoyment. I started to wonder—does running make me better at cycling? Or vice versa? How does cross-training with these two great fitness activities benefit my overall health?
Studies on cross-training with running and cycling: what’s the verdict?
I found a couple of studies that looked specifically at the aerobic effects of cross-training with running and cycling, both dating back to the 1990s. The first study measured the impact of running, cycling, or both running and cycling on a group of 18-25 year-old females who didn’t work out regularly. All three methods of training resulted in similar aerobic benefits.
Another study examined the impact of run training versus running and cycling cross-training in a group of 19-35 year olds. There were no real differences between groups, with the study showing that “five weeks of either mode of training can significantly improve aerobic capacity and run performance.”
So to sum it up: running and cycling are both great for your heart, but neither really benefits the other when it comes to aerobic performance.
Three reasons why running and cycling are a good cross-training match
Even though you’re not going to give yourself that extra aerobic edge through cross-training, there are still ways the two activities complement each other, especially as we age.
If you’re a cyclist, bone density might be an issue. Recent research shows cyclists can be at risk for lower bone density. As noted in the New York Times, a 2019 study looking at a group of elite cyclists “found that the cyclists, both male and female, had thinner bones than the runners, even though all of the athletes were young, healthy and enviably fit, and many of the cyclists lifted weights.” Cyclists should consider cross-training with running, which is good for your bone health.
If you’re a runner, it’s good to mix in low-impact exercise. Running is a high-impact activity, which does help with bone density, but also can be hard on your joints and ligaments, and lead to overuse injuries, as noted in this Verywell Fit article. Cycling is a low-impact activity which can give your joints a break while still providing a great cardiovascular workout.
For both runners and cyclists, cross-training can reduce psychological fatigue. Ever thought to yourself, “I’m sick of running this week,” or “I can’t do one more ride on this indoor bike?” That’s where cross-training can help. A few of the studies I read mentioned the benefits of combining running and cycling training as a way to reduce psychological fatigue or combat boredom. As I wrote recently, when it comes to working out, boredom is your enemy.
So runners, grab your bikes. And cyclists, lace up your running shoes. It’s time to start cross-training.
What would you consider a good cross-training for masters swimmers, other than strength training?
I just wish I could run! Never have. Best I do is a brisk walk on non cycling days. I am too scared to ride on the road as hubby does. It’s bike paths all the way but they are becoming too crowded. So back to my Peloton. But I get the importance of cross training for all sorts of reasons.