Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Two feet plus two wheels might equal better running performance
This article appeared in our August 2010 issue.
Mike Mason, a veteran trail runner from Charlotte, North Carolina, spends as much time in his man cave as he does on the trails. There, he is surrounded by race posters, medals and the whimsical race tschotcke. But he’s not reminiscing or surfing the Internet. He’s hammering on a Cycleops—a device that turns his road bike into a stationary bike. Here, Mason will spin off 40 miles in preparation for his next trail race. Mason is a major proponent of cross training, off setting his ambitious running schedule with the right amount of bike time. But does cycling—even if it’s stationary—make him a better trail runner?
“Absolutely,” he says, “It makes me a better climber.” But there’s more to it than that.
Research has shown that running and cycling are friendly bedfellows when it comes to training and building fitness. One study, which examined cross-training effects in elite triathletes, concluded that crossover benefits occur between cycling and running, but not swimming.
Another study examined the effects of one group running four days per week and another group combining two days per week cycling and two days per week running. After five weeks, the results were almost identical for both groups. Both had significantly improved their VO2 max (the maximal oxygen uptake or the maximum volume of oxygen that can be utilized in one minute during exercise). The running-only group reduced their 5K race times by seven percent. The running-cycling group lowered their times by eight percent.
While studies point at cycling being a potential gateway to improve 5K times, Mike Mason was not preparing for a paved event. Instead, Mason was training for Virginia’s 2009 Massanutten Mountain 100-miler, a brutally tough race known for its unique Appalachian blend of steep climbs and ankle-wrenching rocks. As his training ramped up, he developed severe discomfort in his foot, until finally he could barely walk. A visit to the podiatrist delivered unwanted news: torn ligaments.
Mason could have taken a DNS at Massanutten. But his stubborn will, and blinding love of the sport, would not allow it. With four months time till the race, he turned to a bike. “I began training hard on the Cycleops and doing very easy runs,” he says. “All of my long workouts and hard efforts were on the bike.”
On race day, Mason had no idea what to expect. Would his legs blow up from lack of preparation on Massanutten’s punishing course?
“I finished third in a very competitive field and got a course PR of 20 hours and change,” says Mason. “Bro, the bike is king.”
Better-Rounded Leg Strength
Like Mason, Paul Dewitt of Palmer Lake, Colorado, discovered the bike could be an instrumental training tool. In fact, nowadays, Dewitt, who has won such renowned trail races as the Pemberton Trail 50K (Arizona), Mount Mitchell Challenge (North Carolina) and the Leadville Trail 100 (Colorado), spends more time on two wheels than he does running on two feet.
“I started as a trail runner who cross trained on the bike,” he says. “Now I think I’m a biker who cross trains by running.”
Dewitt no longer competes on the trails as frequently as he once did. He stays close to the sport by coaching (www.dewittcoaching.com), where he preaches the benefits of cross training.
“Just because you can run 26, 50 or 100 miles doesn’t mean your legs are strong,” says Dewitt. “Cycling is a great way to combine cardiovascular training with functional leg strengthening, which will pay off the next time you are running or power hiking a super-gnarly hill.”
Dewitt is correct. The muscles exercised during cycling—upper thigh muscles, backside and calves—are instrumental during mountainous trail runs.
The legendary Tim Twietmeyer of Auburn, California, the only person to complete the Western States 100 25 times (while winning it five times), concurs. “I started cycling in late 2003,” says “Tweet.” “It improved my hill-climbing strength, because riding a bike uphill is not that different than running uphill, but with less impact and more resistance.”
Cycling can also help runners counter muscle imbalances that result from repetitious miles, helping them to become better rounded physically and athletically.
Remedies On Wheels
Triathlete Rachel Fenton of Washington, DC, feels that a singular training approach can lead to long-term problems and even injuries. Fenton incorporates running, swimming, running and yoga into her training routine. “Most of triathlon fitness is gained through biking, not running, thus reducing injuries,” she explains. “I did an Ironman Triathlon last year, and ran the most pain-free road marathon of my life, even though my longest training run was only two hours.”
On the other hand, Fenton ran the HAT 50K (Maryland) this year and got injured. “I didn’t bike during the snowy months,” she says. “So I blame my injuries on the lack of cross training and too many running miles.”
While it is unfair to draw a correlation between Fenton’s training techniques and her injury based upon such a small snapshot of her history, there is supporting evidence. The American Journal of Sports Medicine notes that one of the best determinants of running injury is not the warm up, cool down, body weight or even (gasp) running surface. It is miles run. Data points out that runners experience an injury for every 150 to 200 hours of running. And other studies have shown that almost 60 to 65 percent of runners are injured at least once per year.
Also, a 2009 report posted on Running Research News (www.runningresearchnews.com) took into account several recent studies, stating that aerobic cross-training activities such as cycling “enable the runner to get more endurance training in without further compromising the running muscles and joints. It uses the same muscle groups in a different, non-weight-bearing way.”
“Cycling offers a strong option for runners to either avoid injury,” says Brian Wyatt, a personal trainer and trail runner in the San Francisco Bay Area, “Or, more obviously, it can help runners stay fit while healing.”
The colorful Tom Corris, a 57-year-old trail runner from Woodbridge, Virginia, turned to the bike, he says, “due to a number of knee surgeries, and not an excessive consumption of bourbon as has been widely reported.” He had found it nearly impossible to run enough to prepare for his target races.
“To supplement, I ride a singlespeed or attend spin class at the gym two or three times per week,” he says. “What seems to translate well to running is to ride standing up as often as possible.” Corris also tries to maintain a slightly-faster-than-running cadence, and sets the handlebars at maximum height to keep his upper body in a slightly forward position, similar to running.
And mountain biking can provide an even tougher workout. “You’ll be amazed at how sore your core and upper body are after your first few off-road rides,” says Dewitt. “Mountain biking is a much more full-body sport than road biking or spinning.”
The Day After
But all of this does not mean that bikes and spin classes are the realm of banged-up old runners and physical-therapy sessions. Cycling lets runners maintain or improve fitness when their running muscles are tenderized and thrashed from a previous workout.
“Cycling is a perfect way to flush out the legs after a hard run,” says Keith Knipling, 34, of Alexandria, Virginia, who in 2006 completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (four of North America’s oldest, most challenging trail 100-milers). “I always feel better afterward.”
In fact, John Shepherd, MA, health specialist and fitness writer, writes, “Cycling may enable the endurance athlete’s body more time to recover from tough training phases and improve future injury resilience.”
“After a race my legs are naturally toast, and I don’t even feel like running,” adds Knipling, who admits to having an “embarrassing” number of bikes. “So I hop on the bike and spin out all of the crud. It’s very therapeutic.”
Twietmeyer advises runners to ride the bike on the days when they had planned to recover or do a light run. This, he notes, translates to a decent rest day and gives the legs relief from the pounding of running.
The Debate Over Specificity
The benefits of cross training aside, some runners still debate whether riding a bike can hinder a runner from meeting his or her two-legged potential. Despite the research suggesting otherwise, don’t the rules of specificity apply? That is, don’t you become a better runner by simply running?
Even Twietmeyer, a vocal believer in the perks of cycling, says, “From my point of view, running is a tougher aerobic effort in a shorter period of time. There is no coasting in running so you don’t have the breaks like you do when cycling.”
The answer may revolve around each runner’s experience. In a 1999 paper presented at the Curtin Institute of Technology in Australia, Jay Chau wrote: “The principles of specificity of training tend to have greater significance for highly trained athletes. For the general population, cross training may be highly beneficial in terms of overall fitness.”
Knipling also cautions that, despite his arguably unhealthy love for the bike, there’s no substitute for running.
“My best running has come when I’ve focused on that more than riding,” he says.
Don’t misunderstand. “I do think cross training is really beneficial to running,” says Knipling. “But sometimes you have to force yourself to run to become a better runner.”
Senior Contributing Editor Garett Graubins has incorporated biking into his training while nursing a strained hip muscle.