Getting From Running to Cycling Fitness

Recently, I was chatting with a triathlete who has more experience running and feels more confident about it. This athlete also thinks that cycling is the hardest leg for them. How can a fit runner get better at cycling or become a better multi-sport athlete?

For those that like to get to the point, I’d suggest the following:

Bike as much or more than you run. Running and cycling both compliment each other, but cycling is less stressful to your body because it’s low impact. If you’re already a strong runner, then you should be trying to get fitter cycling by doing more of it and do enough running that you can maintain your fitnes there without letting it take away from your cycling development. Even if your running fitness wanes a little, you’ll quickly be able to pick it up again, but if you become a much stronger cyclist in the meantime, it’s worth it.
Ride efforts in a big-gear sometimes. Even just once a week, if you do several shorter efforts or a few longer ones at 60-75rpm, you can signifiantly boost your pedaling strength and endurance. Just start off with 2 or 3x5m riding tempo at 60-70rpm once a week. Later you can increase that until you’re doing 4-5x5m or 5-6x2m above-threshold at 65-75rpm.
Do some strength work in the gym. Do 2-3 sessions per week during foundational training. 1-2 per week as you ramp up your training intensity heading into competitions. Stopping 2-5 weeks out from your goal event. Nothing will specifically target raw strength and muscular endurance like strength training with resistance, so get to a gym and do some squats, lunges, box step-ups, quad extensions, hamstring curls, and calve raises. Start off doing moderate workouts for at least a few weeks or a month, then increase the weight slowly as you get stronger, and finally, for half of your workouts, reduce the weight back down a bit and do more repetitions, while keeping your other workout more power/strength oriented.
Do high-end aerobic intervals on your bike (3-10m long). Few things can do as much to make you a fitter athlete than intervals, whether swimming, running, cycling, cross-country skiing, etc. If you have a good baseline of general riding fitness, start adding in shorter, harder intervals each week. One day a week, just go out and do 3-5m repeats up a hill about 90-95% as hard as you can. Start with 3x3m and build up to 4-5x5m. Alternate each week with 8-10m efforts right around your threshold, keeping the efforts under control, but hard nonetheless. Start with 2 and build up to 3-4.

Personally, I feel like I have some good experience in this area since I started out as a runner, and had it as my exclusive focus for about 6 or 7 years before I started trying to get fitter as a cyclist. I got into running in high-school, starting off slow, but kept at it and kept getting faster and stronger year after year. By the time I was in my first few years of college, I was able to run 50-plus miles per week without difficulty, with hill workouts, speed workouts, and all that stuff you do if you’re trying to get faster running. At the time, I rode 2 or 3 times a week and could get through a 2 or 3 hour ride okay, but it wasn’t terribly fast. I could keep a steady pace, but never kick it up a notch, as they say. At some point I just started riding more and running less, and got better, but mostly in small increments. Eventually, I added things to my routine that helped me make bigger gains in my cycling fitness.

Distance running is primarily an aerobic activity, where you need strength, power, and some anaerobic fitness, but most everything is determined purely by your aerobic capacity and your sustainable speed at or around your lactate or ventilatory threshold (whichever you choose, or however you define it). On the other hand, cycling is an aerobic activity with much bigger components of strength, power, and anaerobic fitness. How much strength, power, strength endurance, and anaerobic fitness you have makes a huge difference on the bike, even if you’re only trying to ride steady. Plus, contracting your muscles on a bike is completely different from how you contract them while you’re running, so even if you’re a “strong” runner, it’s very different from being “strong” on the bike.

Most runners who are getting into cycling for cross-training or triathlon, or multi-sport athletes who feel better about their running fitness than their cycling fitness often describe some of the following weaknesses:

Strength and power… the rider can keep a steady pace at a moderate to high cadence, but when they’re going up a steep hill or want to accelerate, their only option is to shift to an easier gear because they don’t have the raw strength or power to push the pedals much harder at a similar or lower cadence. They can get up a steep incline, but their heart and lungs never hit their limit, it’s just their legs that give out and get tired or weak.

Strength endurance… the rider can ride steady and even dig for a few minutes at a time to get up a steep hill, but after a little while their power drops off, their legs feel weaker, and they can easily keep going because their heart and lungs are fine, but their legs just don’t have the strength to push harder. These riders may have the aerobic fitness to keep a steady pace, and even the power to push up a steep hill, but after a few such hills, or a stretch of headwind, they crumble as their legs weaken. When running, you make major contractions with large muscle groups for a split fraction of a second and then float for almost a second totally relaxed, and then repeat thousands of times. The idea is the same for cycling, except that you contract less maximally, but for maybe 1/4 or 1/3 of a second at a time. This might not seem like much, but it’s quite a profound difference. Imagine the difference between jumping-rope or high-skipping versus doing squats. Even if it’s just with your body weight, squats require more strength and much longer contractions, whereas jumping-rope and high-skipping relies more on the elasticity of your muscles and your ability to maximally contract your muscles in the quickest fraction of a second possible.

Anaerobic fitness… maybe there’s good power and strength, good aerobic fitness from running, but any time the rider starts to go hard up a short rise or tries to sprint their buddy for the town line, they quickly see their power drop off and their legs burn and get weak within seconds. Unlike running, where power output is closely tied to running speed, on a bike, it’s quite possible to push hard for a few seconds and produce power levels that are 2 or 3 times as much as your threshold power. If your half-marathon running pace is 6 min/mile or 8 min/mile, or what have you, can you imagine running at 2 min/mile pace? Even if only for a short few moments, someone with a threshold running pace at 6 or 8 min/mile definitely won’t have the leg speed and power to run any faster than maybe 4 or 5 min/mile, whereas on a bike it’s completely different, and the anaerobic component can be much higher. If anything, competitive distance cycling is more like middle-distance (800m, 1500m, 1 mile) running than any distance event like the 5k, 10k, marathon, or what have you.

So, to address these potential shortcomings, I would almost say that for a multi-sport athlete who just wants to be stronger on the bike and keep a higher average speed or average power, the most key things will be on and off-the-bike strength training. Definitely, going to the gym to do weighted lunges, squats, hamstring curls, quad extensions, box step-ups, etc. will be a great help and not to be underestimated. On the bike, doing repeated 20-30s accelerations in a big gear, doing 2-5m intervals at 60-75rpm, and just doing hilly rides where you push the pace on the hills, but keep your cadence below 90rpm all will help you out immensely as well. I think that the two compliment each other.

Power and anaerobic fitness matters less for non-competitive cyclists and multi-sport athletes who mostly want to go faster for longer periods of time, but for competitive cyclists who want to outsprint their buddy, hammer up short rollers, or win bike races, there’s no way that you could underestimate the need for anaerobic and power oriented workouts. For those athletes it’s key to do sprint drills and workouts, all-out 30-60s efforts, repeated anaerobic efforts (e.g. 8x30s hard, 30s easy), etc. For those who are just trying to keep up with stronger riders or get a faster bike split, this is less helpful.

As a side note, don’t be too concerned about the prospect of putting on body weight if you’re considering adding strength training to your program. First off, in order to add much muscle to your frame, you generally need to not be engaged in endurance training and you need a surplus of protein and calories to build the extra muscle. If you’re keeping a steady workload of running or cycling, and/or you’re not seeking out extra calories and extra protein, then you’re probably not going to put on more than a couple of pounds of muscle, if any at all. Also, for any athlete who’s not already super-lean, strength training is likely to help you to get leaner. So, even if you added 2 or 3 or 5 pounds of muscle over a winter with added strength training workouts, you might also have a few pounds less body fat to go with it, making the gain in weight minimal or nonexistant. In either case, a lot of runners who want to be better cyclists will often benefit from an extra few pounds of muscle, even if their body weight goes up.

For me, I remember always being aware of the obvious fact that if you weigh less as a rider, you have to produce less power to get up hills. But, I definitely found that when I started lifting more weights and putting on muscle weight onto my thin runner’s frame that my cycling power increased much more than my body weight. In general, this is probably not a primary concern for most runners turned cyclists/triathletes, but if you’re built like a Kenyan marathoner, your cycling will definitely benefit from adding a few pounds of muscle. As a runner, I used to weigh about 140 lbs. and felt good and efficient at that weight for running. Late in college as I rode more and lifted more weights with the intention of putting on muscle, I got stronger and faster as a cyclist, even for climbing. I eventually topped out at 175-180 lbs, before I decided to try racing bikes and then lost some of that extra weight. I eventually found that I seem to ride fast and climb well at about 160-165 lbs. All of my best racing results have been achieved in that weight range. You wouldn’t guess it ahead of time that 20 extra pounds of body weight would help me climb better, but it seemed to do exactly that. And, whenever I get back into running workouts, I’m just about as fast as I used to be… at least when I do workouts. I haven’t done any running races for years, but I imagine the results would be similar.

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