By: Jeremy Neisser
Runners will often shape their personalities and lives around this beautiful sport, but others enjoy expanding their horizons to other endurance sports like cycling.
If you have been running for many years, but have not trained vigorously on a bike ever in your life, will runners actually make good cyclists?
Due to the massive aerobic base and lower limb strength developed from years of running, many runners have the potential to be good cyclists if properly trained. In most cases, runners are often better at cycling as the muscles used are more transferable.
What exactly gives runners the potential to become good cyclists?
Do Runners Make Good Cyclists? Yes, But Why?
In this article we will cover many of the energy systems that carry over between endurance sports (running and cycling) and why the transition from running to cycling might be easier than the transition from cycling to running.
Cyclist Energy System Development
To put it simply, the aerobic system is the dominant system used to perform physical activities (like races) lasting for longer than about 3 minutes.
If you are not racing, then your aerobic system might start working well before 3 minutes if the intensity is low enough.
Without getting too technical, when you partake in endurance sports (like running) you will make your aerobic system stronger by increasing the number of capillaries, aerobic enzymes, and total mitochondria (powerhouse of the cell) count.
The byproduct of all this is that your muscles become more efficient in producing ATP from oxygen.
With this small background in the functions of the aerobic system, it is safe to say that the heart and lungs do not really know the difference between running and cycling.
The aerobic system really understands the stimulus of using oxygen more effectively to create energy.
Essentially any endurance sport (running, cycling, swimming), and even most team sports will help develop the aerobic system.
How this aerobic development carries over into a new motor pattern (running to cycling motion) is another story, but we will get to that soon enough.
Another system important to both running and cycling is the body’s lactate threshold or the lactate inflection point.
To keep it simple, the lactate threshold is the point of exercise intensity when the blood concentration of lactate begins to rise quickly. It is roughly measured at 85% of your maximum heart rate.
Contrary to popular belief, lactate is a great source of fuel for the muscles during moderate to high-intensity endurance activities.
The problem emerges when you reach an intensity point at which your body can no longer buffer enough into fuel and it begins shutting down your muscle fibers.
Safe to say that having a high lactate threshold will benefit runners and cyclists alike.
A higher lactate threshold means that your body can buffer lactate at higher and higher intensities. For racing situations, this applies to all endurance sports.
Runners will notice that even through easy running their lactate threshold increases, and even more so if they have completed workouts like a tempo run or progression runs down to about half marathon or 15K race pace.
This lactate threshold should have a significant carryover into cycling, once the new motor pattern of cycling is learned and you have become more efficient.
VO2 max, otherwise known as maximal oxygen consumption, is the maximum amount of oxygen that you can use during strenuous or maximal exercise.
This should be a no-brainer, as endurance sports deal with oxygen a lot, being able to take in and use more oxygen during any intense race or workout is essential to perform at your very best.
Because this is once again a part of the aerobic system we can expect a carry-over from running to cycling.
However Vo2 max has been a very popular subject of recent studies, and it's been discovered that — although a higher Vo2 max is beneficial between endurance sports — there may be a less natural carryover because your body will inherently be less efficient at an unfamiliar motor pattern (in this case running to cycling).
This does not mean it doesn’t apply at all, it just takes some more time for your body to master a new movement pattern and apply that to your aerobic functions like Vo2 max.
Bike Power to Weight Ratio
A more overlooked factor to consider when transitioning from running to cycling is your personal power-to-weight ratio. Essentially, this refers to how much power your muscles can generate relative to your body weight.
This is important for running and cycling, but probably more so in cycling because this ratio can be applied equally across all body compositions to provide a fair and even measurement of performance.
All else being equal, a larger person should be able to generate more raw power than a smaller person, but on a bike, what matters more is how much power each body can generate relative to total body weight.
If the smaller person can generate more power relative to its body weight, then you can best believe they will assent a hill faster.
This is something that can be hit or miss for runners transitioning to cycling depending on the type of running they do. Without sounding toxic, if this runner can generate more power at a lower weight, then they will see success.For runners that just like to jog, there will be a steeper learning curve to develop power while on the bike. Supplementary weight training and plyometrics are a great ways to develop and maintain power without putting on weight.
Cross Training Familiarity
Finally, let's think about how most runners cross-train. Our observation is that 8 times out of 10 runners will hop on a bike or stationary machine to get some extra aerobic work in or train while dealing with an injury.
This familiarity with riding a bike will make the transition to cycling easy, as you may already be coordinated and efficient on a bike.
While this may give you a leg up on those unfamiliar with cycling, you should still expect a relative learning curve as you refine your movement pattern on a bike at different intensities and environments.
Running to Cycling OR Cycling to Running: What’s Easier?
After going over all of the aerobic carryovers that take place throughout endurance sports like running and cycling it is easy to assume that it’s equally easy to have a cyclist switch to running with just as much success.
This could be true in some cases, but this would ignore a pivotal difference between these endurance activities - mechanical load, or impact.
Unlike cycling, the impact with each step while running stresses the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones far more.
While the aerobic system in cyclists might be the same (or better) than runners, the impact sustained while running means dealing with a far greater risk of injury.
The same cannot be said for runners moving onto cycling, as there is far less impact involved in cycling.
This means runners can probably increase the volume and intensity of their cycling workouts at a faster rate, which in general means they will get better at cycling quicker.
Because of this factor, we think the transition from running to cycling will generally be smoother than the transition from cycling to running, which will require more time for the body’s structural system to adapt and become more robust to handle the impact.
With all of this in mind, we can say that in most cases runners will make good cyclists and it helps increase running efficiency.
This does not mean runners can easily switch to cycling and instantly compete at a similar level as they did in running, but it means that the transition (while it may be expensive) should be smoother than for those with no background in endurance sports.
If the aerobic engine is already there, then it is just a matter of learning and refining your motor skills in the new movement that is cycling.
It will probably take you a little longer than you think to feel “up to speed” (pun intended) with a competency similar to that of your running, but with a little time, effort, and money you can be blazing the roads on two wheels in no time.
Hi, Jeremy Here,
I am the the guy behind Train for a 5K. On this site, I share everything that learned along my running journey. The content I create is the running training I wish I had before we started this journey. About Me.
I have run over 250 races including the California International Marathon, Clarksburg Country Run, and various other 5K & 10K races throughout the United States. I am also a former Athletics department employee at University of the Pacific.