“Every day without fail, even during the racing season, Primož [Roglič] will start the day with a 20 to 30 minute run. It’s something he’s carried over from his ski jumping days and feels better for a run in the morning.” The words of Jumbo-Visma’s head of performance, Mathieu Heijboer, when I played compere for the presentation of Heijboer on the training regime of one of the world’s strongest cyclists at the Science & Cycling 2021 conference in Leuven, Belgium.Roglic’s daily duathlon is clearly paying dividends as the Slovenian has amassed 80 career wins since from his first at the Tour of Azerbaijan in 2014. And you can’t help but notice that he’s not the only cyclist to swap pedals for pumps from time to time Michał Kwiatkowski and Adam Yates recently ran marathons; David Gaudu finished second in a trail race; and Jasper Philipsen conquered a winter half-marathon. Tim Pidcock is as excited off the bike as he is on it. Even GravelBikes.Online editor Ed Kipchoge-Pickering is putting it into play, his 10km PB is a pretty impressive 36mins 18secs. It begs the question: Could running help your cycling performance in 2024? The answer? Maybe… with a whole host of caveats.
Emma Pooley is a sporting phenomenon. In 2008, the now 41-year-old won silver in the time trial at the Beijing Olympics. Two years later he won world gold in the time trial. She also won six UCI Women’s Road World Cup races and the National Road Racing Championships in 2010. After the 2014 Commonwealth Games, she added a couple more strings to her bow, becoming in professional triathlete. In 2015 he won the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon and the Embrunman Triathlon. And between 2014 and 2017, three long-distance duathlon world titles came his way. Now the Swiss-British athlete, who resides in Zurich, competes for the Salomon Switzerland trail running team. That’s a long way of saying that Pooley is more than qualified to comment on the pros and cons of racing cyclists.
“The key benefit of running for cyclists, especially those who spend many hours in the saddle, is that it’s a weight-bearing sport, which means it’s good for bone density,” says Pooley. “There is evidence that microtrauma from the impact of running causes bones to become stronger.”
Emma Pooley at the 2016 Olympics (Image via SWPix.com)
Pooley is right. Studies show that impact exercise like running is what researchers call an “effective osteogenic stimulus,” which results in improved bone health. Cycling is a non-weight bearing activity. In turn, there is no incentive, raising the specter of debilitating conditions such as osteoporosis, which led Chris Boardman to retire at the relatively young age of 32. A study by Dr. Kyle Nagle showed that cyclists have particularly poor health in the neck and lumbar spine. .
Career ups and downs
Pooley loves to run; in fact, it’s his first love, his youth spent wading through fields on the British cross country circuit. He used to run year-round when he was also a professional cyclist, though that mostly changed in the off-season in 2008, when an accident made his knees more painful on the run than on the bike. “I always wore my trainers to the World Cycling Championships and the next day I always ran. I also did the same after the Giro. I love it and this is another reason why cyclists race even now and then. It adds variety, which is good for the head. It’s also time efficient, as you can enjoy a strong workout in 30 minutes. It’s much better to run than to ride a bike in the dark, and it’s conscious. For the most part, you can just turn off.”
Pooley’s “occasionally” comment is key to note, as you have to be careful: too much, too soon, and you could easily end up injured. “Also, a lot of fitness in cycling is very specific to the efficiency of pedaling smoothly, which destroys too much running. I’ve tried going back and forth many times, and it doesn’t always work, because you feel like you’re pedaling square off.That said, when it does, it gives another crossover advantage to cycling as it’s very hard, so it really increases your pain tolerance.
Two very different techniques naturally engage different muscles. Is this a problem? To answer this question, we turned to Professor of Exercise Physiology at the Lausanne Institute of Sports Sciences, Gregoire Millet. Millet is a tour de force in sports science circles, with more than 200 published journals. He also competed for France in the triathlon and made it to the Olympics.
With Christmas absorbing the interview time, Millet guided us to a 2009 article of his in the journal ‘Sports Medicine’ that looked at the physiological differences between cycling and running. One of the highlights identified the importance of Chris Hoy-like thighs for cycling, which are not used to the same extent when running. “Overall active muscle mass is lower during cycling than running, with a relatively greater proportion of force production from the quadriceps, while the hip and ankle extensors play a comparatively greater role in force production during running “, the document says. “Thus, for a given whole-body metabolic demand, the metabolic demands on the quadriceps are likely to be greater for cycling than for running.”
Millet wrote that anaerobic thresholds are also more influenced by the ability of the rider than the runner, due to unique “patterns of motor unit recruitment.” It was one of the reasons that led the good teacher to comment that “there is likely to be more transfer of physiological training from running to cycling than vice versa”.
Despite seeing the benefits of running on cycling performance, it’s a sentiment Pooley agrees with, particularly as ‘no-impact’ cycling means many runners he knows now spend reasonably long periods on the bike because they can build a base without the specter of injuries. which is common when running. (In fact, Pooley was injured at the time of our interview.)
It’s also a sentiment echoed by Guillaume Millet (no relation to Gregoire), who is a professor of exercise physiology at Jean Monnet University in Saint-Etienne, France. Millet examined the mechanisms of fatigue in both cycling and running. His subjects underwent muscle biopsies, blood tests and biomechanical analyzes to see how the two sports compared.
“What is important to note is that cycling would allow greater development of muscle mass and maximal strength than running,” he says. “In other words, if you do an endurance training program along with endurance cycling, the effects of your training will be greater than if you do it with endurance running. This is because of the greater inflammation and damage induced for running. This is important because with the bike, a runner can expect to gain strength, but not the other way around. A cyclist can lose muscle mass, strength, and power. A runner at the middle distance level, however, must be careful not to do too much low-intensity cycling because you can lose your explosiveness and therefore impair your energy cost of running.”
Running to the gods
Millet is unequivocal that cycling benefits runners rather than the other way around and would prescribe cross-country skiing or alpine skiing for the cyclist to put on running shoes. Of course, snow related activities are not possible for all of us. “You can also walk or run with sticks,” adds Millet. “But do it up and down, if that’s an option, with a cable car.”
Again, unless you are climbing Snowdon where you can get on the mountain train, assisted descent may not be an option. However, the idea that running uphill is more beneficial for cyclists than running on flat ground is something Pooley fully agrees with. “Uphill running is the closest thing to cycling because it’s a concentric load. You don’t need to jump off your feet as much, especially if it’s steep. It’s more about cardiovascular fitness and lung capacity.”
Pooley believes that’s why he’s now very much in his element in an all-uphill trail running category. Not down, just up. “This format is not as common in the UK, but it is in continental Europe. I think my cycling has really helped me to perform, and I’m not the only cyclist I know who has proven to be surprisingly good at it. I remember when I wasn’t running that much, I competed in the Jungfrau Marathon in Switzerland. The first part is flat before the second part climbs the Jungfrau. It’s about 2,000 meters of elevation gain. I finished sixth. Since then, when I run more, I finished fourth and second”.
Emma Pooley during her Ironman (Image via Getty Images)
The key to this crossover between cycling and running is muscle contraction. As Pooley says, when you run uphill, it’s more focused on concentric loading or a shortening of the muscle, which mimics the muscle contraction when you pedal. “That changes when you run on the flat and especially downhill,” he adds. “This adds a more eccentric edge to the muscles, which is the lengthening of the muscle. You’ll notice a day or two after running downhill, your quads are in excruciating pain. That’s because you’re using your quads to break -you and slow down, as they stretch and extend as you run downhill. This is the most damaging to the muscle and causes a lot of microtrauma damage to the muscle fibers.”
Pooley’s warning is supported by research published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); “There is a significant amount of accumulated mechanical stress during this (eccentric) part of life … that has the potential to cause a significant amount of pain, fatigue and inflammation.”
“If a cyclist wants to learn how to run fast on the flat, you have to learn and train springback in the legs, which means you’re basically bouncing,” adds Pooley. “And that takes a reasonable amount of time to learn. That’s why a lot of cyclists who might go out for a run immediately get discouraged. Their muscles feel awful, so they don’t bother again. That’s something you put up with a lot less running up”.
So where does that leave us? Well, if you’re a runner, you should definitely add a cycle training spot to your program as you can build a base and reduce your chances of injury. If you’re already a bona fide cyclist, which we assume you are, running uphill will offer you the greatest benefits. However, this can also be unpleasant. So you could try a weekly run of, say, 20 to 30 minutes, but do it in proper shoes and on a softer surface like a playing field. After a few weeks, focus on the climbs and maybe gentle descents. Or make a Pidcock and run like your life depended on it!
All that remains to beg the question on all your inquiring minds: who is fitter, the cyclists or the runners? “I didn’t do a lot of fitness testing, so I can’t answer that,” says Pooley. Cursed Fortunately, Millet of the Guillaume persuasion is here to deliver his verdict.
“In one study we showed that for the same duration (three hours) and intensity (105% of the first ventilatory threshold), total fatigue (defined as the reduction in maximal force) is similar between running and cycling. But interestingly the origin of fatigue is different. It is more central (decreased ability to activate muscle fibers) in running and more peripheral (more muscle fatigue) in cycling.”
So there you have it, joint fitness winners. Whether joining them once in a while this winter works for you, take it slow, which we all know isn’t always a mantra cyclists follow. To you and your ego to see how it turns out…
*Getty cover image