Will running this winter make you a better cyclist?

Each winter, it seems like an increasing number of professional cyclists are adding running to their training armoury. But should you, the recreational cyclist, do similar? We hooked up with a cycling world champion-cum-mountain running star and leading physiologists to find out…

“Every day without fail, even during the race 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 he feels better for an early morning run.” The words of Jumbo-Visma’s head of performance Mathieu Heijboer when I played compere for Heijboer’s presentation on the training regime of one of the world’s strongest cyclists at the 2021 Science & Cycling conference in Leuven, Belgium. Roglic’s daily duathlon clearly pays dividends, with the Slovenian racking up 80 professional wins since his first at the Tour of Azerbaijan in 2014. And you can’t have failed to notice he’s not the only cyclist occasionally swapping pedals for pumps. Michał Kwiatkowski and Adam Yates recently ran marathons; David Gaudu came second in a trail race; and Jasper Philipsen conquered a wintry half-marathon. Tim Pidcock’s as lively off the bike as on it. Even Rouleur’s editor, Ed Kipchoge-Pickering, is getting in on the act, his 10km PB is a rather impressive 36 minutes and 18 seconds. It begs the question: could running help your cycling performance in 2024? The answer? Maybe… with a whole host of caveats.

Sporting chameleon

Emma Pooley is a sporting phenomenon. In 2008, the now-41-year-old won time trial silver at the Beijing Olympics. Two years later she won world time trial gold. She also won six UCI Women’s Road World Cup races and the National Road Race Championships in 2010. After the 2014 Commonwealth Games, she added a couple more strings to her bow, becoming a professional triathlete. In 2015, she won the Alpe d’Huez Triathlon and the Embrunman Triathlon. And between 2014 and 2017, three world long-course duathlon titles went her way. Now, the Swiss-Brit athlete, who resides in Zurich, competes for the Salomon Switzerland trail running team. This is a long-winded way of saying Pooley’s more than qualified to comment on the pros – and cons – of cyclists running.

“The key benefit of running for cyclists, especially those who spend many hours in the saddle, is that it’s a weight-bearing sport, meaning it’s good for bone density,” Pooley says. “There’s evidence that micro-trauma from the impact of running causes the bones to rebuild stronger.”

Emma Pooley at the 2016 Olympics (Image by SWPix.com)

Pooley’s right. Studies show that an impact exercise like running is what researchers term an “effective osteogenic stimulus”, which results in improved bone health. Cycling is a non-weight-bearing activity. In turn, there is no stimulus, raising the spectre of debilitating conditions like osteoporosis, which led Chris Boardman to retire at the relatively young age of 32. A study by Doctor Kyle Nagle showed that cyclists have particularly poor health in the neck and lumbar spine.

Ups and downs of running

Pooley loves running; in fact, it’s her first love, her youth was spent wading through fields on the British cross-country circuit. She used to run all year round when a professional cyclist, too, albeit that changed to mainly the off-season in 2008 when a crash proved more painful on her knees during the run than bike. “I’d always take my running shoes to the cycling World Championships, though, and, the morning after, I always ran. I did the same after the Giro, too. I love it and that’s another reason for cyclists to run even just occasionally. 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 running than cycling in the dark, and it’s mindful. For the most part, you can just switch off.”

It's key to home in on Pooley’s “occasionally” comment as you must be careful – too much, too soon, and you could easily end up injured. “Also, a lot of cycling fitness is very specific to the efficiency of pedalling smoothly, which too much running destroys. I’ve tried many times to go back and forth, and it’s not always worked out as you feel like you’re pedalling in squares. That said, when it does, it delivers another crossover benefit to cycling in that it’s bloody hard, so it really cranks up your ability to tolerate pain.

Two very different techniques naturally engage different muscles. Is that a problem? To answer that question, we turned to the professor of exercise physiology at the Institute of Sport Sciences in Lausanne, Gregoire Millet. Millet’s a tour de force in sport-science circles, having over 200 journals published. He also competed for France in triathlon and reached the Olympics.

With Christmas sucking up interview time, Millet instead guided us to a 2009 paper of his in the journal ‘Sports Medicine’ that looked at the physiological differences between cycling and running. One of the standouts identified the importance of your Chris Hoy-like thighs to cycling, which isn’t utilised to the same extent when running. “The overall active muscle mass is lower during cycling than running, with a relatively greater proportion of force production from the quadriceps, whereas hip and ankle extensors play a comparatively greater role in force production during running,” reads the paper. “Thus, for a given whole-body metabolic demand, the metabolic demands in the quadriceps are likely to be greater for cycling than running.”

Anaerobic thresholds are also more influenced by the skill of the rider than the runner, Millet wrote, due to the unique “motor unit recruitment patterns”. It was one of the reasons that led the good professor to comment that “it is likely that there is more physiological training transfer from running to cycling than vice versa.”

Despite seeing the benefits of running on cycling performance, it’s a sentiment Pooley agrees with, especially as ‘no-impact’ cycling means many runners she knows now spend reasonably long periods on the bike because they can build a base without the spectre of injury, which is common in 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’s a professor of exercise physiology at Jean Monnet University in Saint-Etienne, France. Millet’s examined the mechanisms of fatigue in both cycling and running. His subjects have undertaken muscle biopsies, blood tests and biomechanical analysis to see how the two sports compare.

“What’s important to consider is that cycling would allow a greater development of muscle mass and maximal strength than running,” he says. “In other words, if you do a resistance training programme coupled with endurance cycling, the effects of your training will be greater than if it is coupled with endurance running. That’s due to the greater inflammation and damage induced by running. This is important because by cycling, a runner can hope to gain strength but not the other way around. A cyclist may actually lose muscle mass, strength and power. A runner at middle-distance level, however, should be careful of not doing too much low-intensity cycling because they may lose their explosiveness and thus may deteriorate their energy cost of running.”

Running to the Gods

Millet is unequivocal that cycling benefits runners more than the other way around and would prescribe cross-country skiing or ski mountaineering for the cyclist over slipping into run shoes. Of course, snow-related activities aren’t possible for all of us. “You could also walk or run with poles,” Millet adds. “But do it uphill and descend, if it’s an option, using a cable car.”

Again, unless you’re hiking up Snowdon where you can hop on the mountain train, assisted descending may not be an option. However, the idea that uphill running is of greater benefit to cyclists than running on level terrain is something Pooley wholeheartedly agrees with. “Running uphill is the closest thing to cycling because it’s concentric loading. You don’t have to spring off your feet so much, especially if it’s steep. It’s more about cardiovascular fitness and lung capacity.”

This, Pooley feels, is why she’s now very much in her element in a category of trail running that’s solely uphill. No down, just up. “That format’s not that common in the UK but it is in mainland Europe. I feel my cycling has really helped me perform, and I’m not the only cyclist I know who’s proved 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 half is flat before the second climbs the Jungfrau. It’s around 2,000 metres of climbing. I came sixth. Since then, when running more, I’ve finished fourth and second.”

Emma Pooley during her Ironman (Image by Getty Images)

Key to this cycling-running crossover is the contraction of the muscle. As Pooley says, when you’re running uphill, it’s more focused on concentric loading or a shortening of the muscle, which mimics muscular contraction when pedalling. “This changes when you run on the flat and especially downhill,” she 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 yourself and slow down, while they’re stretching and extending as you run downhill. That is the most damaging thing for the muscle and causes huge micro-trauma damage in the muscle fibres.”

Pooley’s warning is supported by research published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) stated; “There is a significant amount of mechanical stress accrued during this (eccentric) part of the life… which has the potential to cause a significant amount of soreness, fatigue and inflammation.”

“If a cyclist wants to learn to run fast on the flat, you have to learn and train the elastic return in the legs, which means you're basically bouncing,” Pooley adds. “And that takes a reasonable time to learn. It’s why many cyclists who might go running are put off immediately. Their muscles feel awful, so they don’t bother again. That’s something that you endure much less running uphill.”

So, where does that leave us? Well, if you’re a runner, you should certainly add a spot of cycle training to your programme as you can build a base and lower the chances of injury. If you’re already a bonafide cyclist already, which we presume you are, uphill running will deliver the greatest benefits. However, that may also be off-putting. So you could try a weekly, say, 20 to 30-minute run but do so in proper run shoes and upon a softer surface like a playing field. After a few weeks, focus on the uphills and maybe walk gently down them. Or do a Pidcock and run like your life depends on it!

All that’s left to pose the question that’s on all of your inquisitive minds – who’s the fittest, cyclists or runners? “I didn’t do much fitness testing so I can’t answer that,” says Pooley. Damn. Thankfully, 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 first ventilatory threshold), the total fatigue (defined as the reduction of the maximal strength) is similar between running and cycling. But interestingly the origin of the fatigue is different. It is more central (decrease of the ability to activate muscle fibres) in running and more peripheral (more muscle fatigue) in cycling.”

So, there we have it, joint fitness winners. Whether occasionally joining them up this winter works for you requires taking it slowly, which we all know isn’t always a mantra cyclists follow. Over to you and your ego to see how it pans out…

*Cover image by Getty 

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