Cycling to improve running

Running tips: “How this low-impact exercise significantly improved my running form”

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Running is a simple sport: you’ve just got to put one foot in front of the other. But to get better at running, you need to cross-train — and that means finding other activities that’ll boost your cardiovascular and muscular strength without increasing fatigue. Take it from cyclist, soft tissue therapist and “Good for Age” marathoner, Anna Gardiner.

You’d think that a pandemic would be enough to stop many from exercising, yet in 2020, more women exercised outside than ever before. According to Strava (the social network for athletes), between April and September 2020, women aged 18-29 uploaded 45.2% more running activities than during the same period in 2019. 

While it is brilliant that so many young women were heading outside for a double-dose of vitamin D and movement, that uptick in cardiovascular activity did have its downsides.  At my soft tissue clinic, I saw a number of running injuries and niggles caused (usually) by overuse. With little else to do during 2020, it was tempting to run every day — speeding through Couch to 5k programmes or going further and faster than usual.

The advice that I’ve offered my clients over the past few years has largely been based on my own successes that have resulted from blending cycling and running. Back in 2017, after a particularly troublesome knee injury caused by overloading and underworking key muscles, I was told by a knee surgeon to ditch the marathon running I had come to love. It was the only way, he warned, that I’d be able to save the remaining cartilage in my patellofemoral joint (the bit that joins the thigh bone to the kneecap). He suggested taking up triathlons and cycling to mitigate the impact effects of running. Rather sulkily, I took his advice and bought a second hand road bike, determined to be back at marathons one day.

It wasn’t long before I realised that my surgeon had been totally correct. Cycling is a  brilliant alternative and complement to running; when used correctly, they have almost a symbiotic relationship. There are many similarities and benefits and each training discipline can improve the other. Here’s how to peddle your way to being a faster, stronger and less injury-prone runner.

Increasing cardiovascular capacity

If you’re wondering how to make those long running sessions feel easier and how to run further and longer without experiencing cardiovascular fatigue, cycling could be the answer. Put simply, your VO2 max is the amount of oxygen your body can absorb and use for exercise at your maximum intensity. Once the oxygen is used, lactic acid is produced which leads to muscle exhaustion.

If you’re already reasonably fit, the way to increase your aerobic capacity and strengthen your lungs and heart is to do interval training. This involves doing short bursts of really high intensity exercise (working near your maximum heart rate) with periods of rest in between. You can do intervals in any sport, but running intervals naturally puts a huge load on the muscles and joints. Performing an interval session on a bike, however, helps you to improve your VO2 max without increasing your risk of injury.

Ideally, interval sessions should be done on an indoor spin bike which is made for high aerobic intensity. Spin classes can be great fun, as they tend to have great music, lights and motivational instructors, but you could get as good a work out from a turbo or indoor bike at home.

spinning classes can improve your running capacity
Spinning classes can help to increase your VO2 max while reducing pressure on your joints.

Injury recovery and prevention

Cycling is a great recovery activity to do if you are nursing a running injury. Running is a high-impact sport and as such, it can create niggles — especially if you don’t do any other form of cross-training. Cycling, on the other hand, is low-impact and can still be a great moderate intensity aerobic workout that strengthens your heart, lungs and overall muscle tone without putting your soft tissue — ligaments, muscle and fascia — and joints under the strain of constantly hitting the ground.

Lots of training plans include a recovery run as a way of shaking out tight muscles, but those can be difficult to do; all too often, we run too hard after an intense session. That recovery workout is much easier to do properly on a bike, whether that’s as part of your commute, a light turbo session in your living room or a longer distance pleasure peddle. Bike work takes the load off your joints, reducing the continual high impact of pounding the pavements.

If you do have an injury, high intensity cycling may not be ideal — whether that’s going fast or choosing routes that require you to stand and climb. But lower-intensity cycling is a great way of keeping your aerobic capacity so that you don’t lose any fitness by the time that you return to normal running. In fact, cycling is great as an active recovery because it flushes oxygenated blood around the body, promoting the healing process and getting you back to running more quickly. 

British triathlon coach and former GB Age Group triathlete, Claire Frances, gives cycling combined with running the big thumbs up. “For me, the bike is the best type of physio for my body and mind if I can’t run,” she tells Stylist. “I know that a couple of months on the bike will keep my fitness and leg strength up in preparation for hitting running again.” 

Building running strength

Whether runners like to admit it or not, cycling helps to build up muscle more than running. Short, intense sprints or hill work really strengthens the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps (quads). The quads need to be strong for running to help take the load off of your kneecaps and stabilise the joint. This is important as many of us are quad-dominant, meaning that those front muscles take more than their fair share of the load while running rather than the glutes (which are bigger and less prone to fatigue).

Cycling can help to strengthen the quads; during a bike ride, they are responsible for pushing down on the pedals which generates the most power in the pedal stroke. The calves, made up of the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles, act as stabilisers throughout the pedal stroke and help produce about 20% of the power load. Strengthening the calves through cycling can also help running form. If you wear cleats, the balls of your feet are on the centre of the pedal — mimicking the point of contact for midfoot running. Midfoot running is now thought of as the most ideal type of foot placement as the impact of running is spread more evenly in the foot and travels up the leg. Forefoot running can place additional load on the calves and heel striking (the most common foot placement) can be indicative of over-striding which can cause knee issues. Using cleats and pushing through the midfoot, therefore, can possibly help with muscle memory and encourages better foot placement.

Of course, cycling can’t do everything. As previously mentioned, good glute strength is absolutely crucial for injury-free running, but our glutes don’t get a big workout from cycling. You may need to stand as you cycle up a hill but in general, you want to have at least one strength and conditioning session a week that focusses on squats, deadlifts and glute bridges for strengthening that posterior chain.

Cycling to run faster — the verdict

Still need convincing? When I took up cycling, my body was fatigued from all the running I’d done. I never cross-trained and did hardly any strength work at all. 

After 18 months of combining cycling, more clever running and strengthening key muscle groups like the glutes, I ran a marathon personal best of three hours 37 minutes — a whopping 11 minutes quicker than my previous attempt. This time also qualified me for a London Marathon ‘Good for Age’ place which I’ll running this October. Cycling has allowed me to train hard, run better and — best of all — stay injury free. It might just do the same for you.

If you’re looking to become a stronger runner, hop over to the Strong Women Training Club and join our four-week Strength Training for Runners programme. 

Images: Getty

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