Cycling vs Running: Which is better?


Having spent my early adulthood as a runner, and then having progressed to cycling, I feel like I have a good grasp of the benefits and negatives of both cycling and running. As a result, I thought I’d take another look at the age-old question of which is better, running or cycling?

Running is more popular than cycling, likely due to the fact that it costs less, requires the least time, and is more effective at helping you to lose weight. However, people see cycling as more fun, and it is better suited for you if you are trying to gain muscle, or exercise with certain health conditions.

When it comes to deciding between cycling and running, there are many different factors to take into account. When you look at the overall picture, you can see that both have their positives and negatives, and only by working out what your goals are from exercising, will you work out which is best for you. If you take a look at the table below I’ve summarised the key areas that might impact your decision.

CategoryWhich is the best?
Losing WeightRunning
Gaining MuscleCycling
Getting FitEither
Becoming tonedRunning
CheapestRunning
Least time requirementRunning
The best for a health conditionCycling
Most accesibleRunning
Most funCycling

Is cycling better than running?

Weight Loss – Is cycling better than running for belly fat?

When it comes to losing weight, one of the main factors to focus on is calories in vs calories out. Therefore, when it comes to weight loss, the best exercises are those that burn the most calories.

As you can see from the table and graph below, running burns more calories than cycling for each minute you spend doing the exercise. This means that running is likely to be better for weight loss than cycling alone (provided you did them for the same time each week).

Running would also be a more efficient way of losing weight when compared to cycling, as you would have to spend less time each day running than cycling to lose the same amount of weight.

It is important to note that while running may burn more calories per hour than cycling, running is typically much harder work than cycling is. This means that you may actually burn fewer calories overall if you are only able to run for a short amount of time.

Overall, provided you can do both for the same period of time, running is the best option for losing weight.

Time spent (Minutes)Calories burnt cyclingCalories burnt running
54266
1083133
20167265
30250398
60500796

Gaining Muscle – What builds more leg muscle running or cycling?

When it comes to gaining muscle, cycling and running are also different. Prolonged periods of moderate exercise are good for building muscle strength but not mass, whereas to increase the size of your muscles, you want to do short bursts of high-intensity exercise (like weight lifting).

Traditional cycling and running both fall into the category of prolonged moderate exercise and as such, neither are well suited for building muscle.

However, cycling has many different forms and some of these are better suited to muscle gains than running or traditional road/endurance cycling. Hill cycling or sprint cyclists typically develop large muscles in their calves, thigh, and bum, this comes as the result of training their muscles to work for short periods of time at a high intensity (both while cycling but also at the gym).

On the other hand, running uses more muscles overall, meaning that each individual muscle is worked less hard than when you are cycling. On top of this, it is hard to increase the intensity of running to the point that your body will increase your muscle mass.

Overall, while neither of these activities focus on building muscle, cycling is the best option of the two.

If you want to take a closer look at how to build muscle when cycling, take a look at my article does cycling build muscle?

Fitness Levels – Is cycling more healthy than running?

When it comes to improving your fitness, both running and cycling will improve your heart health. The UK national health service suggests that the average person should be aiming for 150-minutes of moderate exercise per week in order to stay fit and healthy. Both running and cycling fit into this category of moderate-intensity exercise.

When studies have looked more closely into the VO2 Max of cyclists and runners (a marker of how fit they are), they show that different types of cycling and running had a variable impact on a person VO2 max. For example, running on a treadmill increases your VO2 max more than riding outside, but long-distance mountain biking increases your VO2 max more than either of those.

Overall, both cycling and running are capable of increasing your fitness, and the one that will work best is the open you will do the most each week.

Muscle Toning

Muscle tone is not really a well-defined term. In reality, it just means having a low enough body fat percentage in the area in question that allows you to see the underlying muscle. Tone, therefore, comes as a result of low body fat and high muscle mass. Therefore any exercise that causes you to build muscle and lose fat can help you to become “toned”.

Overall, cycling and running can both help you to become more toned, however, running will be better if this is your main goal as it is better at burning fat than cycling is. This means that the underlying muscle will be more visible and you will appear more toned.

Cost

When it comes to cost, there are a few key factors to look at. First of all, both cycling and running have almost no upper limit on how much you can spend on gear, what’s more important is the barrier to entry that cost can play to either of these sports.

To go running all you need is a pair of trainers, and even then, you don’t necessarily need those.

On the other hand, cycling has a much higher upfront cost. Not only do you need to get a bike (which is going to a minimum of £300), but you also need to take into account other ongoing costs, such as maintenance and repair costs for the bike itself (around £100 per year).

As well as these costs, you also need to have somewhere to store the bike, this might include you having to buy a shelter to protect your bike in the garden if there is not enough room in the house (this can be another £50 to £200).

Overall, cycling has a much higher cost than running.

Time

When it comes to the exercise that takes the least time, there are two key areas to factor in.

First of all, there is the time it takes for you to do the sport itself. In this case, running wins out as you can burn calories more quickly when running than you can when cycling. This means it is a more efficient form of exercise.

On the other hand, we also need to look at the other time you need to spend on the sport when you are not actually exercising. If you cycle instead of running, you will also need to account for some time for bike maintenance and taking your bike to bike shops, etc.

Overall, when it comes to the time needed to dedicate to the sport, running wins out, requiring the least time while exercising as well as the least time for chores and maintenance.

Underlying Health Conditions – Is cycling lower impact than running?

Certain types of underlying health conditions can make cycling or running a better or worse choice of exercise.

First of all, certain health conditions (such as heart conditions) can make strenuous physical activity bad for you. In these cases, cycling is likely a better choice as it is less intense than running (as we’ve shown by it burning fewer calories).

Cycling may also be a better option if you have any underlying problems with your joints. Conditons such as arthritis can make running a much worse option than cycling as it can put a lot of strain on your already painful joints. Cycling has been shown in multiple studies to put less stress on your body as a whole than running does.

On the other hand, studies have however shown that running is better for bone health when compared to cycling. This may be due to the extra impact that your bones will go through when running than when you are cycling. As such, if bone health is an important factor for you, running may be better.

Overall, cycling is a better option in “general” for those with a previous health condition but it is important that you speak to your own doctor before starting any physical activity regime. They will have your previous medical history and be able to help you decide which is most suitable.

Accessibility

When it comes to which sport is the most accessible, there are a few areas to factor in.

First of all, when you look at cycling vs running, you need to account for the different types of weather conditions that you can do them in. While neither cycling or running is as fun on wet or slippery ground, cycling is more dangerous as the tires provide less friction than your foot, and you are typically traveling faster, making you more prone to accidents.

On top of this, running tends to be more versatile as you are able to run on footpaths and roads, whereas when cycling you are typically limited to cycle paths and the road itself. This can put people off from cycling if they feel this is more dangerous.

On the other hand, we’ve already established that cycling may be better if you have a health condition such as arthritis, and cycling may also be easier to build into your daily life. Many people manage to find the time to commute to work on a bike, however, this is much harder when running as you have to allocate more time for this.

Fun

When it comes to which is more fun, the choice of cycling or running is going to be a personal one.

For me, cycling is my favorite for a few reasons. First of all, there are multiple different ways to cycle, be that mountain biking, road biking, or bikepacking. All of these mean you can mix up the way that you exercise and keep things fresh.

I also prefer cycling to running as you are able to travel further. When I was a regular runner, I had to run the same routes over and over again, being able to travel further afield on the bike means I am able to get more variability in my weekly exercise.

When I asked a large group of “regularly active” people if they preferred cycling or running, and which of the two sports they actually did most frequently, it surprised me that both questions had a different answers.

It appeared that while cycling was “more fun” overall, however, the majority of people said they run regularly instead of cycling. This is likely the result of the higher barrier to entry associated with cycling.

Overall

As you can see, there are many different factors to consider when choosing if you should cycle or run, however in reality the best option may be a combination of both.

This would allow you to work more muscle groups each week, gives individual muscle groups longer to rest between sessions, and also helps to keep things more varied which can keep things fresh and exciting for longer.

If you are interested in comparing other sports such as walking to cycling, take a look at my article here.

Mark Holmes

30-year-old doctor with an interest in cycling, bikepacking, and statistics.

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