Both cycling and running predominately work your legs and lower body, so it would be reasonable to assume that cycling will improve your running sprint speed. However, in my experience and in the experiences of those I have spoken to, cycling seems to have less of an impact than you might think. I thought I’d take the time to take a more detailed look into whether or not cycling can help spriting?
Cycling, particularly high-intensity cycling has been shown to improve your running sprint speed, however, it is not as effective as running specific exercises such as shuttle runs. Nevertheless, cycling can improve your average running speed through improved cadence, accessory muscle development, and fitness levels.
So, cycling can help your sprint speed, but how does it do this? And why are other types of training more effective than cycling? I take a look at this and the other ways that cycling helps your overall running speed in the rest of the article below.
Does cycling help your sprint speed?
When speaking to many cyclists and runners, many felt that their cycling had no impact on their sprint speed at all.
Studies have shown that cycling can increase your sprint speed. This was done by putting participants onto a high-intensity sprint cycling regime for 4 weeks, and reviewing the change in areas such as their power output and peak power output at VO2 Max (two key factors that impact your sprint speed).
However, after looking a bit more closely into this, it appears that only this particular (high intensity) cycling will help your sprint speed. This is because it helps to increase your VO2 Max and work your muscles much harder than other types of cycling. Normal cycling alone will not help.
Even when training this way, the benefit gained is minimal and in reality, you are better off spending that time working on your running sprint speed through interval training and other running-specific exercises than you would be cycling.
Increased muscle mass
So why is this? First of all, cycling and running both work similar muscle groups. While you might expect that cycling would add to the muscle power in your legs (and thus increase your sprinting speed), in reality, neither cycling nor running are that efficient at creating muscle. Thus the majority of regular runners will not experience noticeable muscle gains as a result of adding cycling to their training regime.
I’d infer that anyone reading this article has done enough of either cycling or running to have already achieved the majority of muscle they can from either of these sports. Therefore, any extra cycling is unlikely to aid in explosive muscle power that benefits your sprint speed.
The other reason that people might expect cycling to increase their sprint speed is as a result of an increased cadence. When running, cadence is “how often you are planting each foot on the floor”. Cyclists also measure their cadence, but in the biking world it is measured by “how often each pedal does a full rotation”.
In general, your running speed will be heavily affected by your cadence (it is more efficient to run at a faster cadence with short strides than a slower one with long strides), however, this is not the case with sprint speed.
This is because a higher cadence during a sprint can result in a less optimal sprint technique, and can also impact your stride length. Some studies have shown that an increase in your cadence actually reduced the power your individual legs were able to put out.
While spending more time riding a bike, especially with a focus on increasing your cadence, can increase your running cadence, there is no direct benefit to your running sprint speed.
Does cycling help your running speed?
I want to clarify, that there are some major benefits to your running that you can get through cycling, however, the benefits to sprint speed alone are marginal. It is in other areas of running where you will notice the most advantageous effects of cycling.
While many of the areas that cycling will improve are not directly linked to your running speed, many of them allow you to more efficiently train (for example through less time being lost to injuries), which will in itself allow you to increase your rate of progress in running and your running speed.
Accessory muscle training
First of all, while we’ve established that cycling and running use the same general muscle groups, running and cycling each has a few key muscles that the other does not use, they also use each of these muscles in slightly different ways.
This means that spending some regular time on a bike can help to strengthen these muscles, stabilizing areas such as your knees and fixing any muscle imbalances you may have created from your running form. This will reduce your risk of injuries such as sprains or twists which will in turn allow you to train more.
Cycling can also really help with your endurance while running. As people become more capable of running, you will soon notice that it is areas such as your knees and legs that are limiting your distance rather than your fitness.
This is because as a runner you experience the force of your whole body weight through your legs and knees, in fact, due to the way we run, you actually have the equivalent of 3 times your body weight going through your legs with each stride.
This is where cycling comes in. Cycling is a much lower impact, allowing the bike to hold a large proportion of your weight and spread the strain over more of your body. This allows you to train your endurance and fitness past the point that your legs would normally allow you to.
For example, a 5-hour weekend cycle is not unheard of, however, most of us would be bedridden for a week if we tried 5 hours of running.
We already established in the first section that cycling with a focus on improving your running cadence works.
You can do this through certain types of cycling that focus on your bike cadence, for example targeting a certain cadence during a ride and adjusting your gears to allow you to maintain this over a prolonged period of time.
While cadence doe not have a beneficial effect on your sprint speed, your general running speed is heavily improved by increasing your cadence.
Cycling is a great way to train your core muscles. Many beginner cyclists do not in fact realize that as you cycle, your arms are not meant to be holding your upper body weight. They are only meant to direct the handlebars while your core muscle holds up the majority of your upper body.
This is one of the reasons why people suffer from hand and arm pain while cycling when they start out (if you want more details on this take a look at my article here).
Improving your core strength can aid your running speed as an increased core can help you to maintain an optimum running posture for a longer period of time. Studies have shown that a focus on your core muscles can increase both running speed and endurance.
Recovery weeks and injuries
Cycling makes a great option for runners when they are having a recovery week or if they are recovering from an injury.
We’ve already established that cycling puts far less force through your joints than running does, and this means that if you are getting back into running from an injury, cycling can help you slowly work up the amount of exercise you are doing.
For a recovery week, the slightly different muscles you use in cycling compared to running, and the different ways you use them, mean that you can take a good rest from running while maintaining your fitness levels.
This reduces your risk of future injury and helps your muscles take the time they need to properly recover. This is called active recovery.
Do many people use cycling to support their running training?
Cycling obviously has many benefits in terms of your running ability. But does this mean many people use the two together? In reality, very few people cycle as a way of increasing their running ability. This may be the result of those runners feeling that “cycling doe not help their running”, which many runners I spoke to thought.
Certainly, in my own experience, I would agree with this. As someone who will happily cycle a century (100 miles), I would struggle to run 5.
This is where the caveat is. Cycling can benefit your running training but should not play a large role in the training itself. Only by spending a considerable amount of time actually running can you improve your running ability and speed.
However, adding in a few sessions each month on a bike can help you to train your muscles in a new way, tone your core and improve your endurance, while effectively taking a rest from running.
My approach is that adding in some cycling to your running training plan is generally a good thing, but probably not quite as good as “direct” focused training on running alone.
So cycling will probably help your cycling a bit, but if all you care about is your running ability, you’re better off focusing on running alone.
But if you enjoy cycling for its own sake, then by all means ride your bike and be happy that it is benefiting your running too.