The rule of thumb in sports training is specificity. If you want to get better at something, you just do it. Want to run better? You better start running.
The only problem is that overtraining for high impact sports – like running – can lead to injuries. Runner’s knee, foot pain, a stress fracture. These are the possibilities waiting for you if you run yourself into the ground six or seven days a week.
But wait! There’s an alternative! Try working cycling into your routine. Or, like me, hop on an exercise bike in the gym.
Will Biking Improve my Running?
Directly? Probably not. Increasing your speed and effiency in running requires that you go out and run. Running hills, doing speedwork, and performing training drills will all help your body adapt to become faster and stronger.
That, however, should make up a slim portion of your training regimen. For a middle to long distance athlete, you can get by with two or maybe three of these high intensity workouts. The rest of your regimen should consist of low intensity, easy workouts. If you’re a distance runner, you probably already do this with a long run each week and easy recovery jogs after your hard day’s workout.
It’s on these easy days – especially the recovery jogs – that biking has a place. While specific athletic activities create adaptations in specific muscle groups (back muscles in rowing, leg muscles in running, etc), all endurance activities lead to a general adaptation. Basically, you become “more fit.”
You’ll experience this as being able to perform low and moderate intensity exercise with much greater ease. Think about the first run you went on. A mile or two probably seemed like a long way, didn’t it? After a few months, that’s an easy warm-up.
In more scientific terms, your heart muscle becomes stronger. It begins to pump out more blood to meet your body’s growing demand. This provides more energy for your muscles to use, allowing you to do the same amount of work at a lower intensity or to reach new, higher levels of work. Read Stephen Seiler’s overview of exercise physiology for more on this.
Part of the reason that distance runners accumulate so many “miles” in a week is to maintain this adaptation and create a strong aerobic base. This doesn’t require you to run hard, it just requires you to run long. In discussing various types of training, Greg McMillan suggests that this type of endurance training means working at a low intensity – 60 to 75% of your max heart rate (see McMillan on training).
Cycling at a moderate pace – one that raises your heart rate but leaves you able to talk comfortably – provides a great alternative to extra easy runs and recovery jogs. You can add to the amount of endurance training you’re doing, without adding the pounding of those extra miles to your ankles and knees.
So When Should I Bike?
If you’re serious about mid to long distance running, you’ll want to keep two high intensity workouts in your weekly training regimen. You’ll also want a long run to keep you accustomed to running those long distances in races.
The in between days – when you would normally go for a recovery jog – are perfect days to substitute some time on an exercise bike or out cycling on the road. That means you could bike anywhere from one to three days a week – basically any day after you’ve had a good workout or long run.
So get your bike out of the garage or head down to the local gym. Give cycling a try, and you might just be a happier and healthier runner for it.