Cycling as cross training for ultra runners

Posted on Wed, Mar 03, 2021

by Sam Hill - Hill Performance 

If you follow me on Instagram (@hill_adventures or @hill.performance), you will have seen that I have spent the past 12 months exploring the world of gravel biking - and it's ace!

I have had a road bike for ages, and I have dabbled in the world of mountain biking, but when lockdown 1.0 reared its ugly head and my bikes were stuck in Switzerland, I pulled the plug on a brand new adventure stead, figuring that it would satisfy my appetite for both the road and the trails.

Loads of runners love to bike and rightly so, but does it help our running? And, if you haven't yet discovered how 2 wheels can enrich your life, should you?

As ever, there is no simple answer - it's a yes, a no, a maybe...and then another yes.

Firstly, it primarily depends on what kind of runner you are. If you are training for shorter and flatter races then it has been well documented that cross-training can help performance and running economy. At the other end of the spectrum (which I will be focusing on here), if you are training for ultra events then there is very little research that puts forward a strong argument for the benefits of adding cycling into your training schedule. This is mainly due to the time implications of training for longer events and how much toll that takes on your body.

A lot of people turn to cycling for injury prevention and again, for shorter distance runners, this makes sense as there is often enough 'spare' time in your schedule to accommodate for this, but for runners in the ultra world, your running would probably benefit more from taking rest, rather than jumping on the bike. If you are already running 10 hours a week, adding some biking hours to your stress load is only going to leave you more susceptible to injury. At the end of the day, all exercise is stress and with too much stress the body breaks!

So does that mean if I am an ultra runner I shouldn't be getting on a bike? Absolutely not!

There are loads of scenarios when I would recommend that people saddle up, even if that is at the expense of a few lost kilometres running.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, if you love riding bikes then why stop? Doing something that brings you a lot of joy and happiness can only be a good thing and giving that up in the pursuit of improved running performance would be a poor decision in my opinion. Yes, if you want to run for Great Britain you most likely won't be cycling in your most important blocks of training, but most of us are not in that position. So, if you love it, make time for it!

Secondly, if you are recovering from an injury, getting on the bike is a great way to start training again without the full impact of running. It is a great way to increase your training volume and start redeveloping muscle. Most of us that run regularly really struggle with the mental side of injury and often re-injure ourselves by starting to run too much too soon. Getting on a bike can remove the temptation to start back running too soon, as we are getting our endorphin fix elsewhere.

Thirdly, we all need a break. After a big season of training and racing, I advise runners to forget about running for a month or so and focus on different sports - stay fit and active, but give your mind and body a break from running for a while. Mental burnout can be just as detrimental to our performance as physical burnout, and what better way to stay fit and stay sane than turning the pedals?

As with everything, the 'why' is always important. If, as a runner, you have good reasons to get on the bike, then great - you will always get a thumbs up from me, but my advice would be:

  • Periodise your crosstraining. The closer you get to important races the more specific your training should be, so back off the biking and put the greatest focus on running.
  • Don't just add biking on top of your regular training, build it into your training and make sure you are not doing too much - this is especially important for ultra runners who, typically, love putting in the miles!
  • Don't fall off...

So, in summary, if you want to get really really good at running then you need to run - simple! Does that mean that getting on the bike is a bad idea? For most of us, probably not. In fact, there are heaps of reasons why I would encourage it...mainly because it's ace!


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