CYCLING for RUNNERS – ‘Why can’t runners cycle quickly?’

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What’s the difference in terms of fitness between running and cycling? Why doesn’t running necessarily make you a great cyclist or vice versa? They are both endurance activities, both aerobic and both use your legs, but what’s the difference?

Marc Laithwaite from the Endurance Coach asks the question:

‘Why can’t runners cycle quickly?’

The answer to some extent lies in the way we test cyclists and runners. People who visit us for VO2 testing will follow a set protocol, based on whether it’s a run or bike test. The run test starts by running on a treadmill at a slow speed and every minute the speed gets faster until they either jump off or they are ‘fired off’ the back of the treadmill. As the treadmill gets quicker, they have to move their legs faster. Their ‘cadence’ is increased to allow them to stay on the treadmill, but the ‘resistance’ doesn’t really change. When you are running, the resistance is pretty constant, you have to lift the weight of your leg and push your body weight forwards, not a great deal changes as the treadmill gets faster, you just need to move more quickly.

The cyling test is different. We start by asking people to cycle at 90 revolutions per minute and they must maintain that throughout the test (unlike running the cadence / leg speed does not change, it stays the same). Each minute we increase the resistance and it gets harder to turn the pedals, so unlike the run test, the resistance is increasing throughout the test. The test ends when they are no longer able to maintain the 90 revolutions per minute. In some ways, it’s almost like doing a strength exercise such as the ‘leg press’ and as each minute passes, we add a little more weight until they can’t keep going.

What can we draw from the above?

There is an element of strength involved in cycling that isn’t required for running. You can call it strength or ‘muscular endurance’ (call it whatever you like), but the basic fact is that you have to work against high levels of resistance during cycling that don’t apply to running.

What about gears and cadence?

Ok, so at this point you might be thinking there’s a way round this. Rather than being strong, you can use an easier gear and pedal faster! Yes, to come extent you can and we see this a lot with runners who take up cycling, they prefer to spin easier gears rather than pushing big gears at lower cadences. However, there’s only so far you can take this aproach. If you increase your cadence from 90 to 100 to go faster, what happens after that? Do you increase to 110? 120? 130!!??

Here’s our basic observations about the problems often encountered by runners who take up cycling:

1. They lack the basic strength and struggle most frequently on flat courses, where the ability to push ‘big gears’ counts the most.

2. This can generally be identified by a simple 5 second maximal sprint test, which results in a poor power output.

3. Runners tend to favour spinning easier gears and may well favour a ‘compact’ or ‘triple’ chainset.

4. On longer, gradual climbs, runners tend to come into their own and can perform relatively well (long gradual hills are the best courses and flat ‘time trial’ courses are the worst in terms of race performance).

5. Shorter / steeper hills on rolling courses may also be an issue as they lack the ‘short term’ power to maintain speed.

6. When runners complete cycle testing sessions we commonly hear this: “My heart and lungs felt fine, it’s just my legs, I couldn’t turn the pedals, there was too much resistance”

7. It’s more common in females than males and it’s more common as age increases.

8. When people enter Ironman triathlon, they make a presumption that riding long and slow to build endurance is the way forwards. After all, Ironman is all about endurance right? Maybe not.

Here’s the simple truth. If you want to be an ‘UBER’ biker for non-drafting triathlon or cycle time trials, you really need to be able to generate a high power output and push big gears. Either that or you need to pick your courses very well to suit your strengths. There’s a lot of confusion and poor advice regarding the best cycling cadence, which has lead to confusion regarding the physical requirements and training for a fast bike time. People get told every day that you should ‘spin a higher cadence’ when cycling, which is misleading and leads to misunderstanding. In many cases, it makes people slower cyclists and fails to tackle their prime weakness.

On that bombshell… lets discuss cycle cadence in more detail.

There’s a lot of confusion and poor advice regarding the best cycling cadence, which has lead to confusion regarding the physical requirements and training for a fast bike time. People get told every day that you should ‘spin a higher cadence’ when cycling, which is misleading and leads to misunderstanding. In many cases, it makes people slower cyclists and fails to tackle their prime weakness. Let’s discuss a little further and clarify some of the misleading advice.

1. There are different kinds of cycle racing. In triathlon events, the cycle stage (unless you’re elite) is a time trial. It’s you against the clock and there’s no drafting allowed. Time trials require a high power output which is consistent. There’s no repeated accelerations or ‘attacks’, it’s just you, riding at a constant power output.

2. Cycle road racing, crit racing or elite triathlon is not a time trial, it’s a bunch ride. It’s much easier to ride in the draft of the bunch and riders will therefore cycle at higher cadences in easier gears, whilst still maintaining their position in the group. Bunch racing will often include changes in pace, accelerations, attacks and chasing. It’s impossible to accelerate well, if you’re pushing a ‘big gear’, for that reason, bunch racing tends to favour higher cadences and easier gears.

3. Triathletes who ride with cyclists are often told ‘it’s better and more eficient to ride at higher cadences’. That is true for cyclists who ride in bunch races, so whilst the advice is correct for their specific circumstances, it doesn’t mean it’s right for triathletes.

4. Pretty much all studies on the subject show that slower cadences use less oxygen, results in lower heart rate and require less fuel than higher cadences. Many cyclists who ride ‘time trials’ rather than road races favour big gears and slower cadences. Former British champion Nik Bowdler use a 77 tooth chain ring and rode at 65rpm. Chrissie Wellington followed the same approach, riding a much lower cadence as she found it reduced her breathing and heart rate significantly.

Cadence V Gearing

Cadence and gearing are not the same thing. If someone is told to spin at a high cadence up hills, we presume that we should choose a very easy gear. If we’re told to ride with a slower cadence, we associate that with a big gear. You will often see pro riders spinning a higher cadence up hills, don’t be fooled into thinking they are using a compact chainset or a very easy gear, they are strong enough to spin a larger gear. Simply changing into a very easy gear to allow you to spin, will result in you going slowly. The reason you are forced to use an easy gear is a basic lack of ability to produce a high force, so you are not tackling the problem at hand.

Take away tips:

1. You need to use bigger gears at some point if you want to ride faster

2. To use bigger gears you need to have the basic leg strength (often lacking in runners, moreso ladies)

3. Slower cadences are more efficient for time trials and faster cadences are better for changes of pace on technical courses and bunch races

4. As a rider, you should be capable of adapting your cadence to suit the race

5. Don’t just start pushing huge gears in an attempt to tackle the problem, be wary of injury

6. Don’t keep reaching for the gear shifter every time you hit the smallest incline, this isn’t helping

7. If strength is very poor, you may want to consider a simple strength routine in the gym as a basic start point

 

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2 thoughts on “CYCLING for RUNNERS – ‘Why can’t runners cycle quickly?’

  1. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News, Thurs, Aug 6

  2. How similar is the power test for cycling to the power test done for rowers (on ergs)? I tested National level for rowers in an erg test; but I’m wondering if that would transfer to cycling (the test was not done after rowing but was actually the result of cycling rolling hills 50k/day for a month and a half prior to rowing season). My 1k ERG test was at a high level, but not quite as strong as the power test. So would that still transfer to cycling?

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