In a scientific case study, an elite cyclist improved his time trial by riding less and running hard.
It can’t be easy to train as an elite cyclist through a Norwegian winter. I would imagine that riding outdoors is nearly impossible much of the time, so that the bulk of one’s training must take the form of indoor rides or one or more forms of cross-training. A few winters ago, one elite Norwegian cyclist tried a creative way of adapting to his situation, and researchers from three Norwegian institutions of higher learning oversaw the experiment and documented its effects.
This particular cyclist, who was not named in the study, chose to attempt to increase his preseason fitness compared to the preceding year by reducing his time on the bike and replacing a portion of that lost cycling time with high-intensity running. Specifically, between November and February, this athlete reduced his average monthly riding volume by 60 percent. Within this period he inserted two blocks of high-intensity interval run training. One block comprised 14 sessions conducted over the course of nine days, while the second comprised 15 sessions squeezed into 10 days. These intervals were performed at 90 to 95 percent of maximum heart rate.
Even with the partial substitution of running for cycling, the rider’s total monthly training volume dropped by 18 percent during this preseason period. However, the amount of training he did in the range of 90 to 95 percent of his maximum heart rate increased by 41 percent.
To assess the effects of this experiment, the researchers overseeing it periodically tested the cyclist for VO2 max, cycling economy and time trial performance on a cycling ergometer. As one might have expected, at the end of the preseason training period, the subject’s cycling economy was neither better nor worse than it had been at the end of the previous year’s preseason training period. However, his VO2 max increased by 10.3 percent and his time trial performance was lifted by a remarkable 14.9 percent.
I think it’s important to make the observation that such improvements were not necessarily a good thing for this particular rider’s competitive ambitions. As a professional cyclist, you don’t want to be too fit at the very beginning of a racing season or else you risk burning out before your most important mid-season and late-season races. I wish I knew who the subject of this case study was so I could compare his actual race performances in 2011 to those of his 2010 campaign to see if his improved pre-season form helped him or hurt him. I’m not saying I would bet money that he fared worse this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did “despite” (really because of) his improved pre-season fitness.
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In any case, what this study does clearly demonstrate is that running is an effective form of cross-training for cyclists—at least when it’s done at a high intensity. These results, which were published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, suggest that cyclists who have trouble getting outdoors to train during the winter, and/or wish to reduce their training volume without sacrificing fitness, and/or need a mental break from turning the cranks would be well advised to ride less and replace a fraction of their easy riding with fast running.
I realize that most of the people reading this article are runners. If you’re a runner, you should know that it also works the other way around; cycling fitness translates to running as well as running fitness does to cycling. As a runner, you can use cycling to increase your running performance in either of two ways. If you have limitations (such as a balky Achilles tendon) that prevent you from doing high-intensity interval running, you can do you high-intensity intervals on a bike instead. Or, if your body tends to break down when you try to log high mileage, you can add low-intensity cycling to your training regimen to increase your aerobic fitness without subjecting your body to additional pounding and injury risk.
About The Author:
Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including Racing Weight: How To Get Lean For Peak Performance (VeloPress, 2012). He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.