Cross-Train Like A Triathlete

Because runners generally have strong leg muscles, they're able to ride fast on a bike — particularly while going uphill. Photo:

The Bike Factor

It’s long been understood that riding a bike — whether it’s a road bike or mountain bike — can help build a runner’s aerobic capacity without the negative effects of pounding the pavement, even though it takes three or four times as long to get in an equivalent workout. Cycling also offers the neuromuscular advantage of improving stride frequency — another key to running faster and more efficiently.

Because runners generally have strong legs, many find riding a bike to be rather easy and therefore are comfortable with grinding in a low gear that requires a high amount of muscular force. But that’s the exact opposite of what a runner should be doing. Murr suggests runners should primarily pedal in a high gear that allows lower power output and a cadence of at least 90 revolutions per minute (RPM) to match the neuromuscular quickness of their leg turnover while running.

The day after a long run is a great time for runners to go out for longer rides on rolling (but not excessively hilly) roads in which they’re keeping their cadence high and heart rate low. But he also promotes the idea of occasionally simulating a 20-minute tempo run effort on a bike by finding a good balance of moderate resistance and quick-cadence, high-RPM spinning.

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“I think that if you have running-related goals, you should make your training have the most chances of carrying over to your running,” Murr says. “Rather than riding with a lot of resistance and pedaling at 75 RPM, I think you’re much better reducing the resistance and getting your cadence up to 90 to 95 RPM so you can train your legs for that fast turnover.”

Keep in mind that hours of spinning on a bike — especially in aero position — can shorten the psoas muscles and hip flexors, resulting in tight hips and core, which won’t allow for the full extension needed for running. Many triathlete-runners do regular hip flexibility drills and exercises on a foam roller to ensure their hips stay loose. But the best way to avoid getting tight hips is to ride upright as much as possible and avoid being hunched over in the aero position.

“It doesn’t necessarily help — the amount of cycling I do. It definitely hinders my running ability,” says 2012 Ironman world champion Pete Jacobs, who’s known as one of the swiftest runners among triathletes. In fact, Jacobs says if he were ever to train for a marathon, he would pull back on the swimming and biking and put his focus more on running — a key differentiating point between triathletes and runners who use the elements of triathlon as cross-training.

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