Running speed requires high-intensity training – here’s how cycling hard can make you a faster runner and help you stay injury-free.
When it comes to improving running performance, it’s a fine balance between maximising workload to increase speed and steering clear of injuries. High-intensity intervals are often the first choice for increasing foot speed – but could we be better off doing those workouts on the bike trainer rather than the running track?
We look at two pure runners turned pro triathletes, Beth Potter and Tamara Jewett, who both show that running can improve when adding in cycling – and check out what the science says about cycling for running.
Having represented Great Britain in the 10km at the Rio Olympics, Beth Potter moved over to triathlon in 2017. Completely committing to life as a pro triathlete, she dropped her running down to around four sessions a week so that she can focus on improving her swimming and cycling.
In April 2021, she raced the Podium 5km event in England and despite the drop in her run mileage, Potter ran a new world best time of 14:41 – a mark set just one week after winning the Super League Triathlon Arena Games in London.
While the lack of certain officials at the event meant it wasn’t ratified as an official world record, it was still amazingly fast, whichever you look at it. It’s also a great example of how lower run volume can mean faster running when combined with high-intensity cycling.
Canada’s Tamara Jewett, a national class runner, is one of the triathlon’s big up-and-coming Ironman 70.3 stars. She actually got into triathlon due to a series of stress fractures from running as a way of cross-training and reducing running mileage.
“Now, I’m running less, three to four days a week and getting my other training through swimming and biking,” Jewett told Triathlon Magazine Canada in 2018. That resulted in an injury-free season: “I feel the volume in training for the half triathlon distance is much better on my body than the intensity on the track,” she said.
Jewett went on to run a 10km PB of 33:33 in 2019 and since then, she has been running seriously fast at Ironman 70.3 events. The Canadian’s 1:13:08 at the 2021 Ironman 70.3 Augusta was the fastest women’s 70.3 run split ever. That’s more evidence that less running and more cycling not only equates to foot speed but also reduces injury risk.
Cycling For Running – What Does The Science Say?
A 2015 study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research points to the benefits pf high-intensity cycling for running performance. Kavaliauskas et al looked at 32 runners who did at least 25 miles per week.
After a 3km baseline treadmill test, the runners were split into a control group and three other groups that would take on a two-week cycling HIIT training plan – in addition to their regular running. Over the two weeks, the HIIT group completed six sessions on a spin bike including 10-second intervals at maximal effort. At the end, they did another 3km treadmill running test and the cyclists showed the most improvements – by an average of 25 seconds per 3km in one group.
Meanwhile, a 2014 study by Etxebarria et al in the European Journal of Sports Science looked at whether long or short intervals on the bike were most beneficial for running.
After baseline bike and run tests, 14 trained triathletes completed two speed sessions per week for three weeks – with either short (10 to 40 secs at near-max) or long efforts(5mins at 80%).
After the three weeks, all athletes’ aerobic cycle power had increased by around 7% while sprint power went up by over 10%. But it was only those who’d done the longer intervals that significantly increased their 5km run times – by an amazing 1:04 on average!
So, if you add the science to the wealth of anecdotal evidence that runners who cycle become better runners, adding HIIT bike training could provide a significant boost to your run times.
Not only that but doing hard intervals on the bike, rather than while out running, is a great way to avoid the overuse injuries that are all too common when running at high intensities. So if you seem to pick up niggles from running, swapping in some HIIT bike training could be the answer to improve both your cycling and running performance.