10/7/17

Cycling to Maintain and Improve Running Fitness

One of the things I feel that I do differently at Progressive Endurance for my athletes is not having them run nearly as much as they would without guidance and or under the guidance of another triathlon coach. Not one year of coaching has gone by when an athlete hasn’t questioned why they aren’t running more. The most common one I hear is along lines of, “when am I going to a 20+ mile run to get ready for my Ironman race?”, or “I think I need to be running more miles during the week.”

One of the things I noticed when I raced professionally for 3 years that anytime I (or any other athlete I competed against) had an overuse injury it was nearly always due to running. I also almost never ran more than 40 miles in a week when training about 20-25 hours a week. Why only 40 miles with that many hours of training? Because I am a firm believer that running fitness can not only be maintained, but improve, with less run mileage and focusing more on cycling. While my sample size to prove my point isn’t nearly big enough, I want to show with two case studies that happened this year that supports my theory on how running less and cycling more than most training plans can maintain and improve running fitness.

Case Study #1 – Isaac Blackman

Isaac was in his second year of training with Progressive Endurance this year. He was getting ready to do his first 70.3 race when, just one week before, he crashed his bike and fractured his clavicle. The injury was obviously a mental blow to him. 70.3 Galveston wasn’t his main focus for the year. His main goal was Age Group Worlds in the Netherlands in the middle of September. Here are his threshold run paces at the most recent test prior to the crash and the test after the MD cleared him to run again.

Run threshold prior to injury – 5:43/mile

Run threshold after injury – 5:55/mile

Isaac was unable to run for about a month and then was only able to do easier running for few weeks after that. Basically 2 months with little to no running. We focused more time on the bike and could squeeze in an additional speed session on the bike due to not running or running less. As you can see he only lost about 12 seconds per mile during the 2 months. Once he was able to run normally again, based on the feedback he gave me, we decided to keep focusing more heavily on the bike and do a long run on the weekend with speed built into it with just easier runs throughout the week. Last year, he didn’t break a 6:00/mile in the 10K off the bike in his olympic distance events. In his second to last race of the year in the middle of August, Age Group Nationals, he broke that barrier and ran a 5:56/mile. In the final race of the year, Age Group Worlds, he crushed the run and ran a 5:45/mile off the bike for a 10K. He was only running about 3 times a week. 2 of the runs were typically about 40 to 50 minute runs that were aerobic in nature.

As you can see, he did loose a little bit of speed from the injury initially but it was not that much. He quickly regained the fitness and hit a new PR by running a little less and biking more.

Case Study 2 – Mike Hermanson

Yes, I am doing a case study on myself. This is not a bragging session, but just trying to drive home my point by using an extreme example of how cycling maintained my running fitness. My most recent 5k race time when I was still running and training for triathlon was a very chilly Anthem 5K in 2015. I went out a too fast and ran about a 16:55 (5:25/mile). I obviously continued running consistently throughout the 2015 season. But after that season, I quit triathlon and started pursuing road bike racing. I ran occasionally during my bike training but I was not running enough to get my body used to it and was always sore for a few days after running 4-5 miles a couple times a week. I decided I was tired of being sore and hung up running around March of 2016. I have since moved on to focusing my racing on mountain biking in the 2017 season and haven’t ran at all since then. On October 4th, 2017 I decided to run a 5K because one of my friends and I started tossing around the idea of doing an Xterra triathlon in 2018 and because I thought if I ran well, I could use it as a case study for this blog. I hadn’t ran for about 18 months and only cycled for fitness. My legs were a bit tired from a 3.5 hour MTB ride the day before. I wasn’t concerned about running the fastest I could, but to just show how running fitness can be maintained with cycling only. I ran that 5K in 17:59 (5:47/mile). Yes, it was about 1 minute slower than the Anthem 5K, but it is incredible how I only lost a minute of time after only cycling for 1.5 years.

So what’s the take away from this blog? Here is a quick bullet point list of what I think people should consider after reading these two examples:

  1. If injured from running, take extra time than what you think to make sure you are healed up. Maintain your fitness by cycling. The extra week or 2 you take off to allow your body to completely heal will not affect your running fitness that much.

  2. Consider running less during the week and do your speed workouts and distance runs together. The body only know intensity and time, running faster for shorter distances will create the same training stress as a long slow run.

  3. While there is a time and place for a long run (I typically don’t run my athletes over 17 or 18 miles for their long runs for an IM race), you definitely don’t need to do it several times. Some people run nearly 20 miles or more every weekend for a month or two to get ready for the IM. They are not able to recover in time. You can gain a lot of running fitness just with the long bikes and bike intensity.

  4. The cardiovascular engine can be trained well on the bike and the body can recover faster from cycling as compared to running. This means you can do more consistent workouts. And consistency is the best way to build fitness.