Running Versus Cycling as an Aerobic Conditioner
There is a mound of evidence leading to the conclusion that aerobic exercise practiced for at least 20-30 minutes at least 4 times a week is not only a health elixir, but perhaps a disease preventative. Aerobic exercise lowers blood pressure, controls weight, makes the cardiovascular system healthier and more efficient, perhaps prevents diabetes and if it is a weight bearing variety, strengthens bones hence helps avoid osteoporosis. Evidence shows that regular aerobic exercise is a sleep enhancer, and adequate sleep is vital for good health and daily every-day performance. Two of the most popular mediums for aerobic exercise are cycling and running. Obviously, swimming and practicing aerobics are two great choices, but the former requires a swimming pool and the resultant logistics, and the latter for most people means a trip to the gym at a specific time.
Prior to enthusiastically listening to advice from someone, I want to know his or her qualifications for promulgating said advice. The last time I counted my running mileage, I had logged over 33,000 miles and had won three national championships in three different events. I am coming up on 10 years of cycling having cycled annually anywhere from 12 to 16,000 miles winning multiple championships in three cycling disciplines, road racing, time trials and criteriums. I currently hold numerous cycling time trial records including a national record. I have coached both sports.
The catalyst for this article was my recent decision to stop competitive cycling. I had two issues with cycling: 1) It is too time consuming – engaging in 3 ½ to 5 hours of training daily to maintain national level competiveness, left little time or energy for other pursuits, and 2) Frankly, I was getting bored having not lost a race in many years. My ego had been more than satiated and it was time to get on with other interests.
Cycling – The Good & The Bad
Cycling is a very enjoyable, social endeavor. It’s just fun to ride a bike! There are many organized group rides in most areas hence cycling is a great medium for meeting people with similar interests and enjoying their company as you exercise. Cycling is a sport that can be practiced for a lifetime. I have known and ridden with at least two cyclists over age 90 and a few in their late 80s. If you want to compete as a cyclist, there are many organized events including the Senior Games system in all states offering events for the 50 and over set leading to a national championship conducted every two years. USA Cycling, the main administrative body of cycling in the United States offers sanctioned events for all age groups throughout the country. As with most things, there are a few negative aspects to cycling.
Cycling can be rather expensive. My main competition bike is worth about $12,000 – the pedals (titanium) alone cost a few hundred dollars! Cycling attire is not inexpensive – helmets, shoes, jerseys, shorts, etc., can be quite costly. A pair of top-of-the-line cycling shoes can set you back over $500. Bikes require regular maintenance – oiling chains and other lubrication, cleaning, changing tires, chains and cassettes, charging computers, etc. Of course there are sometimes more major repairs requiring bringing your bike to a shop for professional attention. It takes just a tiny chard of glass and you can find yourself at the side of the road changing your tube. Cycling can be quite dangerous. It is rare to meet a serious cyclist who has not been involved in a crash – oftentimes a serious crash. Cyclists often ride in tight packs and a mere touch of your front wheel to the wheel of the bike in front of you can cause you to crash. I personally have been to the emergency room three times as the result of a bicycle crash, and broke my neck in 2005 when an official stepped out in front of my bike as I raced towards the finish line. One racer died at the 2011 Senior National Games during the race as a result of a crash. Many cyclists have been struck by cars – I have been struck twice.
Cycling has a poor bang for the buck in regards to time engaged in the activity versus conditioning. As mentioned above, I typically put in at least 3 ½ hours a day – often more – to maintain the competitive edge that I demanded of myself.
Running – The Good & The Bad
Running is a natural activity. Watch kids in action – they are often on the run. Running is uncomplicated logistically. You put on your running shoes, exit your house and off you go. If you are into statistics, there are GPS wristwatches available that will track your distance, pace, heart rate, etc. Running has a tremendous bang for the buck in regards to time spent versus conditioning results. Unlike the enormous time demands of cycling, I was able to maintain a national level of performance competitively by averaging about an hour a day running.
Running is a weight bearing exercise; hence it is great for bone health. Studies have shown that many elite cyclists suffer bone loss well beyond their years in that cycling is not a weight bearing exercise. Some would argue that running is hard on hips and knees. When I used to run, I had incredible issues with leg pain requiring custom made orthotics due to my over pronating feet. It took years to get the right prescription finally allowing me to run pain free. Nowadays, manufacturers have shoes designed for not only “normal” feet, but for those with high and low arches that typically can be problematic when running. I, for example, can now run with shoes right off the shelf with no orthotics in that my shoes were specially designed for runners with “flat” over pronating feet. Running, like cycling can be a very social endeavor in that one can easily find like-minded people to run with. If you are competitive, most areas offer numerous running events.
Now the big surprise – if you are adept at either running or cycling, you will not necessarily find the same to be true in the other sport. Having recently decided to give up competitive cycling, I decided to include running as part of my regular conditioning regimen. When I commenced running about a week ago, I was in top form as a cyclist. I was more than astounded to find that as a runner, I was struggling – even at a rather slow pace. As an aside, I was amazed at the number of leg muscles that ached that apparently were not being utilized during the act of cycling. I can cycle for 2 ½ hours on a recovery ride and my heart rate will not go over 80. With my “easy” running this week, I have been averaging over 140 heart rate with forays over 150!
What are my conclusions? If you want the most efficient, least logistically demanding use of your time for conditioning, then running is the obvious choice. It is not only, in my opinion, the most time-efficient means of aerobic conditioning between the two choices, it has the added benefit of being a weight-bearing exercise. It is considerably less expensive, and requires no equipment maintenance. A good pair of shoes, shorts, shirt and socks and you are good to go. If you are into competition, most areas afford numerous opportunities without extensive travel. When you go on trips, you do not have to lug a bike along – something that I have done for quite a few years now. Just pack your running shoes!
There is one caveat however, that I would add in relation to running. Although stretching should be part of anyone’s conditioning regimen (which should include weight training and an aerobic exercise), studies have shown that stretching is not necessary to be an efficient cyclist. In that I find stretching to be rather boring and not suited to my Type “A” personality, I did not stretch as a cyclist, but you MUST stretch as a runner. Neglecting stretching as a runner can lead to injury in that for example, the action of running tends to tighten the hamstrings. Tight hamstring muscles can very easily lead to injury.
On a personal note, since making my decision to abandon cycling competition, I feel like I have been freed from a major burden. I am enjoying the extra time to pursue other interests such as photography and the bottom line is that I will undoubtedly be in better aerobic shape with less time expended. The important thing is to choose a form of aerobic conditioning and make it part of your lifestyle. I can assure you that it will pay dividends as you age!