Cycling or Running: Which is Better Training?

[This is the first of an occasional series aimed towards my personal training clients]

Is cycling or spinning better for you than running?  Is one safer than the other?  Awhile back, the New York Times’s Gretchen Reynolds replied to a reader’s question on this topic.    Although well written and even-handed, the piece was misleading when it came to this:

According to broad calculations from the American College of Sports Medicine, someone weighing 150 pounds who runs at a brisk seven minutes per mile will incinerate about 1,000 calories per hour. That same person pedaling at a steady 16 to 19 miles per hour will burn about 850 calories. – Gretchen Reynolds

The above excerpt could lead one to infer that a seven-minute mile running pace is doable for most people.  But seven minutes per mile is equivalent to running a marathon in 3:02.  It’s a fast pace for an experienced runner.  And if you’re gonna take a shot at that pace, you’ll need an appropriate warmup.

The same thing with cycling.  Averaging 16 to 19 miles per hour on the bike is most definitely not a novice pace.  Unless one is gifted, it’s something one works up to.  There’s no discussion of warmup or cool down for either riding or running at that pace.  Then there’s this excerpt:

But running has a downside: Injuries are common. Biking, meanwhile, is gentler. “Cycling is a nonweight bearing activity, so it is better for your knees and joints,” Dr. Tanaka said, “and it does not cause much muscle soreness.” – Gretchen Reynolds

While cycling doesn’t have the impact issues of running, it can be just as hard on the knees, especially if you’re gonna push the pace to maintain that 16-19 mile per hour average.  And if you’re inexperienced, you should expect some muscle soreness following your ride, and schedule time to stretch and do self myofascial release.  In addition, Reynolds makes no mention of the risks of sharing the road with automobiles or riding technical trails in the woods.

Overall, it’s a good story, but the pace numbers are, in my opinion, misleading for most.  Choose the activity that you enjoy doing, that will get you outdoors regularly.  And if you favor one activity over another, do get some cross training in.  If you prefer cycling, take a day to run, swim, or even use the elliptical trainer in the gym.  You’ll use some different muscles and reduce the risk of an overuse injury.