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Is Running Hurting Your Cycling Performance?

As a runner for most of my life, only transitioning to dedicated cycling for the past few years, I hate to admit that running is the last form of cross training that a dedicated, competitive cyclists should consider.  The reason: Inflexibility.

RUNNING RESTRICTS THE AERO POSITION
Although the high impact nature of running helps to improve bone density, the adaptations the body goes through can hurt your cycling performance.  The more you run, the better you get because the muscles, tendons and ligaments develop elasticity to conserve energy.  Rather than relying entirely on energy sources to produce a muscular contraction, elastically stored energy within the muscle doesn't require energy consumption, so you save considerably more energy which allows you to run faster for longer.  However, when the muscles and tendon adapt this way, it comes at a major sacrifice: range of motion.  Every muscle used in running will become more inflexible and "spring-like" in order to handle the high impact demands of running.  This is bad news for the dedicated, competitive cyclist because aerodynamics is extremely important to riding fast.

HOW TO RUN WITHOUT LOSING RANGE OF MOTION
Compared to long distance running, sprinting uses full range of motion and may help to reduce tightness at the muscles, tendons and ligaments.  Doing intervals of sprint efforts and speed walking is a great way to gain bone density and avoid developing tightness at the hip, knee and ankle.  During the walk interval you'll also have the added benefit of being able to feel how the body responds to each sprint bout and get a better estimate of how much your body can handle.

TRIATHLETES DO IT, SO WHY CAN'T CYCLISTS?
Triathletes have a completely different goal compared to a competitive cyclist.  They simply can't sacrifice running efficiency for faster cycling.  Studies conclusively find that by increasing hamstring range of motion through stretching, it negatively affects running performance.  This makes sense because if any of the primary muscles are lengthened, it will lose elasticity and cause them to consume more energy.  This begs the next question:

How do triathletes get aero if they aren't supposed to maximize their flexibility?  Answer: Short crank arm lengths.  Short crank arms require drastically less range of motion at the hip, knee and ankle, so they can achieve an aerodynamic position without being greatly affected by musculotendinous tightness.  Although this also comes at the cost of terrible sprinting and accelerating power, short crank arms sacrifice nothing when it comes to steady state power.  Since triathletes are mainly concerned about their steady state performance, being at the shorter end of crank length is a win-win situation.  Dedicated, competitive cyclists have to be flexible enough to push a longer crank efficiently because they can't sacrifice attack and sprinting performance, although this applies mainly to fast group rides, criteriums and single day road races.

BETTER CROSS TRAINING OPTIONS FOR DEDICATED CYCLISTS
The best option for the dedicated, competitive cyclist is anything low impact that uses the primary muscles of cycling in a different way.  This will prevent the muscles, tendons and ligaments from developing tightness, and make your return to the bike a lot more efficient and enjoyable.  Here are a few examples:
  • Swimming
  • Stair stepping
  • Weight lifting strength circuits*
    • This is an important workout to include for improving/ maintaining bone density during the on and off season.
  • Speed walking
  • Erg or Rowing machine
  • Elliptical

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