Cycling v. Running

As I staggered into the Fredericksburg Pizza Hut at the conclusion of last weekend’s 200k ride, I was well and truly knackered (a British expression meaning exhausted, or “ready for the knacker’s yard,” meaning a worn-out farm animal ready for slaughter).  As I chatted with other ride finishers, I mentioned that this was the hardest physical thing I have done since I ran a marathon in 1993.  After expressing incredulity that I actually ran 26.2 miles (if you saw me in person, you’d understand the reaction), the conversation turned to a comparison of endurance running versus endurance cycling.  Specifically, we wondered how far must a person cycle to equal a marathon?

My answer?  It depends.

I often wonder how cycling translates to running.  When I got back into cycling, my thought was three miles on the bike equaled one mile in running shoes.  As my fitness improved, my opinion on that ratio  shifted to about 4:1.  I now believe anything approaching an ironclad ratio is not possible.  Thus my official answer – It Depends.

Cycling and Running enjoy a complicated relationship.  On the surface, the disciplines are similar enough to invite comparison.  They both involve large amounts of cardiovascular fitness, traveling/racing over an agreed-upon distance, and legs are the primary power source.  Both sports allow for large differences in abilities, meaning you don’t have to be elite to enjoy and participate.  Both have rides and races of varying distances.  For running, the most common “masters level” distance for testing endurance is the marathon.  For cycling, it’s not so clear.

Many people point to centuries as being the equivalent of a marathon.  I can’t say I entirely disagree with them.  Centuries are certainly the most common long-distance ride and the longest distance most serious cyclists will sign up for.  Centuries are almost exactly four times as long as a marathon, thus supporting the 4:1 Ratio Conversion Theory quite nicely.  I have only one problem with this comparison: my century rides, while very challenging, have never tested me the way a marathon has.  Not even close.

When I finished my marathon, I was in agony.  Every step was difficult.  I was near total exhaustion and every part of me ached.  I shuffled to a reception area where a volunteer put a medal around my neck, a shiny blanket around my shoulders and handed me an orange to suck.  I was grateful.  I recall having to climb a small hill to get to my car and just how difficult that was to do.  The next morning, I had difficulty walking downstairs.  It took me about a week to fully recover.

Not so with centuries, after which I am usually quite tired but not overwhelmed.  If there is a meal to be had, I’ll eat it.  If not, I’ll go find a meal.  Beer is always welcome.  I may be saddle-sore, but I am fully able to walk about.  I may need a nap and the next day may have some stiffness, but that is about it for long-term recovery.  The extra 31 miles in my 200k (plus 8,700 feet of climbing) definitely made me feel more like I did after a marathon.  Still, it was only close to the experience, not as bad.

So for me, the 200k distance is most like running a marathon.  Your mileage may vary.

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21 thoughts on “Cycling v. Running

  1. I’ve gotten that question a few times myself. I think a century may equal a marathon in your calculations in ratio of distance, but it doesn’t equal it in terms of exertion, largely because a century is not designed to be a race. Sure, there are people who treat it as such, but the event itself is not meant to be competitive.

    Randonneuring, I think, may invite more comparison in that you do have a time limit in which to complete a course, and although you’re not competing against other cyclists, you’re competing against the clock, so a certain amount of exertion is required– and yet, it still has the possibility to be leisurely.

    But I have to agree that I’ve felt way more spent after running than after cycling, even after doing a distance such as the 200K.

    • Another issue is elevation gain. I believe I could ride for a very, very long time on perfectly flat terrain before breaking down like I would while running that terrain. With cycling, so much depends on mastering some basic techniques and then properly refueling. With running, technique/refueling is important but it can’t save you from the inevitable.

  2. When I was in my thirties I used to run hill races and when I was in training I ran about 50 miles a week, This let me run twenty mile races with several thousand feet of climbing without too much difficulty (I should add that I would come in well down the field). Running over the hills is not as hard on the legs as pounding a street for 26 mile. Nevertheless, my legs would be sore the next day and I might well have blisters and bruised toes. I took up cycling seriously in my sixties and got my regular distance to about 100 miles a week. After that I was able to do a 100 miles at 15 or 16mph without any problem and with no ill effects on the legs the next day. Thus, from personal experience, I would say that running fairly long distances is harder on the body than cycling as I certainly couldn’t do the same distances in foot as I could thirty years ago now. This is why sensible people cycle. The appeal of the mass marathon completed at 6 to 7mph is completely lost on me.

    To answer the original question then, at the age of seventy, I would say that one mile of running is harder than 100 miles of cycling.

    On a complete sidetrack, can anyone explain the joys of cycling over rough ground as compared with running? Running wins every time for me.

    • Runners turn this truism on its head and tease cyclists by saying, “Cycling is something I do when I’m injured.”

      I have not caught the mountain biking or cyclocross bugs yet, so I am not quite sure what the fascination is with those disciplines. The original mountain bikers built their bikes to go down mountains really fast (as opposed to using them to climb over hill and dale). I suppose it’s nice to travel farther and faster, just like you do on roads.

    • I am not any sort of runner although I have spent a lot of time hiking over rough ground and I enjoy a little bit of cross country cycling as well. For me the attraction is partly the technical challenge of controlling the bike and the pleasure of propelling a bike into unlikely locations. Cycling rough terrain also expands the number of locations you can cycle. As Steve says, it also lets me cover more ground on the trails than I could hiking.

      • You’re limited to rails though. On foot you can leap up and down crags, jump over walls and fences, cross boggy bits and generally have fun without fear of falling off and breaking bits.

  3. This topic is one that is has always been of great interest to me. I have run marathons and still run, though less than I used to, as a supplement to riding. While I’ve heard of the 4:1 ratio, I also disagree with it. I think the proper ratio may depend on which one you do most. Running has a higher calorie burn rate than riding. Its more carb intensive. Riding, although it takes longer, has a slower burn rate and usually involves eating along the way. I could go on, but in short, I find that a 10:1 ration seems to really get the balance right. So a 10 mile run = a century ride. So If you want a post marathon experience after a bike ride, try a 400k.

    • The ratio definitely seems to vary based on the overall fitness of the athlete and the discipline which the athlete normally participates in. I’ve shared some of my cycling stories with ultra endurance runners who marvel that anyone could ride 100+ miles on a bike. These are people who run 50-75 miles a week. Likewise, when I mentioned to some of the DC Randonneurs that I try to get in a 10-mile jog each week, the people who think nothing of cycling ALL DAY couldn’t fathom a 90-minute run. Fascinating.

  4. I read somewhere (unfortunately don’t remember where, which doesn’t help my credibility here) that 5km of cycling equates to 1km of running. Doing some math, let’s say avg cycling speed is 25km/hr (a typical speed for me), which equates to only 5km/hr of running. That is REALLY slow running!!! So to me, cycling is a lot easier than running – 1st, you can coast on a bike, but you are always putting in effort when running. 2nd, I cycle a lot more frequently than running which means my cycling muscles are much stronger & requires less recovery time. In short, I totally agree with you …. it really depends.

    • I’ve never thought of the problem in terms of speed, Cherry. You can definitely “rest” while riding a bike – something that is not possible while running – and your comments about developing muscle groups for cycling/running are well taken. There are so many variables unique to each athlete that, in the end, “it depends.”

  5. My wife and I used to run about 15 miles/week. Not any more. The jarring action of the pavement on the legs decided it for me. This also may be why running is seen as a harder discipline than cycling.

    • I’m with you, although having lost 30 pounds on a bike makes running less difficult, it has always been a “tough go” for me over the years. Even when I was in the Army, logging more than 20 miles/week was courting lower body injury for me. I’ve noted that running stores have fancy machines that help you determine if your stride pronates or does other unhelpful things, which in turn helps them to select the best shoe for you. I’m sure this sort of thing helps but doesn’t eliminate the basic problem – which is hundreds of pounds of pressure repeatedly placed on your joints for extended periods of time.

  6. I’ve never thought to compare the two, somehow, but I know one thing: I’ve never done anything harder than an Etape du Tour…yet. My guess is that the suffering might be of a different kind (or kinds), as others have said already. So, you really can do some damage to your lower body from the pounding abuse you must take in a marathon, while on a long ride (with mountains, lets say) the pain is muscular and cardiovascular (rather than shin splints and cardiovascular, for example).

    But really, what do I know?

    • I feel very different after long runs and long cycles. After a long run I feel like gremlins have attacked my lower body with small hammers. It often takes days to completely recover. I walk with a limp and climbing/descending stairs is difficult. After a long cycle, I feel completely drained of energy, like some sort of Harry Potter death eater has gotten ahold of me. All I want to do is consume calories and sleep. It’s definitely a different feeling (for me, at least).

  7. Fredericksburg Pizza Hut? Fredericksburg??!! You were knackered! (I mention this not to nag, or even to defend the relative merits of our Pizza Hut over theirs, but because living in Frederick County for so many years attenuates one to this sort of a slip. We can’t help reacting…)

  8. Good topic. This year there was a group of local ultra-marathoners that took a break from running to do the Assault on Mount Mitchell century. Afterward we had a lot of discussion comparing the two. They said that Mitchell was one of the hardest things they had ever done, very comparable to a century in the cardiovascular exertion and the energy required. That said, running is far more punishing. You would not consider doing marathons on consecutive days, but you could feasibly do a mountain double century (or even 7 days, as a certain Canuck-Franco has convinced me to do).

    I agree with you that regular centuries do not compare, but I think you could make the comparison with the mountains. But the two disciplines are ultimately different.

    • Edit: “very comparable to a century in the cardiovascular exertion and the energy required” should be “very comparable to a marathon in the cardiovascular exertion and the energy required.”

      Steve – I know it is still a ways from you, but next year I am going to do the Mountains of Misery century out of Roanoke. Interested in joining to test the hypothesis?

      • Mountains of Misery is not only far away in terms of geography, but also in terms of my ability! 10,000 feet in 100 miles is impressive, especially since 8,700 feet in 134 miles took everything I had.

        I thought your comment about marathons on consecutive days interesting. Actually, there are some nuts who do precisely this – a friend of mine ran across Morrocco in five days – essentially a marathon a day. Ultradistance runners go 50-100 miles at a time. I wondered if perhaps they are the equivalent of cyclists who ride up mountains. Having done neither, I shall let others reach their own conclusions!

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