Cycling training improves sports performance

Can bike training improve the performance of non-cycling athletes?

Ask most physiologists and they’ll tell you that sport specific training is the key to achieving the greatest performance gains. But, according to John Shepherd, there’s plenty of evidence that cycling training can benefit not just runners who wish to cross-train a little, but also speed and power athletes whose sport-specific movement patterns and skills are far removed from pedal pushing.

Cycling to boost endurance for non-cyclists

It seems pretty feasible that long distance cycling should benefit other endurance athletes such as rowers and distance runners. After all, these activities also place a heavy reliance on the aerobic energy system. And if you take a look at the research, there’s evidence to back this up.

For example, a team from the University of Texas reviewed existing studies on the transfer of cross-training effects on VO2max, between cycling, running and swimming(1). VO2max refers to the maximum amount of oxygen the body can process (measured either in litres per minute or in millilitres per minute per kilo of body weight). They discovered that there is indeed a transfer of training effects in terms of VO2max from one training method to another, and that running had the greatest positive transference and swimming the least, with cycling ranked in the middle.

The greater VO2max transference of running may be attributed to the fact that it places greater stress on the body than either of the two other exercise types, due to the impact forces involved and the larger amount of musculature recruited. Consequentially, it is more likely to improve measures of aerobic fitness more quickly than other endurance training options.

However, the group also discovered that the cross-training effects never exceed those induced by the sport-specific training mode, ie the best way to train for running is to run, swimming is to swim etc. However, while excessive cross-training can negatively affect performance (by effectively displacing the sport-specific training), there is evidence that for both endurance and (perhaps more surprisingly) for speed activities, cycling can if performed under certain conditions, contribute to improved or at least maintained non-cycling sports performance.

Cycling during the ‘recovery’ stage of training

Runners (and other athletes) usually take some form of rest at the end of the training season, before recommencing their build-up to the next. There has been considerable debate about how much fitness is lost during this period and whether the recovery should be active or passive. Researchers from California looked into the effectiveness of cycling cross-training between competitive seasons in female distance runners (2).

In particular, the researchers wanted to find out whether substituting 50% of running training volume with cycling would maintain 3,000m track race performance and VO2max measurements during a five-week recuperative phase at the end of the cross-country season.

Eleven college runners were assigned to either:

  • a run-only training group;
  • a run-and-cycle training group, which performed the two different activities on different days.

Both groups trained at 75-80% of maximum heart rate. Training volumes were similar to the competitive season, except that cycling made up 50% of the volume for the run-and-cycle group.

At the end of the five-week period, the team discovered that 3,000m race times were on average slower by 1.4% (nine seconds) in the run-only training group, while the run-and-cycle group subjects were only slightly lagging behind (3.4% or 22 seconds slower). Equally important was the discovery that no significant change was found in VO2max in either group.

The implications of this research go far beyond recommending the use of cycling for endurance athletes moving from one ‘season’ into another, as there is a real possibility that cycling has a role to play in all-year-round endurance training for non-cyclists. This is because:

  • Cycling may enable the endurance athlete’s body more time to recover from tough training/competitive training phases and improve future injury resilience (more about this later);
  • From a mental perspective, the involvement of a different training method (cycling) may help to ‘rejuvenate’ the mental approach of endurance athletes, and ultimately boost performance.

On the face of the available evidence, using cycling as a means to improve/maintain the endurance of non-cyclists seems worth experimenting with. Introducing the activity in a way similar to that used in the 3,000m running study quoted above could be a useful starting point – ie at a transition in training (for example, at the beginning of a recovery period) and with a 1:1 ratio of cycling and running. Intensities (in terms of heart rate) should be kept to a level similar to a running-only programme. As a rough guide, cycle distances should be increased threefold in comparison to running distances in order to achieve a similar cardiovascular training effect.

Cycling to improve speed

Cycling would probably not be the first training option that springs to mind for those involved in sports that require out-and-out speed, such as sprinting and field sports. However, a number of potential benefits have been identified.

To increase leg speed

George Dintiman (4) is one of the world’s foremost speed training experts and he advocates the use of cycling to develop over-speed. Over-speed refers to a training condition that allows the athlete to perform his or her sport skill(s) above the speeds achievable under normal conditions. Examples of over-speed methods include, downhill sprinting and towing using elasticised harnesses.

Dintiman believes that high-speed cycling can potentially increase sprinting leg speed. He has devised an over-speed cycling protocol, which progresses the athlete through a ‘high-quality’ interval training programme. Quality in this case refers to the fact that the programme does not elicit a significant level of fatigue and lactate build-up.

The design allows the athlete to complete the given number of repetitions at very high speeds. Each repetition consists of incredibly short over-speed cycling efforts, which last no more than 2.5 seconds, sandwiched between two-minute recovery periods. After each flat-out effort, pedalling speed is gradually decreased over a period of 5-10 seconds, before the 25-30rpm two-minute recovery period is performed. At the end of the eight-week programme, nine such repetitions are completed.

It should be noted that the use of high-speed cycling in a speed athlete’s training programme serves a supportive/peripheral role, and should not be seen in anyway as a ‘cornerstone’ workout to be used regularly in, for example, a sprinter’s training programme. The reason is that the cycling motion has limited transference to the sprinting action – ie cycling, unlike sprinting, requires no speed-assisting arm action. Nevertheless, in terms of eliciting an enhanced neuromuscular response, which may transfer into out-and-out leg speed, high-speed cycling should not be discounted.

However, for out-and-out speed development, very intense cycling interval workouts, performed regularly over two- to four-minute intervals, with similar recoveries, should be avoided. That’s because these longer intervals are primarily designed to improve a muscle’s ability to produce and mop up lactate when producing energy. They are not designed to develop leg speed and may well ‘dull’ the speed and power responsiveness of fast-twitch muscle fibres.

To improve high-speed short-duration explosive efforts

Speed and power athletes need to perform repeated high-powered efforts, for example, short sprints or high-loading weight lifts. Creatine phosphate is stored in muscles and is the key ‘fuel’ for these short-term alactic energy system activities

Cycle interval training similar to that described for enhancing leg speed can improve the ability of muscles to produce and replenish creatine phosphate stores, although the exact mechanisms for this are not known. This could be useful for a speed athlete who has sustained a minor injury, that prevents them from completing their normal alactic anaerobic energy system training activities, or for the masters sprinter who has adopted a more circumspect approach to training and avoids performing too many potentially injury-inducing track sprinting workouts. A suggested workout is as follows:

  • Warm-up;
  • 20 seconds flat out effort on a medium/high resistance on a stationary bike;
  • 2 minutes ‘easy’ pedalling recovery;
  • Repeat six times;
  • Warm-down.

In conclusion

Cycling can offer the endurance and speed athlete great potential, ie by contributing to injury reduction and rehabilitation. In terms of performance it can, at worst, contribute to maintaining existing levels of non-cycling athletes’ endurance (given appropriate application). In terms of speed and power, cycling also throws up some very interesting potential benefits. However, whatever the type of activity being trained for, it is crucial that cycling is seen as an adjunct to the core, specific training completed by the athlete, and must never supplant it.

John Shepherd MA is a specialist health, sport and fitness writer and a former international long jumper

1. Sports Med 1994; 18(5):330-9
2. J Strength Cond Res 2003; 17(2):319-23
3. Noakes T, The Lore of Running (4th edition) Human Kinetics p298
4. Dintiman G and Ward B, Sports Speed, Human Kinetics 2003
5. J Endorinol Invest 2004; 27(2):121-9
6. J App Phsiol 2002; 92(2):602-8

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