Running Away From Cycling

Running and cycling, two sports with a lot of similarities, and even in triathlon – two sports that people train for concurrently. However, there are also big differences. On a simple level – and being FAR from an expert – I think when we look at running next to cycling, with regards to metabolics, oxygen demand, and HR response, we see super similar figures and demands. Where the sports start to diverge in demands is the mechanics. Without going down too much of a rabbit hole, on a bike the athlete is limited by oxygen uptake and transport largely, with the bike taking care of the mechanics. However, running, athletes can have super different economies (how fast they can go for their internal effort), based on the mechanics of the body (tendon stiffness, technique, etc). I’d say those differences are simplified in general, and that I am far from an authority to talk on this topic.

Regardless of whether I have the authority to talk on this topic, I am super interested in it, so I am going for it. What I want to get into is – this broad topic of what are running equivalents of cycling load? What are running equivalents of cycling performance? I am super interested in this; because it’s something I’ve really chased as a hobbyist athlete myself. As a coach – it’s all about cycling for me, but as a hobbyist athlete I’ve been getting really into running. 2013 was my last year really “racing” bikes, and pursuing cycling as a priority. Since then, I’ve been slowly trying to “become” a runner.

Slowly is the key word there, and it has not necessarily been by choice. Over the past 4-5 years, I’ve played with running, and gone in and out of overuse injury. On a simple level, I think the big thing has been that I came to the bike with a bunch of that “aerobic fitness” but without any bike in between me and the ground to help translate it to speed – my poor body wasn’t quite equipped with the mechanics and structural strength to make that translation efficiently and safely, thus injury. So I think that is something that’s quite interesting already. Transitioning from cycling to running, there’s this big disconnect in what an athlete as the aerobic capacity to do and what they have the structure to absorb. I’ve heard some smart folks liken it to a chassis insufficient for the engine it’s carrying.

It’s been a slow process, but at this point, I’m running what “feels” like a pretty decent load – totally arbitrary, right? But I’m running 5-6 days a week, and not regularly getting injured – so it feels like I’m actually running. With that realization, I started to ask myself, am I running as much as I was cycling, when I was racing? By hours, I am not. But, that leads to an interesting question – how should load in these sports be compared? I spent some time perusing for research done on athletes that transitioned from cycling to running, but there is not a lot out there. Probably no one really cares, and it’s a pretty niche question – but I care, so now hear my rant! I was trying to think of a way to compare my running load to my cycling load. Subjectively, an hour of running does not feel the same as an hour of cycling, there’s no coasting. Perhaps an interesting way to look at it would be calories per week, as then you’re looking at energy toll. I don’t know – it’s something I’m playing around with, in my head. Usually doing an hour of running at endurance type RPE, I’ll burn 800-850 calories per hour, on the bike I’d burn 700-800 kJ an hour. There’s a whole bunch of ways to bring up grey area when talking about training loads between the two – elite cyclists are training for 4-5 hour events, elite marathoners are training for 2-3 hour events – so it makes sense that weekly training volume might be lower.

Back to the idea of, am I running as much as I was cycling when I was training for cycling, here’s what I thought of as a first try:

In the winter of 2011-2012, over the 16-week period from Nov 1st to Feb 28th, I averaged 16 hours per week on the bike, with my highest volume three weeks being – 25:45, 23:22, 22:52. A world tour cyclist I work with, in the same period did an average of 20.75 hours per week, with highest volume three weeks being – 30:07, 29:56, 28:57. So the number I came up with, was that regarding general volume, when I was training for cycling I was training at about 77% of “world elite” cycling volume.

To over simplify – most elite road marathoners are training in the ballpark of 180 km per week, with peak weeks of say 230-250 km per week. My past six weeks of running, I’ve averaged 88 km per week, with a peak week of 102 km. So in relation to “world elite” marathoners, it’s probably more like 48-50% of the training volume. Now, the other wrench we could immediately bring up is that elites are running faster than me, so if we look at weekly volume in time instead of distance, I’m probably closer to 60% of the volume. My general gut feeling is that if I was running about 120-130 km per week, I’d be around 10 hours of training per week – and I think that’d be an “arbitrary equivalent” to the volume I was doing on the bike back in the day.

So on one hand – I’m probably still comparatively running less, than I was cycling. But also, who is to say these relationships are linear, who is to say volume is the big driver in performance vs. maybe time at intensity, or peak times, etc. I’m not really looking for answers here, but I think it’s interesting, and I think it’s fun to think about. There really is not research out there on athletes with background on one endurance sport, transitioning into running. I’ve seen some cool research on differences in economies of athletes that are expert in one sport, when they’re doing the other. And of course you could argue that any research with triathletes is in this vein. However, I think the fundamental issue athletes run into in this transition is this engine bigger than the chassis thing – these two things have not developed concurrently.

I kind of doubt anyone has held on to this point – but I still have to put in a plug here. I’ve gone through many trials, tribulations, and just general damaging (on my body) experimentation with my pursuit of running. In the past 12 months I’ve progressed way faster than the 12 months prior to that. My average volume over six weeks from August to mid-September was 40 km per week, and as I’ve just said my past six weeks averaged 88 km per week. The big driver for me, has been getting coached by Dave Schell. He’s really helped keep me in line, not give in to my crazy too much, but also been willing to indulge my crazy and counter it with a wealth of knowledge. It’s been quite a bit of fun for me, and probably a stressor for him having to argue with me regularly. Point being, there are things I feel knowledgeable in – but the knowledge is not finite, the world is always growing, always changing, no matter how small a slice of it we’re looking at. Not just my running has grown from working with Dave. It’s good to challenge oneself and not get stuck in a way.

A bit bummed to end it on such a preachy note – but here we are. Thanks for reading, this is a fun topic for me!