New study shows cycling really is better than running

US professor confirms what we all knew, says cycling “a lot easier on the muscles” than running & has science to back it up

by Elliot Johnston   January 21, 2014  

Running vs cycling (image CC licensed by Flickr user pasa47)

A new study shows that cycling is better exercise than running. The researchers say runners should include cycling as part of their training, and people taking up exercise should choose cycling over running to avoid injury. 

Research carried out by Appalachian State University’s (ASU) Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) showed that long-distance runners experienced more muscle damage, soreness and inflammation than cyclists after a period of intense workouts.

The study analysed blood samples from cyclists and runners aged from 19 to 45 who regularly compete in races. The athletes exercised for 2.5 hours per day for three days in the lab at 70% VO2max. Their blood was then taken after one, 14 and 38 hours to determine that the runners were in a significantly worse state.

The actual science bits are here for those of you who can make head or tail of biochemistry.

According to principal investigator Professor David Nieman at the ASU HPL the results showed that cycling allows the body to exercise for longer because it causes less damage than its impact-heavy counterpart.

He said: “Runners just can’t put in the same volume of exercise as cyclists without experiencing more inflammation, soreness and muscle damage.

“Long-distance runners are encouraged to vary their training schedules, mixing higher and lower exercise workloads, and to include other training modalities like swimming or cycling to maintain the highest level of performance.”

Nieman went on to recommend cycling over running for beginners as a way to get fit.

He said: “It is going to be a lot easier on the muscles."

34 user comments

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daveswansea wrote:
So they actually advised people to swim, bike and run? In that order? Smile

Hey that gives me an idea ! Hope nobody else has thought of it

Scott Spark 910 - Boardman Team Carbon - Planet X XLS

posted by colinth [188 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 8:10

30 Likes

daveswansea wrote:
So they actually advised people to swim, bike and run? In that order? Smile

Rule #42.

http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/#42

posted by hoski [69 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 8:27

22 Likes

Well I always enjoyed riding a whole lot more than running. Now I've got some data to back it up Cool
www.bike-fanatic.blogspot.com.au

posted by @markbikefanatic [1 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 8:30

25 Likes

I'm sure this is the 'no-shit sherlock' story of the week. I took up cycling to help recover from a running injury precisely because there is no impact and it is 'easier'. I don't think that anyone in their right mind would argue that cycling would do more damage. As for 'better exercise' i think that depends what you mean by better. Running burns more calories in the same time, is cheaper, easier and 'safer' (i've never been run over or hit by a car running in the park or along the river), cycling is less likely cause an injury but crashes and car/van incidents are generally more serious injuries.

posted by md6 [161 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 8:56

36 Likes

You don't run ultras because they're easy!

Dr.Galactus's picture

posted by Dr.Galactus [18 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 9:08

20 Likes

md6 wrote:
but crashes and car/van incidents are generally more serious injuries.

Do you have some statistics to quote to back this up, or did you just make it up - pedestrians get run over regularly.

posted by kie7077 [567 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 9:39

21 Likes

Critchio wrote:
Its not better for burning calories, but I'll take the bike over my Asics runners any day Smile

Not that calories mean anything, my average weekend ride burns between 2500-3000. You'd have to run a hell of a long way to do that.

posted by alexholt3 [52 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 10:24

26 Likes

kie7077 wrote:
md6 wrote:
but crashes and car/van incidents are generally more serious injuries.

Do you have some statistics to quote to back this up, or did you just make it up - pedestrians get run over regularly.

Cars and vans don't typically drive on the pavement (except in London) so perhaps that's the reason for his comment, empirically tested or not.

posted by allez neg [4 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 10:31

25 Likes

alexholt3 wrote:
Critchio wrote:
my average weekend ride burns between 2500-3000. You'd have to run a hell of a long way to do that.

Only around 2-3 hours, which I'd wager is around the length of your weekend ride?

Dr.Galactus's picture

posted by Dr.Galactus [18 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 10:52

23 Likes

No mention of osteoporosis.

Yep running is harder on the body than cycling, however, I think doing some running is beneficial as high-impact exercise can lessen your chances of osteoporosis later in life.

posted by sfichele [110 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 11:24

27 Likes

A morbidly obese friend would benefit from some sort of exercise in his life to help lose weight, but walking as little as a couple of miles tends to result in foot or joint pain. This immediately puts a halt to any exercise and a return to binge eating and weight gain. He enjoys swimming, though he finds it difficult to rise early enough to get to the pool when it's least busy, and his stroke rate is barely enough to set the pulse racing anyway.

When I suggest that cycling, even just a gentle half hour a day, would be much easier, he refuses point blank to consider it - 'too dangerous', although I think it's as much embarrassment about his size as anything else.

posted by congokid [161 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 11:56

22 Likes

My knees will leave me limping for a week after a jog.. bikings a wonder

[custom] '12 Cannondale CAAD10 - Rival

badkneestom's picture

posted by badkneestom [129 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 12:22

25 Likes

kie7077 wrote:
md6 wrote:
but crashes and car/van incidents are generally more serious injuries.

Do you have some statistics to quote to back this up, or did you just make it up - pedestrians get run over regularly.

Its an anecdotal statement, or what is also consider an opinion, they are generally based on experience, and no not everything i say tlike that is going to be backed up by a scentific, peer reviewed study. If you only make statements which are I can imagine you aren't much fun at a party.
My statement is based on my experience and in the context of the rest of the post, I think that's pretty clear. However, to claify for you: I have been knocked off/crashed my bike 3 times (in 5 years), resulting in a broken wrist, a bunch of stitches in my arm/shoulder, and a concussion. In about 10 years of running the most serious I have encountered was a twisted ankle or a strained muscle, but i had a fair number of them. Which if you read my post is the point that I was making, generally running injuries are more frequent, but you are more likely to have a serious injury cycling due to the increased time in proximity to vehicles. Is this scientific study - No. Is it a reasonable opinion to hold - I would sy so

posted by md6 [161 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 12:23

25 Likes

I thought the main argument in favour of running over cycling is that the former is high-impact and hence is good for your bones, while cycling (like swimming) is not?
(edit - as sfichele already said!)

Are there not studies showing that really intense cyclists actually suffer significant bone-mass loss?

Anyway, surely the banal conclusion is that its good to do a bit of everything?
(Though cycling is just more enjoyable because you can actually go fast enough to go somewhere interesting, plus you have all the excitement and fun of battling white-van man and the rest).

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [753 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 12:54

20 Likes

I like the "No-Shit-Shurlock" comment! For me I like to do a bit of jogging as well as cycling, but I found that becuase I don't use a proper schedule, they don't complement each other well! Anyway, enjoy the road either way, by bike or running!!

Comrade's picture

posted by Comrade [165 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 13:07

22 Likes

alexholt3 wrote:
Critchio wrote:
Its not better for burning calories, but I'll take the bike over my Asics runners any day Smile

Not that calories mean anything, my average weekend ride burns between 2500-3000. You'd have to run a hell of a long way to do that.

My understanding is that cycling and brisk walking use about the same calories per hour, its just that the former lets you travel a lot further (which makes it less boring, in my view). But running seems to be the best of all as far as calories burnt per unit time.

Though nobody seems to use running as a means of every day travel, it seems to be something you have to do for its own sake. I don't know of anyone who swims to work either, come to that.

posted by FluffyKittenofT... [753 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 14:34

23 Likes

There are 2 problems with cycling as an exercise:

1) it takes a hell of a lot longer to get the same amount of benefit from cycling as running. That is precisely because the bicycle is such an effective machine, and the benefit to the body comes from exertion.
2) it isn't very good for your bones. That means it is less tough on your joints, but you won't build up bone density either.

Edgeley

posted by Edgeley [195 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 14:54

21 Likes

hoski wrote:
daveswansea wrote:
So they actually advised people to swim, bike and run? In that order? Smile

Rule #42.

http://www.velominati.com/the-rules/#42

Think of it as a suggestion for a sportive. This forum has frequently relied on the fact that a sportive is not a race Wink

No rule breaking that way.

posted by johndonnelly [37 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 15:42

20 Likes

Edgeley wrote:
There are 2 problems with cycling as an exercise:

1) it takes a hell of a lot longer to get the same amount of benefit from cycling as running. That is precisely because the bicycle is such an effective machine, and the benefit to the body comes from exertion.
2) it isn't very good for your bones. That means it is less tough on your joints, but you won't build up bone density either.

Have you tried pedalling faster?

Ah! Condor

posted by Bedfordshire Clanger [329 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 16:40

22 Likes

I lost count of the number of bikes I sold to runners whose reason for stopping running and for buying a bike was "damage to joints due to running".

onward ever onward

bikecellar's picture

posted by bikecellar [231 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 23:30

15 Likes

What is "fitness"? The researchers were focused on cardiovascular, apparently. It has been pointed out above that cycling fails miserably on bone density, and upper-body strength is in little evidence except among track sprinters. Cross-country skiers and rowers have, on average, the highest VO2 max, and if that's a trustworthy measure of fitness then runners on average come out ahead of cyclists. Reason: the amount of muscle engaged in the exercise (why the skiers and rowers come out ahead), and the amount of lifting per unit of time; runners work their arms, however puny, whereas cyclists' effort goes almost exclusively into legs and butt, and runners are lifting their feet repeatedly without the help of spinning pedals.

I say *on average* because the strongest cyclists can put out more power than most of us, and their high wattage while enlisting more muscle fibers and more mitochondria lifts their total effort to another level. Examples are not only climbing out of the saddle (similar to running) but powering on the flat--since at 30+ kph overcoming wind resistance becomes a huge factor, but how many of us spend hours soloing at 30+ kph? (OK I'm a wimp but still representative of your typical fast recreational cyclist.)

Many of us who use heart rate monitors and do both forms of exercise will testify it's much easier to raise your HR running than cycling at the same perceived effort, because the effort is distributed over more muscles--it spreads the pain!

For 5 yrs. I ran 10-12 miles a week, and for 10 yrs. I ran 65-70 miles/wk. Switched to cycling (knee trouble) about 20 yrs ago and ride 3,000-4,000 miles/yr, and have broken a collarbone and 4 ribs in accidents and yards of skin to road rash, and suffered two concussions (minor, I wear helmet). I prefer cycling because you go faster--it's funner- but am under no illusions it tops running overall, when you factor in the probability of extreme trauma vs overuse injuries.

posted by Mark_in_BlueRidge [2 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 23:33

15 Likes

Whereas I have cycled 15 to 25 hrs per week for some 50 yrs and have never had a broken bone despite having crashed scores of times. Smile

onward ever onward

bikecellar's picture

posted by bikecellar [231 posts]
22nd January 2014 - 23:34

18 Likes

... while increasing the likelihood of needing knee replacements. Running on the grass in a park, though, is certainly easier than on tarmac.

Gerard the Kiwi

GerardR's picture

posted by GerardR [86 posts]
24th January 2014 - 4:10

16 Likes

bikecellar:

My hat's (helmet's?) off to your bikehandling skills, nevertheless, I believe you're an outlier. Seeing as you must be about my age (68), may you have many more safe miles! Smile

posted by Mark_in_BlueRidge [2 posts]
24th January 2014 - 14:45

11 Likes

Interesting series of views.

As a couple of those above have said, I also have cycled for close to forty years and never broken a bone. I have come off a number of times, pretty much exclusively doing reckless things off road.
So the lesson their (probably) if you keep falling off and hurting yourself, is first learn how to fall off and secondly upgrade your road - general riding skills.

For those concerned with evidence based risk assesment. You will find a search of the literature (which I'am not going to spend the time providing links for now), will show that: Compared to other sports you are less likely to suffer serious injury while cycling than most other sports, e.g. way less chance than footballers or rugby players indeed slightly less than table tennis players, including serious head injury. Running comes somewhere between football and table tennis. Pedestrians close to a road have about an equal chance of injury from a motor vehicle and about an equal chance of serious head injury whilst in any location as cyclists do.

Accepting that both runners and cyclists need to engage in some other activity for upper body strength and accepting the bone density issue. I can't see how the comparison of effort and energy use stands up at all. After all you can time trial over mountain ranges for hundreds of miles on a bicycle or run double marathons for hours, or do hundred meter running sprints or ten mile cycle sprints, or just diddle along making hardly any effort in either case. The amount of benefit you will get over time depends on how hard you push - really with any physical activity.

Worth noting that as Humans we are very susceptible to "affect heuristics" - coming to firm views on the basis of a few, especially fairly traumatic experiences that we or our friends have had and then taking this to be the overall world situation - very frequently completely wrongly, even though we are absolutely convinced it is so.

posted by Giles Pargiter [43 posts]
24th January 2014 - 22:55

13 Likes

Just been reading the abstract to that paper. I can't get access to the entire report without paying my $39.95 at present.

Couple of things about it;
the sample size in each population (runners and cyclists) is way short of the necessary minimum of 30 participants (for well tested statistical reasons) in each condition to be able to fairly surely extend the findings to the general populations of runners and cyclists.

Also the age range in each condition was very narrow. So extending the findings to other age groups is very dodgy - unless off course the rest of the paper provides evidence from other research that this can be done.

Also it says that there was no difference between groups for upper respiratory tract infections, and then says the probability was, P=0.803 i.e. 8% chance of being wrong. In scientific probability you normally reject the hypothesis (Hyp.) if you have more than P=0.5 (5% chance of being wrong) i.e. you reject the null Hyp. that their was no difference and accept the Hyp. that there might be a difference.

The abstract does not supply enough information for me to run my own statistical analysis nor mention what technique was used, which really it should (probably a multi level ANOVA).

So as it stands it should only be taken as a provisional finding that needs further study to confirm.

posted by Giles Pargiter [43 posts]
25th January 2014 - 0:18

13 Likes

Each to his or her own but I was told that we should find an exercise that we can do until we are in our 70's or 80's. That puts the choice between running, swimming or cycling in a completely different context than simply which is the best for all round fitness.

For me running is too tough on my knees and so has never lasted more than an hour and frequently less than 30 minutes, though it is dirt cheap.

Swimming is too expensive, is more of a chore and feels more like controlled drowning. Oh, and its extremely boring. Nowadays water is for bathing and chilling out in, not as a means of burning calories.

Cycling is cheap, once the bike is paid for, regularly lasts way more than 2 hours and so burns lots of calories, and is easier on the knees and hips. No upper body workout but what the heck I'm not a monkey!

Whatever the cardio-vascular and muscular fitness benefits each type of exercise provides, cycling is by far the most enjoyable of them all and so is more likely to be pursued throughout the year. Surely that's the secret to long term fitness into old age.

posted by BigBear63 [72 posts]
25th January 2014 - 12:22

14 Likes

Like others I took up cycling more seriously whilst getting over a knee injury from running. Mixing the two works brilliantly for me. However whilst cycling is easier on the body its not if you you come off. Call me careless but I have crashed three times in 6 months. Nothing bad but it could have been. Also you don't here of to many runners getting killed on the roads.

Chris Heslop

ChrisHeslop's picture

posted by ChrisHeslop [1 posts]
25th January 2014 - 16:56

14 Likes

I've tried running and done a few triathlons, duathlons, etc... I got various shin / achilles problems so I've kicked it into touch. I like to think of doing something I can do for life - so cycling / swimming plus some weight training seems like a great combo to me. People who start with running to 'get in shape' at this time of year really might be better advised to start with some bike action first, I reckon.

posted by edster99 [207 posts]
25th January 2014 - 18:54

17 Likes

Well, in cycling the upgrades are better. I think in cycling the sense of achievement is higher too. The fact that you can ride 100 miles on a bike is amazing.

I know a martial art that concentrates on the upper body. Perhaps I should start teaching it to other cyclists. Only problem is that it does make you more aggressive, but then at least you won't get pwned by aggressive motorists...

posted by ronin [164 posts]
1st February 2014 - 6:47

12 Likes