- - Does Cycling Help with Marathon Training?

Does Cycling Help with Marathon Training?

article by Taylor Thomas 

It’s a fairly well-known fact that many distance runners integrate cycling into their run training. Runners of all ability levels often look for disciplines outside of running to both reduce injury and provide supplemental exercise in hopes of making their running stronger. However, how to combine the training necessary for a goal such as a marathon with cycling can be hard to manage. Cycling can not only be a good cross-training tool, but it can also serve as a viable platform to build strength and fitness that can be directly applied to running. Like any component of training, specificity and individualization are important for success.


Most athletes are more than likely familiar with using cycling as cross-training for running. The fact that it’s a low impact sport makes it a great compliment to more stressful disciplines like running. As a cross-training tool cycling is perfect for active recovery days. Time on the bike can promote recovery by “flushing” the legs, and also facilitate some aerobic work in a low-stress environment. These low-intensity (zones 1-2 power and/or heart rate) rides can be done on an indoor trainer or outdoors and typically don’t need to take up much time. As with any discipline and goal, specificity is key, but overuse injuries are so common in running that integrating something other than running can be the difference between making it to the start line and getting injured. Using the bike as a simple tool to break up the time on your feet while still maintaining low levels of aerobic stress can be very productive as a compliment to run specific training.

Building Strength

Running requires a considerable amount of muscular strength. Whether staring down the iconic Newton Hills at the Boston Marathon or needing the kick for the final 100 meters, strength is vital. Cycling can be used to help bolster this component of your running. There are a few classic bike workouts that can transfer strength and power to run specific training. Hill repeats are an easy way to build strong legs. This classic bike workout is as easy as finding an accessible climb and performing standing or seated repeats until fatigue sets in. Shorter efforts can be performed above Threshold and out of the saddle, while climbs lasting longer than 6 minutes can be seated and below Threshold. To help develop some “pop” in your legs, and work on VO2 Max and neuromuscular areas, standing sprint intervals are a good go-to. These are performed out of the saddle and should be nearly maximal efforts lasting 30-60 seconds. Next, “big gear drills” are great for integrating a force component into training. Simply shift into a hard gear on your bike and pedal for 45-90 seconds at a cadence 25-35 RPM’s lower than your normal cadence range. This type of session is perfect for providing some mechanical resistance to counterbalance run training. Any or all of these can be integrated weekly into your running plan to help build muscular strength.

Strengthen Aerobic Capacity

While strong legs are very important to running success, you’ll also need strong lungs. Aerobic capacity is equally as important for distance running and requires its own focus and preparation. While specificity is always critical and racing fast requires running fast in training, fitness from bike workouts can translate to running. Working on increasing both heart rate and power Thresholds can translate to increases in threshold pace for running. Integrating bike specific workouts versus simply using the bike as a low impact cross training tool can prove beneficial. Highlight key areas in terms of duration that require focus for your goal race. Base the duration of your bike intervals on the strengths you’ll need during your marathon. For instance, if rolling hills are a part of your race course then target 3-6 minutes above Threshold to strengthen VO2 Max. Tempo and Sweet Spot intervals are always valuable when looking to increase aerobic capacity. Intervals lasting anywhere from 10-45 minutes staying in zones 3 and 4 help to build strength as well as mental fortitude when the going gets tough on race day. Working at or near your Threshold for increasingly longer durations can also translate to running in the form of a higher threshold heart rate and thus speed on foot.

The marathon distance is challenging and holds a special allure for many runners. The dedication and commitment it requires to train the body to endure this distance should be treated with great care. The mechanics of running often set athletes up for overuse injuries that can interrupt or halt their training. Using cycling as a method of cross training to remove some of the stress is a good start. Furthermore, the bike can be used as a standalone tool for dedicated workouts that, when used correctly, can not only strengthen but improve running performance. Don’t be afraid to experiment with cycling as a valid discipline for runners that are looking to achieve both improved fitness and longevity in running.


Taylor Thomas is the founder and head coach of Thomas Endurance Coaching (TEC) and has more than a decade of experience in the endurance sports industry as an athlete, coach, race promoter, and team organizer.

TEC provides expert level coaching to athletes of all ability levels and specializes in both a scientific and metrics-based approach to endurance sports. They guide athletes in all disciplines of both running and cycling. For more information on their personal coaching and training plan options visit TEC at @endurance_coach.


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