Is cycling or running better?

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The biggest factor in deciding between running and cycling should be based on which you believe you can keep up for years to come.

  • Do you enjoy cycling or running more?
  • If you're limited to indoor exercise for some of the year due to climate, most people seem to prefer stationary cycling to a treadmill. A treadmill requires constant attention so you stay on the belt and forces you to run at a particular pace. These factors tend to make treadmill running unpleasant.
  • Cycling with traffic poses much higher risk than running on a path. Even cycling away from traffic has a higher risk of trauma than running. These long term safety concerns should factor into your choice.
  • Running requires less expense than a bike, and is easier to transport the required equipment. If you are traveling, it's easy to bring running shoes, but a bike may be impractical.
  • Poor form can lead to a number of running injuries, especially with overly cushioned shoes and/or a poor Cadence. If you are significantly overweight, cycling may be a better choice than running until your weight reaches a reasonable level.
  • Anyone who is badly out of shape should start walking, and build up to running gradually. Recumbent cycling can be a reasonable choice for people who who are badly out of shape. A recumbent bike in a gym is better for the seriously overweight as it reduces the stresses on the saddle area. Recumbent bikes are available for road use, but they tend to be pricy.

Other factors to consider

  • Running is a higher intensity exercise than cycling for most people. The higher intensity tends to help with weight loss by improving the muscle's sensitivity to insulin. Though higher intensity tends to burn less fat during the exercise, the actual amount of fat burned is relatively small for many athletes and appetite tends to rise to compensate. The improved sensitivity to insulin appears to be the major source of weight loss from exercise.
  • Running tends to be better for weight loss given an equivalent energy expenditure[1].
  • Running uses more muscles than seated cycling, which leads to improved insulin sensitivity across those muscles.
  • Because running is load bearing exercise, it tends to improve bone strength. However, this also means that running must be started carefully to prevent overload and injury.
  • Cycling tends to be easier on the digestive system than running. This is partly due to the lower intensity and partly due to the jogging motion involved in running.
  • Running involves eccentric exercise, which is where the muscle resists being lengthened. Eccentric exercise builds up protection against future eccentric exercise, such as playing a team sport like soccer.
  • Cycling covers a greater distance, making it more suited to touring an area.
  • It is possible to relax the conscious mind more when running, allowing a zen like state of meditation. Typically a cyclist must pay attention at all times to avoid an accident.
  • Running can give access to rougher trails than cycling, allowing access to remote, rugged areas.

1 Calories Burned

To compare the calories burned running and cycling, there are some conversion factors you can use to get a rough estimate. If you cycle at 15 MPH for 10 miles, that's like running for 10/3.5 or 3.7 miles. Just look up your cycling speed below and divide the number of miles by the conversion factor to get the running miles. This conversion assumes you're on a road bike, on the flat, not drafting, as well as making many other assumptions, so use this as a rough guide only.

Cycling MPH Conversion Factor
10 4.2
15 3.5
20 2.9
25 2.3
30 1.9

2 References

  1. PT. Williams, Non-Exchangeability of Running vs. Other Exercise in Their Association with Adiposity, and Its Implications for Public Health Recommendations., PLoS One, volume 7, issue 7, pages e36360, 2012, doi 10.1371/journal.pone.0036360, PMID 22808000