From runner to cyclist

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There are many reasons that you may want to transfer from running to cycling as a sport. Making the change takes time but there are things you can do that will make the transition more quickly and effectively. I thought it would be useful to write about my experiences.

So, how do you change from running to cycling? The most effective way at first is to train like a runner and not as a cyclist. It takes time to build up the strength and resilience to cycling, so when you start out you may find you get tired quickly and don’t recover. If you use a similar routine to your running training, more frequent, shorter runs and interval sessions once or twice a week, you will progress much more quickly.

By training like a runner but on a bike, you will progress much faster than if you jump straight into reading about cycling training and trying to train like a cyclist. After a few years, as a cyclist you will have developed the resilience to train more conventionally but this takes time and isn’t necessarily the best approach, even in the longer term.

How to change from runner to cyclist

To change from being a competitive runner to being a competitive cyclist will take time because, although both sports are aerobic and depend on leg power, there are some significant differences. You will need to learn to use your muscles differently and also to train your body to deal with the differing demands of cycling.

The main principle to bear in mind is that at first you are used to running training, so adapting your running training but doing the sessions on a bike is a really effective way to start out avoid the elements of cycling training that may limit your gains. In general, at least at the non-elite level, cyclists train less frequently than runners but for longer durations. Cycling is also less intense overall but often more intense in short bursts. If you are planning to race your bike, you are unlikely to realise how variable cycling is and how hard you can and have to work in short bursts to race competitively. Conversely, you can recover much more quickly on the bike because you can freewheel on downhills or ride more easily by slipstreaming other riders when the pace is slower. In running, you can’t freewheel so you have to keep working pretty hard even most of the time. The best way I can think of to describe a cycling road race is that it is like a long interval session, where you can be maxed out for some efforts even in the middle of the race.

At first, it is likely that you will find it hard to recover from longer bike rides, longer interval sessions and even the harder shorter efforts. The way to deal with this is to limit the number of longer rides you do to 1 each week and only do 1 hard interval session each week. Keep the rest of your rides short, so that they are more like your endurance runs, so maybe just 30 or 40 minutes at a time.

Think about your weaknesses in cycling, which are likely to be maintaining a good sustained pace on the flat, explosive/sprint efforts over a few seconds and repeated longer efforts close to your maximum for 1 to 3 minutes. Focus your efforts weekly hard session on these areas and include some short sprints in your other rides. You will probably be relatively good at hills, particularly longer ones and may have reasonable stamina to ride for a long time at an easy pace.

A good session would be to

  • warm up with 15 to 20 minutes riding;

  • do 2 x 1 minutes hard with 2 minutes recovery;

  • do 2 sets of 10 x 20 seconds hard, 10 seconds easy with 5 minutes between sets;

  • then 4 x 4 minutes hard with 4 minutes recoveries

  • cool down with at least 15 minutes easy pedalling

You could do this as part of a longer ride if you want but aim to do the hard session first so that you can give it your maximum effort and concentration.

Be careful not to do to many ‘junk miles’

When you have been used to running, it is hard to gauge how hard you are working when cycling, it just takes time to get used to the feel of a new discipline.

Because you can move relatively easily on a bike, it is easy to do a lot of riding where you aren’t stressing your system sufficiently to create a training effect. When you are out on your own, you may find that unless you concentrate on working at a training pace, you drift into a slower, easier level of effort; this will make you tired but it won’t make you much fitter. If you ride with a club, you may find it hard to keep up at first but once you get used to it, you may find that a lot of the time you are just sitting in the bunch chatting and not actually working hard enough to build your fitness. All this is fine if your aim is to enjoy cycling recreationally and just get fit enough to ride regularly with friends and a cycling club but not if you want to stretch yourself and build your fitness.

Because you aren’t used to cycling and don’t have a good baseline of what various levels of effort feel like, it will be useful to use a heart rate monitor and/or a power meter to objectively gauge your efforts. If you have access to a power meter, either on your bike, on a stationary bike or occasionally on something like a Wattbike in a gym, you can also measure your progress more objectively.

Another really good way to measure progress is by doing some short time trials, either ones that are formally organised or by setting up your own circuit. During the summer, it is common in some places to have midweek series’ of short time trials that you can enter for a small fee and then see how you progress throughout the season. These events are also really effective training but remember to do some shorter interval sessions as well to boost your explosive powers.

Practice the skills associated with cycling

You can make significant gains quite quickly by just practicing various skills so that you become a better cyclist, this is good news because you can get faster without needing to get fitter.

Focus

Learning to stay focused on your riding in both racing and training is a skill that can be lacking in runners. This is because you can’t freewheel when you are running so you are always working at a given level of effort. In cycling, it is different and particularly if you are riding on varied terrain where you have to pedal up hills but don’t have to pedal down hills. Learn to ride at a sustained level of effort, so that you aren’t working too hard on climbs or backing off too much when the terrain is flatter and easier. This is really where a power meter can show you what is happening; for shorter climbs and efforts, your heart rate won’t change much because it takes time to react but a power meter will give you instant feedback.

Bear in mind that you will get tired much more quickly if you are continuously going over your threshold power and recovering, so use your gears and keep it smooth, don’t worry if people drop you on climbs early on, if you save your energy you will probably be leaving them behind later on and you will build your fitness by having energy for your other, more focused training. Of course, if you plan to make a ride a hard one then giving it a bit of stick on the hills can be good, just keep in mind what you are trying to train.

Group riding

Group riding can be daunting if you haven’t done it before and particularly if you are in a group with a lot of beginners or inexperienced group riders. This is an area where it is useful to join a club or go out with experienced riders and spend some time learning the skills of holding a wheel and riding close to other people. However, learn about group riding etiquette and how the particular group you are with rides together, their particular protocols.

You can save a lot of energy by riding close to someone who is in front of you, so choose an experienced rider that rides smoothly and follow their wheel until you can stay close but remain safe. Don’t push yourself too close, build up gradually. Similarly, learn to ride next to other riders, aim to find people who are safe and experienced and keep an eye out for erratic riders (there seems to be at least one in every group) and keep away from them, even if it means using more energy. It is better to get dropped from a ride than it is to end up in hospital because someone has caused you to crash.

Try to avoid riding near the back of a bunch, it is much harder because the variation in speed is much greater. When the front riders slow down for a corner or other feature, everyone has to slow down but when the riders at the front speed up after the corner, the riders at the back are still going slowly, which means the lead riders accelerate away and the riders at the back have to work much harder to catch up to avoid gaps developing. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me.

If you aren’t as strong as the group on hills, keep an eye out for hills coming up and try to be at the front when the climb begins. This means that you can go slower than the bunch and gradually drift back without losing contact. You start the climb at the front and drift back as the climb goes on, even if you aren’t struggling on hills you can use this technique to save energy and stay in the bunch.

If you watch how others save energy, you will quickly learn the basics and then the nuances of how to move and work with a group. As you get faster you can join chain gang sessions and really develop your skills as well as enjoying the thrills of going fast in a group. Always be careful, vigilant and stay safe at all costs.

Cadence and gears

Keeping to a cadence of 80 to 110 rpm is the most efficient way to ride and also means that you can vary your speed more easily if you need to. Learn to look ahead and change gear in anticipation of things like hills, junctions, bends, etc, so that you are able to continue pedalling smoothly and efficiently throughout your ride.

If you find that you are having to pedal with a low cadence or can’t get up hills without getting out of the saddle, it is worth considering changing the gear ratios on your bike. You can do this yourself if you know what you are going or you can visit a bike shop who will help you work out what is the best option/ Similarly, if you are finding that you can’t pedal fast enough in areas where you want to go faster, you may need to change the gearing to give you some harder gears. Gearing is always a bit of a compromise but getting it as good as possible will make a huge difference to both your enjoyment and efficiency on a bike.

Find a good bike shop

I mentioned visiting a bike shop if you need help with your gearing but irrespective of whether you are able to do your own mechanical work, it is worth finding a good bike shop that is local to you and developing a relationship with them. You can buy most things you need on line and often more cheaply, but an experienced bike mechanic may save you money by recommending better but cheaper components to suit your needs. Also, if you don’t have the right tools to do a given job, having someone you trust to do a good job for you is invaluable.

Many bike shops will also match internet prices if you ask and assuming that will be a regular customer.

Related questions

Do I need a bike fit? You can do a lot to set up your bike yourself by reviewing guidelines on the internet and watching videos but if you are inexperienced and unsure, it is a good idea to get a bike fit, at least on the bike you use most of the time. If you decide to go for a bike fit, ask around and look for recommendations because it is important to find a good person who will take a pragmatic approach to your needs. If you do some riding on road and some off-road on a mountain bike, and can only afford to be fitted for one bike then get fitted on your road bike because you spend more time in a fixed position and move around a lot more on the mountain bike, so the fit is less critical. You can set your mountain bike up to be as close to the road bike setup as possible.

Should I use clipless pedals and cycling shoes? It isn’t necessary to use shoes with cleats and so called ‘clipless’ pedals but there are many advantages to using shoes that are designed specifically for cycling. Riding in trainers is inefficient and isn’t likely to do your trainers any good. In general, if you are riding on the road it is better to use clipless pedals and shoes. If you are riding off-road on technical terrain, some people prefer flat pedals and the can be very effective. The choice is yours but even if you choose to use ‘flat pedals’ I recommend that you buy some good quality shoes and pedals.

Welcome to JHCoaching

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JHCoaching has been helping athletes at all ability levels for many years. During that time we have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t, as well as helping many athletes achieve things they never thought possible.

Our aim is to support people as they work towards their goals. We do this by providing support at many levels so that you can choose what works for you. You can work with us one to one as a one off consultation or join one of our coaching packages. If you want to learn things for yourself you can read our blog posts, check into social media, have a look at our YouTube channel, or send us a message with your question.