Cycling to Record Running Times

Fri, 4 Nov. 2011 - 9:07 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

We all know cross-training on a bike can improve running performance by providing an impact-free training day in the middle of an aggressive running week, and even improve your turnover in the same way that running in the pool once a week can. What’s lesser known, and of particular value to triathletes, is that biking quickly provides significant short-term improvements on race times during the subsequent running leg of multi-sport events.
 
People who bike and then run have been shown repeatedly to finish the run faster than those who run only. But research has also shown that running efficiency decreases following a session of cycling, which is more along the lines of what you would expect: fatigue is that much more within reach if you blow your energy on the warm-up. So what is going on here? Studies in recent years shed light on this complex topic, and understanding them can help you drop minutes off your triathlon time.
 
People who regularly train for and race in multi-sport events know that vigorous cycling should not necessarily cause early fatigue during the run portion of these events. Still, how is it possible that it benefits? The phenomenon in question is called perseveration. Muscles have been observed to continue involuntarily performing a rhythmic activity when they have been stimulated to do so for an extended period of time.
 
A Canadian study a few years ago had male college triathletes cycle using three different cadences: a control, and then both 20% faster and 20% slower. The men were found to be 7% faster at running 3200 meters after 30 minutes of cycling with the fastest turnover than with the slowest one. This was due to their stride frequency increasing a remarkable 10%, shaving nearly a minute off their times.
 
Note that in all three conditions, however, the runners ran the first two laps with short strides. But the research suggests that finishing the cycling portion of a triathlon with a fast cadence gives a triathlete an edge by increasing running turnover, and therefore overall speed, in the running leg. In each of the three conditions, the runner's stride frequency was similar to that of the previous cycling cadence. This is perseveration at work.
 
But here’s where it gets interesting: The runners' heart rates were equivalent among the running trials, even when they had cycled with a 20% faster cadence than the control condition. This indicates an equivalent level of physical exertion even though their speed increased.
 
In a 2009 study, specifically on triathlon pacing strategy, from the Laboratory of Biomechanics and Physiology in France, researchers sought to determine what factors are conducive to the fastest finish in the third leg of an Olympic-distance triathlon (1.5K swimming, 40K cycling, 10K running). After establishing a 10K control pace for each of 10 highly-trained triathletes, they asked them to complete three individual triathlons, keeping swimming and cycling pace the same for all three trials. For the running leg of each triathlon, however, participants were asked to complete the first km of the total 10K at either 5% faster, 5% slower, or 10% slower than their 10K control pace. The subjects were then instructed to finish the 9 remaining km as quickly as possible “at a free self-pace.” The athletes performed all three, in an order randomly assigned.
 
Starting 5% slower than their control pace consistently resulted in a faster overall performance in the running leg (and therefore the triathlon as a whole, since swimming and cycling times were kept consistent for each trial). The research suggests triathletes would benefit to automate a pace that “holds back” at 5% slower than they feel they can do in the first km of the running leg. Both 5% faster and 10% slower running speeds over the first km resulted in weaker overall performances.
 
The authors write, “The present results showed that the running speed achieved during the cycle-to-run transition is crucial for the improvement of the running phase as a whole.” When we cycle at a high cadence and transition to the running portion, what may be occurring is a shorter stride—slowing race time over the first km—which gradually lengthens while turnover remains fast, causing a faster pace for the remaining 9 km, and therefore a faster finish.
 
Taken together, these findings infer not only that finishing fast on the bike during a triathlon won’t burn out your run. Through perseveration it instead induces an improved running turnover, even if in the first km it results in slower running—an effect that itself seems, also counterintuitively, beneficial. Ultimately, the extra cycling effort does not occur at the expense of your running speed—quite the contrary. You’ll finish faster and even stronger, since running exertion levels do not necessarily increase along with running speed.
 
Eur. J. Appl. Physiol., 2010, Vol. 108, No. 6, pp. 1115-1123,
 
Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise, 2002, Vol. 34, No. 9, pp. 1518-1522
 
Eur. J. Neurosci., 1998, Vol. 10, No. 5, pp. 1608-1612
 
Int. J. Sports Med., 1996, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 572-579
 
(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January / February 2011 • Volume 29, Number 1)


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