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When it comes to cycling vs running for heart health, declaring one as the winner is a difficult evaluation. Both have their edges and there are areas where one out-does the other. It depends a lot on the intensity you’re going at but if you’re psychologically more lenient towards cycling (which is easier to be the case as running can be a tough exercise), you can give cycling just a bit of a nudge to make it stand out farther as the better exercise. The same can be done for running if you’re more suited to it as compared to cycling.
Okay so let’s get into it. Both counter-questions i.e. where does running out-do cycling and where cycling takes the edge are discussed below.
Why could running be better than cycling?
Well, it’s tougher. Cycling employs the three largest muscle groups in your body i.e. your quads, your glutes, your calves, and basically most of your lower body muscle mass. And it does so in a way that the joints aren’t under as much stress as they would be when they have to endure the impact of every single tread. And even though it doesn’t put your body through a grinding session, it can take a lot out of you in say a one-hour sprint-cruise biking session.
Running on the other hand is so much more demanding and impacting on the joints and not just the joints in the lower body but the upper body as well. Not to say that we’re focusing on just joints here. Look at it this way, your joints transfer impacts and forces. If they’re involved, their relevant muscles are involved too! So if you’re upper body joints are involved in running, that means your upper body muscles are involved to some extent as well. That’s obvious when you see a person running with their arms and their core engaged in the whole process.
The reason running may take the edge is it burns more calories as the tables below show.
Calorie burn estimation table for running
|Pace||3 mph||4 mph||5 mph||6 mph|
|Calories burned per 30-minute workout if you weigh 155 lbs.||207 kcal.||263.5 kcal||320 kcal||376.8 kcal|
Calorie burn estimation table for cycling
|Pace||9-10 mph||10-12 mph||12-14 mph||14-16 mph|
|Calories burned per 30-minute workout if you weigh 155 lbs.||210 kcal.||247 kcal||290 kcal||363 kcal|
The point here is more pain, more gain. When you’re running, you are virtually employing most of your body muscles in one way or the other even though they’re obviously not being employed equally. The arms are swinging, the back has to absorb the impact of every tread, the abs take the impact along with the posterior core muscles and your lower body does all the propulsion including lifting all of your weight off the ground with every tread. It’s important to make the working against gravity distinction because cycling doesn’t make that a necessity.
That all equates to more exertion or more pain. And for the relatively fragile among us, like people with retrospective or recent injuries and the elderly, more pain isn’t really an option. As the founder of the University of Colorado Sports Medicine and Performance Center, Andy Pruitt, EdD says:
“Cycling is something you can enjoy no matter what your age. It is truly as close as we can get to a lifelong sport” and
“Even if you can’t walk or hobble, you can still ride a bike.”
Where cycling takes the edge
Looking at cycling objectively, you’re taking the three largest muscle groups in your whole body (not just the lower body) i.e. the quads, the glutes, and the calves and you’re putting them under a low-joint-impact exercise routine with the potential for intense and longer duration exercises. Since it’s the big boys that you’re employing here, your heart has to push more nutrients and more oxygen towards the lower body as compared to what it has to pump in exercises that employ smaller muscle groups. That makes it work harder than let’s say doing a bench press or any other exercise that employs the smaller volume muscles.
The result is a relatively less impactful, high volume exercise with the possibility for extreme intensity. It’s a less pain, good gain exercise. Now nobody’s saying it burns more calories all the time (which might mean your heart is working harder when you’re running), the table above would refute that but you CAN burn more calories while cycling if you do it in a specific manner.
And that ‘specific manner’ refers to HIIT exercise routines. High-intensity interval training or HIIT involves bursts of high-intensity output followed by low-intensity recovery phases and the cycle repeats. Think sprinting for a minute or two followed by 3-4 minute relaxing periods. And this can go on for a long distance for and up to an hour (more than that might be detrimental if you’re pushing too far too fast). This can burn a tremendous amount of calories and let you cover a lot of ground compared to the same kind of HIIT program for running. That being said, running HIIT is even more intense than cycling HIIT because as already mentioned, running’s tough on your body. And it’s even more out of the question for people with any kind of retrospective or recent injuries because it can seriously damage fragile areas of the body.
Endurance and Intensity
Everything comes back to the intensity of the workout. It shouldn’t be a surprise for a less intense exercise to be more endurance demanding if you’re looking to burn the same amount of calories as the intense exercise. In other words, if you want to burn the same amount of calories that you’d burn while you’re running when you’re cycling, you will have to cycle for a bit longer than however long you would have to run for. The pay-off is the reduced physical and orthopedic impact. It’s easier on you both mentally and physically.
Cycling vs Running for Heart Health Conclusion
To sum it all up, if you’re you’re perfectly fit and not afraid of all-out sprints, painful soles, and sore quads, Run. But if you have a knack for a less brutal, more warm, less all-over-the-place exercises that let you go places and keep you fresh mentally as well as physically, look into cycling.