The Benefits of Biking vs. Running
When it comes to heart-pumping, fat-burning, health and fitness boosting, do-anywhere exercise, it’s tough to beat running and cycling. All you need for either one are a few key pieces of gear and enough road, trail, or sidewalk to spin your (literal or figurative) wheels long enough to work up a good sweat.
But which one can help you burn the most calories, improve your cardiorespiratory fitness to the greatest extent, and generally look and feel the healthiest? Let’s take a look at how they differ, so you can figure out which one is the best fit for you.
Cycling vs. Running: Which is Better for Bone and Joint Health?
When it comes to joint health, cycling is the hands-down winner, as it’s the lowest impact of the two sports. But when it comes to bone density, running takes the lead.
“In order to have good bone mineral density, a certain amount of impact is necessary,” says Paul Searles, C.S.C.S., coach at New York-based Sports Science Lab. Running provides that. The key is to increase the distance and intensity of your running workouts gradually so that you don’t build stronger bones at the expense of your joints.
Both running and cycling can be incredibly advantageous for cardiorespiratory fitness, increasing the ability of the lungs, heart, and vascular system to supply oxygen to working muscles. When it comes to which is the “better” choice, they’re pretty comparable. There is some research showing that running makes the heart work harder — and thus might be slightly better for increasing its strength and health — but in general, they tend to be roughly even.
Every body is different, and thus the calories you burn participating in any activity will depend on factors such as your age, body composition, fitness level, and genetics — not to mention the intensity and duration of the workout itself. But in general, you’ll likely burn more calories running than cycling.
A 150-pound cyclist who pedals 15 miles per hour can burn about 714 calories in an hour. If that same person runs an 8.5-minute mile, their calorie burn will come out to about 786 calories per hour. A 72 calorie difference might not sound like much, but during the course of weeks and months, it can add up to a couple of extra pounds lost — but not if your diet isn’t dialed-in (more on that in a bit).
Compared to strength training, neither running nor cycling will help you pack on much muscle. That’s because they target the smaller, more endurance-oriented type I muscle fibers, which have less growth potential than the larger, more powerful type II fibers emphasized in strength training.
That, however, brings up another important point: “For both running and cycling, lifting weights can be beneficial for preventing injury,” says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., a Los Angeles-based marathon and triathlon coach and author of Lift to Get Lean.
Research also shows that incorporating a couple of resistance workouts into your weekly training plan can improve running speed, running economy, power output, endurance, and even aerobic capacity. “In short, if you’re an endurance athlete and you want to maximize your performance, you need to resistance train,” says Trevor Thieme, C.S.C.S., Openfit’s director of fitness and nutrition content.
Can you lose weight through cycling or running alone? Yes, but it will be less than what you can achieve by combining either activity with proper nutrition, believes Searles. Although regular exercise is important, diet tends to be the main driver when it comes to weight loss, he says.
“In reality, the number of calories you burn during exercise is a fraction of the amount you’ll burn during the day,” he notes. “So when you choose a mode of exercise, choose what you enjoy. That way, you’re more likely to continue to do it — the single most important factor with any fitness goal is consistency.”
Cost of Cycling vs. Running
When it comes to out-of-pocket expenses, running obviously has the advantage. A couple of hundred bucks will get you, ahem, up and running with a pair of shoes and some premium athletic wear.
Cycling, by contrast, can set you back a couple of thousand dollars when you factor in the cost of a bike and all of the gear you’ll need to ride it efficiently and safely. But if you enjoy cycling more than running, it’s worth the investment, because you’ll be more likely to do it. And as Searles said, consistency is key.
The Bottom Line
Whether you choose cycling or running will likely come down to which one you enjoy more. Both offer enormous benefits when it comes to calorie burning, weight loss, cardiovascular health, and general well-being. So pick the one you’re more likely to do frequently and consistently, and then commit to making it a regular part of your daily life.