Like swimming, cycling provides a great cardiovascular workout and burns lots of fat and calories without any impact. However, cycling is far more like running in that it is primarily a lower-body workout. In fact, the quads and calves in particular work even harder on the bike than on the run, making cycling an effective way for runners to develop these muscles.
Because of the similarities between the two sports, the fitness gains you obtain from cycling will have a direct, positive impact on your running. In a study at Purdue University in the USA, runners who added three cycling sessions per week to their training schedule improved their 5K race times as much as runners who added three additional runs to their weekly regimen. So whether you're hopping on your bike to prepare for a triathlon or just to diversify your training, you can expect to become a better runner as a result.
To reap all the benefits of cycling, however, you first need a bike. Will that old clunky machine in the back of the garage cut it? Most experts agree that it's okay to do your first triathlon or a modest amount of bike cross-training on just about any bike you already have. "Don't worry too much about kit when you're new to triathlon," says Ben Burch, the product development director of Trainsmart, a company that trains triathletes and runners (www.trainsmart.com). "You have to reach a pretty high level for equipment to become a limiting factor." For tips on how to upgrade your current bike or buy your first triathlon bike, see "Pedalling wares". If you're sticking with your old bike for the time being, you still need to make sure that it fits. Riding any bike that doesn't fit you well, whether it's a dusty old commuter bike or a high-tech performance racer, can make your training less productive and increase your risk of picking up an injury.
To be properly fitted for your bike, it's best to take it into a bike shop and have fit experts take a look at you on the bike. To do an approximate bike fitting on your own, start by making sure you feel comfortable on your bike. "Make sure you're not over-reaching when you're holding the handle bars or aero bars," says Alison Boon, the owner of the world's biggest triathlon store Tri UK. "If you're too stretched out, your outside handle bar will force you to reach even further when you turn corners, pulling you out of the saddle and preventing dynamic pedalling."
Make sure your saddle is also at the right height: when you're on the downward part of the pedal, your leg should almost lock out but not quite. "If your legs lock out, they could bend the wrong way and cause serious injury," says Boon. The handle bar stem on a standard bike is also simple to adjust and can make a big difference to your riding position.
Pedal powerEven casual cyclists have to master a few basic skills. "Cycling is a more technical sport than many runners realise," says Burch. Runners tend to assume that they'll be able to cycle effectively because of their leg strength and cardiovascular fitness, but that's rarely the case.
Beginner cyclists often make two common mistakes. The first is "pedal stomping," where you put all your effort into pushing the pedal down in the first half of the pedal stroke and then fail to actively pull the pedal upward in the second half of the pedal stroke. To correct this flaw, practise pedalling with just one leg on a stationary bike while concentrating on using your muscles to lead the pedals in complete circles (of course, you'll need toe clips to do this).
The second common flaw is called "mashing," which means you're using too big a gear with a slow cadence. "To ensure you're spinning the pedals quickly, use the gears to keep your legs working at the same cadence," says Burch. A good rule of thumb is to try to maintain a pedalling cadence of at least 80 revolutions per minute on flat terrain. If you can't keep up that cadence you should shift to an easier gear.
It's also important to learn how to descend hills and corner. Gale Bernhardt, an elite level triathlon coach and the author of Triathlon Training Basics (A&C Black, 2004), recommends trying a monkey-see-monkey-do approach to building these skills. "If you need to work on your cycling skills, make friends with a group of cyclists who are a little more experienced than you are," she says. "You can learn by imitating them." To find cycling clubs or riding groups in your area, call your local bike shop or go to www.britishcycling.org.uk.
The different names of bike sessions will sound familiar to runners. There are easy rides, long rides, tempo rides, hill repetitions, and intervals. Whether you're training for a triathlon or taking up cycling to improve your running, it's best to stick with easy rides for the first few weeks to give your body a chance to adjust to the new activity.
When you're ready for more challenging rides, Bernhardt recommends hill repetitions to build leg strength. A good beginner hill session could include four hard hill climbs lasting two minutes each, with three minutes of easy pedalling between climbs. If you're training for a triathlon, try doing hill repetitions once a week for several weeks, then replace this session with a weekly tempo ride: a steady effort at race intensity lasting 10 minutes or more, sandwiched between a warm-up and a cool-down.
Pedalling waresTo buy a bike, or not. That is the question. For those not quite ready to re-mortgage their home for a brand-spanking new triathlon bike, there are a couple of simple- and relatively inexpensive- modifications you can make to your current bike for more comfortable and productive training.
If your bike has a kickstand or reflectors for instance, take them off- they just add weight (if you use the same bike for commuting, though, remember to put the reflectors back on at night). Consider adding a clip-on aerobar such as the Century ZB (£40) to your bike. This will enable you to ride in an aerodynamic "time trial" position that saves a lot of energy by reducing wind drag. Finally, consider replacing your flat pedals with a pair of clipless pedals and bike shoes. This combination will allow you to produce greater force throughout the pedal stroke. Expect to pay roughly £40 for entry-level pedals and another £50 for basic cycling shoes. Once you've decided it's time to buy a real triathlon bike, use the following checklist to guide you through the process.
Contact the closest triathlon club and ask them to recommend the best local bike shop that specialises in serving triathletes. For a better deal on a new bike, buy in mid- to late summer, when many shops slash prices on last year's models to make room for new models.
"Find a shop where you can try a variety of bikes before you buy," says Boon. Many shops will allow you to take a bike for a ride, or put it on a turbo trainer so you can try it out in the store. "If you buy from a shop you can also go back to them if you have any problems."
Put most of your money into the frame. "You can always upgrade to lighter wheels and better components later," says Boon. "For example, the Giant OCR3 is a great entry-level bike at £425, but it has the same frame as the whole OCR range, which means you have a great frame that can you can upgrade if you enjoy the sport."
Lost in transitionThe transition area of a triathlon is where you make the switch from swimming to cycling and cycling to running. A few point-to-point triathlons have separate swim-bike and bike-run transition areas, but most have just one place where both transitions are made. Triathletes can lose precious time on race day if their transition area isn't set up to facilitate a smooth changeover. Keep these tips in mind when laying out your equipment on race day.
1. Put your bike in an appropriate starting gear before racking it. Place your bike helmet on the handlebar or seat so you can't possibly forget to put it on.
2. Spread a towel on the ground next to your bike and arrange your other items on it: bike shoes, running shoes, sunglasses, socks, and race number belt with race number attached.
3. If you're competing in a beach triathlon, place a water-filled plastic tray in your transition spot and use it to wash the sand off your feet before putting on your bike shoes.
4. Note exactly where your transition spot is in relation to the transition area entrance. Count bike racks between the entrance and your spot so that you can easily find it during the race.
1. Always wear a CE, ANSI, SNELL or British Safety Mark-certified helmet while riding. Entry-level helmets, such as the Giro Mira, start at around £25. More expensive models tend to be lighter, more aerodynamic, and better ventilated.
2. For comfort, invest in some padded bike shorts. They usually cost £30 to £60, with the pricier shorts being more durable and more comfortable. Most bike shops stock reputable brands, such as Assos, Ironman and Pearl Izumi.
3. You can sometimes find great deals on secondhand bike accessories at local bike shops and through websites, including eBay and Cycling Weekly (www.cyclingweekly.co.uk).
4. Clipless pedals and bike shoes increase pedalling efficiency and are essential for the competitive rider. There are different types of clipless systems, but the important thing is to make sure that your shoes (which must be bought separately) are compatible with your pedal choice. Good shoe options include John Luck Tri Shoe (£50) and Carnac Sprint (£80).