Cycling vs. Running ‘which burns more fat?’ and ‘which is harder?’

I’ve followed a thread on the Facebook and there some views aired on ‘which burns more fat’ and ‘which is harder’.

So which is it? Lets find out:

Muscular stress

Running is a high impact active, it involves repeatedly striking the ground with impact force of roughly 2 -3 times body weight. That means that as a 70 kg human being, your leg muscles, bones and ligaments are subject ~210 N of force every single step of the way. Now cycling, on the other hand has negligible impact. The bike is supporting your body weight and eccentric forces acting on the musculature and bones are negligible. It’s worth noting this is true of road cycling, but not mountain biking.

Muscle contraction type also differs. In cycling muscle contractions are concentric, that is the muscle is lengthening. This is also the type of contraction that produces the least force. In running there’s the whole array of muscle contraction type: concentric (in propulsive phases) and eccentric on the breaking phases. The degree of muscle activation in the running movement actually occurs just before ground contact in running as the body ‘pre-empts’ the impact.

So which is harder on the muscles? Running by far. This is the reason we see bike races lasting weeks, while just one marathon takes weeks to recover from. You can do a massive amount of cycling before needing to stop.

Why is it ‘easier’ to run hard than cycle hard? In cycling the volume of muscle used by the activity and requesting oxygen from the respiratory system is less (60% versus 80% in running).

Ventilatory and cardiovascular stress (heart + lungs)

In both sports, trained athletes are able to attain ‘VO2max’ -that is maximal aerobic capacity, or the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can absorb. The body, like a combustion engine needs oxygen to produce energy: fuel + oxygen ≅ energy; heat + work. VO2max represents a ceiling of how much energy can be ‘burned’ aerobically. Where VO2max can’t be attained it’s unlikely that that exercise will be as effective at burning fat as these ‘big muscle group’ exercises. Other factors leading to performance in sport are efficiency and energy derived through other (anaerobic) mechanisms, also at which point one reaches Lactate threshold (LT), which varies from sport to sport and basically defines rates of sustainable exercise.

For sub-maximal exercise, a roughly linear relationship  exists between heart rate and energy expenditure -regardless of exercise modality; the unit cost of oxygen per amount of energy remains very similar regardless of ‘metabolic substrate’ (that’s fuel; Carbs, Fat, Protein). So what we’re seeing is if you cycle at the same intensity you run, you’ll burn round about the same amount of energy!

Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) is also about the same when comparing cycling and running, so post exercise fat burning remains about the same for both.

So which is harder on ventilatory/cardiovascular system? They’re the same more or less, it depends how hard you exercise and not how you exercise.

So which burns more fat? We’re back to the question of exercise intensity, rather than modality…

N.b. one important aside: LT will likely come a different stages in the same person doing the two sports. Generally LT is higher while running than cycling, except trained cyclists: If you’re a runner, runner is ‘easier’. If you’re a cyclist, cycling is easier. If your neither, then running is easer. Non-cyclists find it hard to reach VO2max on a bicycle.

Mental stress

The much ignored nervous system: the one that actually gets you up, out and exercising is obviously also an important factor.

Both sports provoke a large amount of cognitive load to people new to them: There are literally billions of ‘factors’, degrees of freedom open that the mind has to deal with. Think about what’s going on: posture, muscle activation, sensory feedback from the body, sensory feedback from the environment, cognitive interference, spatial processing and navigation, etcetera… An awful lot more is happening that just sitting on the couch! This can cause an overload of the neural structures that have to process the information. Hence it is interpreted as ‘unpleasant’ by those unaccustomed to momentum sports. People beginning sport often make subconscious efforts to reduce cognitive load by exercising indoor, listening to music, exercising at a reduced intensity, picking exercise modalities which minimize the amount of, or disassociating themselves from the activity at hand by using distraction techniques, such as counting strides, singing, thinking about something else.

With practice a person develops automatic ‘coping mechanisms’ (schema) where things that would normally take up their attentional resources become automatic.

So which is ‘less stressful’ I am not aware of a comparison between exercise modality and rate of arousal (although it probably has been done), so have to go on common sense here. I would guess running causes a greater amount intrinsic stimuli while cycling causes a greater amount of stimuli from the environment. In colloquial: Running hurts more than biking, but the movement is slower, so you have less things like cars, obstacles, dogs and potholes to deal with, biking is more stressful due to environmental factors. Given rates of participation in sport I’d guess about the same as cycling and running have a very similar amount of participants.

Coming next we’ll get Ricardo to throw swimming into the equation.


Nilsson, J. and Thorstensson, A. (1989) ‘Ground reaction forces at different speeds of human walking and running.’ Scandinavian Physiological Society,  136(2) pp. 217-227.

Scott, C. B., Littlefield, N. D., Chason, J. D., Bunker, M. P., Asselin, E. M. (2006) ‘Differences in oxygen uptake but equivalent energy expenditure between a brief bout of cycling and running’ Nutrition and Metabolism, 3(1).

Keytel, L. R., Goedecke, J. H., Noakes, T. D., Hiiloskorpi. H., Laukkane, R., van der Merwe, L., Lambert, E. V. (2005) ‘Prediction of energy expenditure from heart rate monitoring during submaximal exercise.’ Sports Science, 23(3) pp. 289-97.

Ekkekakis, P. and Petruzello S. J. (1999) ‘Acute Aerobic Excercise and Affect.’ Sports Medicine, 28(5) pp. 337-347.

Wilson, M. (2008) ‘From processing efficiency to attentional control: a mechanistic account of the
anxiety performance relationship.’ International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 1(2) pp. 184-201.

Derakshan, N. and Eysenck, M. W. (2009) ‘Anxiety, Processing Efficiency and Cognitive Performance. New Developments from Attentional Control Theory.’ European Psychologist, 14(2) pp. 168-176.

Sport England (2013) Active People Survey 7. [Online][Accessed on 14th November 2014]

Depression -can sport help?

depression and the miss use of antidepressants. Can sport help?

This article in the Guardian got me thinking: The article highlights the miss use and over-prescription of antidepressants.

Drug abuse itself doesn’t shock me as much as the abuse of people. In the case of antidepressants, it seems profits are put ahead of the well being of the people they are supposed to help. However, the aforementioned Guardian article didn’t affect me as much as the comments that follow it: People stating the ill effects these drugs have had on them in the first person. Now that’s chilling.

I know relatively little about depression and addiction, I know about sport and have some grounding in sports psychology. This is not an academic piece, but does draw on some academic resources.

what is depression?

The first problem I’ve come across exploring this problem, is that depression isn’t well defined. From my understanding of depression: Everyone has their ups and down, but clinical depression is different. It’s a long term state of under performance accompanied by indifference. These broad symptoms take various shapes and forms and also display a variety of physical and mental symptoms, which can differ from person to person and case to case. And herein lies the problem: The breadth of symptoms of depression, like sleeping too much, to sleeping to little, to anxiety (which is a separate problem often entangled with depression) mean that it’s too often diagnosed: It’s simply too easy to palm off some ‘quick fix’ antidepressants on someone.

what causes depression?

Again, I’m not an expert. From my understanding, there are a broad range of environmental factors and well as personal factors that can contribute to a bout of depression. It would seem sensible to tackle the cause, rather than treating the symptoms, however these causes can, at best be thought of as ‘multi-dimensional’: Lifestyle, diet, pre-disposition, drug use, life events(?). Psychiatry would point to chemical imbalances in the brain, in some cases this must be the direct, primary cause of depression; in lieu of some other extraneous variable causing the imbalance.

drugs, counselling apparently help. Might sport help too?

In all the sources mentioned bellow, sport refers to running, walking or cycling. I.e. the ‘endurance’ sports. It seems exercise has an effect on improving the symptoms of depression and the modality and intensity don’t seem to be important, although Weinberg and Gould (2011) suggest moderate intensity aerobic exercise as the most important.

A meta-analysis (that’s basically an analysis based on a collection of lots of research) by Lawlor and Hopker (2001), states weaknesses in various studies they analysed. Despite this exercise was found to be better than no therapy and as good as cogitative therapy.

The aforementioned meta-analysis is from the early part of this century, but a recent meta-analysis, confirm the findings of the earlier studies mentioned: Endurance exercise reduces the symptoms of depression. In fact a recent meta-analysis by Cooney, G. M. et al. (2013) found exercise to be no more effective than psychological and pharmacological therapies; or put another way it matches these therapies in the small number of well constructed experiments. In the words of the authors:

“Exercise is moderately more effective than a control intervention for reducing symptoms of depression, but analysis of methodologically robust trials only shows a smaller effect in favour of exercise. When compared to psychological or pharmacological therapies, exercise appears to be no more effective, though this conclusion is based on a few small trials.” Cooney, G. M. et al. (2013)

why most studies on this topic are flawed (in layman)?

The key flaw in these studies is that exercise as a treatment for depression is very hard to isolate as the single factor affecting change in depression. Hence a researcher can stick his hand up and say ‘exercise lowers depression!’. At best exercise is said to correlate with lower rates of depression.

if your not exercising yet, here are some useful points regarding depression:

my perspective

Personally, when I was cycling professional I don’t think exercise contributed to a healthier mind. But now I work just on studying, training and this project (SMS) and I find exercise necessary to bring balance to my life.

final note

Whether you are depressed or not, exercise really is as close to a miracle drug as there is. This is so much so I often wonder if it can be true, however time and again exercise stands up to the scrutiny. There are no short cuts: get exercising, it’s worth many time the effort you put in.

has sported helped you? What do you think of using sport in helping depression?


Gøtzsche, P. (2014) ‘Psychiatric drugs are doing us more harm than good’ The Guardian. [Online] 30 April 2014. [Accessed on 30th April 2014] URL:

Weinberg, R. S. and Gould, D (2011) Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 5th ed. Champaign: Human Kinetics. pp. 397-402.

Cooney, G. M. Dwan, K. Greig, C. A. Lawlor, D. A. Rimer, J. Waugh, F. R. McMurdo and M. Mead, G. E. (2013) ‘Exercise for depression’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 9, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. [no page number]

Lawlor, D. A. Hopker, S. W. (2001) ‘The effectiveness of exercise as an intervention in the management of depression: systematic review and meta-regression analysis of randomised controlled trials’, British Medical Journal, 322(7289), pp. 763.

motivation for endurance sports: what motivates high achieving people?

What motivates you?

I’m very interested about getting people out and doing sport. I’ve been struggling with this problem and given it a fair amount of thought. Not personally in my own training, but motivating other people. I want people to discover the awesomeness of being fit. There’s a lot of ‘theory’ about motivation and I have some understanding of the theory.

things that can help motivate people

Social inertia seems to work well, clubs and training groups as well social training apps such as Strava seem to be one of the best ways to motivate people. Social inertia can very negative and lead to negative motivation, think kids deciding to take up smoking…

Competition. I think a lot of people are ‘competition averse’, probably due to bad introductions to sport at school in childhood. Competitive minded people however need to just schedule a competition and everything else falls into place.

Goal setting (completing a course, self-improvement) seems to work to a limited extent -till the point gains can’t be made. At some time we all slow down due to age and this can have a big negative impact on motivation.

Intrinsic motivation. Ironically, I’ve seen this most commonly in elite athletes or former elites, whom are supposedly competitive, extrinsically motivated people (money, fame). Training becomes a compulsion and a need, independent of goals, state, anything. Although it’s often called ‘exercise dependence’ or ‘addiction’ this is by far the strongest motivation. I think this has to do with knowing what they feel when they’re fit and healthy and feeling better in that state.

Having a plan. Someone has taken the trouble to figure out the best way to train, the least you can do is follow through with the training. I personally struggle to ‘train’ myself as it’s hard to be 100% objective and committed to training myself, hence I’ll do too much, or too little, or throw in an extra rest day without reason…

Set your objectives far into the future. one, two years into the future, picture it and work towards it. This gives enough time for behaviour patterns to imprint and become default behaviour.

Choosing objective wiselyWhat I’ve found absolutely massacres motivation is when expectation isn’t met. So clearing all preconceptions about what you want to achieve and setting sensible goals is important. Having high objectives is important in my experience.

Financial commitment seems to work to some extent: I.e. buying the bike, joining the gym. Although this seems only to work on very short time scales.

Positive effects of exercise Although exercise has been show to improve physical performance hugely it’s also correlated with improvements in depression and cognitive benefits These factors don’t appear to be enough to motivate people…

It’s all well and good knowing the theory, actually motivating people is a whole other kettle of fish… I’m not the best at it.

A highly motivated individual

I’ve seen someone improve nearly 100% in two and a half months. Till now I had trained mainly elite athletes. With elite athletes every single percent is significant. So to see someone nearly double their power output was really cool. Imagine tuning your car to kick out twice the horse power. Granted this person just switched sports and was fatigued when they started, but still.

This person had extensive experience in sport, excellent knowledge of strength and conditioning, but a poor understanding of endurance sports. Things got of to a slow start, but after a period of adaptation, a series of very short training cycles a rest period his form went up incredibly. It’s been great to see.

It isn’t easy

Structured training for endurance sport is not easy, it’s a hard regimen designed to elicit the greatest training effect. This fact negatively affects the motivation of many people, especially if the process is new to them and isn’t well explained.

The pattern

There is a pattern though. People who take well to structured training are people with a history in other sports and are generally high achievers in other areas of life. These people aren’t motivated by sport, they are motivated full stop.

Without strong intrinsic motivation, it’s hard to keep to a rigorous schedule that will allow the very biggest improvements to be made.

motivation for endurance sports
what motivates you?

How to develop motivation for momentum sports?

And a few more thoughts on motivation…

Some half baked untested theory by yours truly.

I think the reason more people don’t take to sports is that there is an overstimulation during excerise which people aren’t used to. Think of the degrees of freedom involved in a sport like cycling: The brain is flooded with information from the eyes, proprioceptors, skin, ears, balance… It’s unbelievable the amount of information the brain has to process real time during a dynamic activity.

Once people used to it i.e. copying strategies and the pertinent neural pathways written, then exercise rather than being unpleasant, is pleasurable.

Basically, reducing the ‘degrees of freedom’ (i.e. the aspects of exercise someone has to deal with) can be the best way to get started: Be it using a static trainer, using music, etc. Also, self selected exercise intensity is important at the early stages, to limit the over stimulation that occurs at high levels of exercise intensity.

It’s probably the same reason why elite athletes tend use association during exercise, while amateur use disassociation as a coping technique. Because elite athletes ‘listen’ to the information feedback looking where they can squeeze out more performance, while amateur try blur it out, counting, singing, listening to music, etc…

While exercise is without a doubt good, resistance to it probably develops because no direct sense of reward is achieved. One thinks when a ‘wild human’ would have exercised and that when they needed to escape something, or catch something to eat: In both cases there is a reward. Where reward doesn’t exist it’s probably doesn’t make much ‘evolutionary’ sense to run around the place burning energy unnecessarily.

what gets people doing sport? Leave your comments bellow