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]

Introduction to our swim coach!

Ricardo Correia has been a swim coach for eight years

Basically I (Tomas) don’t believe in reinventing the wheel and although I can coach swimming (going back to first principles) I haven’t got the depth of experience to accompany this. Hence I set out in search of a swim coach to work with and provide a much better service to my triathlete clients (no swimmers yet). I’ve personally been trained by Ricardo and went from barely scrapping 13:30 for 750m to 11:30… and if I’m honest, I haven’t exactly been strict with my training -its been very little and erratic!

Meet Ricardo our swim coach

I’ve been a competitive swimmer for 15 years, and won the regional open water swimming cup three times over all and six timers as an age grouper. In this time I’ve won several of these grueling events. Now I do it for fun just and in support of young local athletes that I train professionally at my club, F.C. Armacenenses.

In 2010 I turned to triathlon, simply because I wanted to get fit, healthy… and I needed a personal challenge!

open water swim coaching is my passion

In terms of my studies, I’ve got a degree in Sports Training and many certificates specifically in swim training.

I run several workshops throughout the country, both with SMS and for my team and friends.

What I love about swim coaching is that it allows people to improve dramatically and measurably in a short period time.

Some think you can’t coach via distance, I believe you can

coaching via distance

Whether it’s swimming, biking or running, I’m often asked, ‘how do you coach via distance?’

Nowadays with the internet, the phone, devices like those by Garmin and Polar to collect data, it is perfectly possible to coach the physiological and psychological aspects of training via distance. Personally I like to use e-mail, skype and Biomechamics and skills, on the other hand need to be addressed in person.

there are limitations anyway

In cycling for example, the closest the coach can get is monitor a test on an an ergotrainer, or observe the athlete from a follow car. In swimming a coach can be pool side, while in running, a coach can be track side. All these points of view are far removed from that of the participant.

coach car
does coach in the car help a rider go faster?

is pedagogy affected?

I would say pedagogy is slightly affected by distance coaching, as in person teaching and teaching trough example is necessary to get some points across. However using e-mail as a tool to communicate coaching advice there is a record of information which the person can fall back on. Personally, I prefer learning via distance since I can focus better. Others, prefer a more interactive learning environment. I try to keep this blog ( with this aim too.

what are the advantages?

I concentrate on the data and the feedback. The separation allows a more objective analysis of the data. The data is mostly used to monitor training effect, while feedback is primarily used to establish factors moderating the training and psychological aspects of training which are far more significant than I thought before studying sports psychology.

there is a compromise

I’ve had most success when people come here and spend a week training. The best effect being people staying in my own home, however this isn’t something I offer commercially! The brief period of a training camp is usually enough to get through a multitude of little errors people make training: Or should I say, ‘lifestyle’ errors that affect training. This allowed two people to reach the very highest level of their sport.

final note

All my athletes have improved. This is good. Being too focused on the numbers like there are machines, is not good. I’ve been guilty of this in the past, it’s too easy to just concentrate on the data at a distance and not enough on the person. That a person is satisfied with their training is more important than eking out every percent of performance.

what’s your experience with coaching via distance? Any criticisms of the approach? Share your views bellow

cycling training plans by Tomas Swift-Metcalfe

Enjoy cycling, improve your performance with a custom training plan

If you want to become better at cycling, there is nothing better than structured training. I’ve had tremendous success with all types of people, from professional athletes, to business executives. It’s very good value.

A plan begins either with precondition, then testing, or straight away with testing depending on your level of activity. These tests are usually field tests, although VO2max tests and lactic threshold tests can be organised if you visit the Algarve for training. I recommend visiting the algarve for training.

The cycling training plans are based on your fitness files (Garmin, Polar, etc). I take these files analyse fatigue, training levels. Based on my analysis of your files I produce your training plan. This is produced in accordance with your goals and limitations. This is the best way to train and exceptionally good value. You get: unlimited communication and updates, an online account to keep on top of things and record progress are all provided. I go the extra mile to make sure you’re satisfied with your training.

I’ve been an elite athlete for the past 9 years, first in duathlon and then cycling. I’ve been professional cyclist for 6 years now and have a strong academic grounding in sport. This riles a lot of ‘rival’ cycling coaches as few have ‘been there and done that’ and can only imagine what it takes.

I strongly suggest you try my services, for at least for three months to see tremendous benefits. The best way to get start is to subscribe via Paypal, it’s secure and easy and your free to cancel at any time you want:

Alternatively get in touch and we can arrange something different.

5 tips for designing your own cycling training plan

Errors to avoid making while designing your own cycling training plan

However there are some pitfalls even very experienced athletes and coaches fall into when coaching themselves. These errors are based on my own experience as a cyclist and coach… You might not necessarily make them, or already be aware of these errors.

1.) Understand what you are training.

A problem I’ve seen often is people not appreciating what specific training zones ‘do’ and considering everything around threshold as ‘threshold’ work and not appreciating that small changes in intensity mean a huge change in training effect. I’ve had problems prescribing training at one level and people pushing through in to the next due to over enthusiasm.

How to establish basic training level

A very simple, effective way of establishing training levels is a 20′ test where you go flat out (best done on a large climb with a gradient of 5% or higher). This will give you an estimation of lactic threshold and ‘FTP’. FTP is a proprietary buzzword belonging to the folks at Training Peaks LLC, what it means is the highest effort you can sustain for an hour. I call this zone ‘lactic tolerance’, other call it ‘MSPO’ (maximum sustainable power output. You train just bellow threshold if you want to raise it, train just above it if you want to increase anaerobic power. These two work antagonistically and how much you train each one depends on your muscle make up and goals.

There is obviously skill involved in choosing the correct the training levels and more specifically how much time an individual can work at each level, recovery etc.

In summary:
Learn about what your trying to achieve through training.

2.) Be objective

When planning training for myself, I find it hard to stay objective. This leads to switching training objectives on a whim and not following a coherent long term plan with specific objectives at each phase.

How to choose realistic objectives

Fitness objectives and target events (in my opinion) are the best objectives. We have goals (events) and objectives (getting better). The result in the event is the product of the objective, rather than an objective in its own right. I am sure you know how frustrating it can be when an event doesn’t go well due to sickness or something. On going monitoring and testing is good to keep enthusiastic.

In summary:
Choose your objective for each phase of the plan. E.g. build an aerobic base, develop power, consolidate, perform.

3.)Don’t do Too much too soon

When coaching myself I find I tend to ask too much of myself too soon. The problem here is using reference speed and times that I’d hit when fully fit…

Pick a strategy that suits you and your sport and stick to it

Evaluate your performance after a period of 4 weeks preconditioning. Whether you choose to ‘build an aerobic base’ or choose to start with strength work, you need to be ready to train (pre-conditioned to it!) and you need to know what your training. While we can loose form rapidly it takes weeks to build.

In summary:
Re-assess your fitness regularly through the beginning of a plan

4.) Temper enthusiasm

I find enthusiasm leads to the over reaching at the early stages of a program.

how to temper enthusiasm

Personally, I find this very difficult. Training with other people usually works well, as things need to remain controlled for a group to stick together, yet people motivate each other just enough to push the limit when necessary. Things should not degenerate into a race! Another way is to be disciplined enough to recognise the ‘good days’ on the bike and not over do it on these days. Pushing through on not so good days is important. The skill here is choosing the amount of work to do at a particular intensity. Generally you can do a lot bellow threshold, where as in lactic power, above it you are giving your body a lot of extra problems in recovery.

In summary:
It’s about listening to your body today, and thinking whether you can recover from the effort.

5.) More isn’t more with training.

Training isn’t about how much you do, but how well you do it. Huge volumes of training don’t illicit a great training effect. Also, it’s my guess that if you can sustain huge volumes of training in your plan, that your training too easily to illicit a significant training effect.

What’s the right amount to train?

This depends on the following factor: Age, state of fitness, chosen sport, life constraints. Generally a cyclist can get very fit on as little as 12 hour a week. Even people with busy schedules can manage to get very fit.

In summary:
Quality over quantity