In the running world, the bicycle is typically a tool for cross-training. It’s often used to reduce impact while nursing an injury. This two-wheeled contraption has been utilized over and over among the very best in the sport, but after a few years racing competitively I found there was more to learn from the art of cycling than just cross-training.
The relationships I’ve built between running and cycling mirrors a romantic comedy. One of those flicks where the lead has to decide between two partners. The attractive one that’s high maintenance, or the endless rollercoaster that always sparks a smile.
Running was my first love. She was all I could think about in high school. Together, we had dreams of a state championship and a D1 scholarship. We spent years together trying to achieve these goals. But she let me down, or maybe I let her down. Over-training and falters in confidence (trust issues) hit me at inopportune moments senior year and I was left empty handed in accolades, and walking-on to a modest D1 program. However, summer base-miles rekindled our relationship. Freshman year of collegiate cross country was a success; making the traveling squad, scoring important points at the conference championship, and running at the west regionals. Then, boom… achilles injury followed by a forced recovery to get back. I was limping physically and emotionally. Our love affair was in jeopardy and the outside world started pointing out the cracks in our unhealthy relationship. Running had let me down too many times and things weren’t going to be the same. I half-heartedly hung onto the team for a few more years with very little racing, ultimately stepping off the squad my senior year while student teaching. The break up was hard and drawn out, but a new relationship was forming while working a part-time job at a downtown sandwich shop. I found cycling.
Working as a courier, I was riding 30-40 hard miles a day and making money! The budding relationship was so exciting I considered dropping everything and committing to cycling full-time. Eventually, I finished school and moved to Track Town USA – Eugene, Oregon. I brought cycling with me, finding another delivery job and immersing myself in bike culture. The community offered more than enough help when they recognized my talent. I started racing and moved up the ranks to the fastest categories in a single season. The new relationship was locked in and moving quickly, like running and I used to be. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to realize I couldn’t keep up with cycling’s eye for the finer things. Our relationship was thrilling, but cycling likes expensive trips and fancy carbon jewelry. Over time, as reality crept in, I started feeling ambivalent. A few seasons of “just hanging out” felt unsatisfying. We were trapped in no-man’s land; not training enough together to be competitive, and not committed enough to drag all her gear to races. Feeling lost, I spontaneously reached out to running and signed up for the Portland Marathon. Uncertain and underprepared I toed the line and remembered what we once had.
I’m back with running, but I believe regardless of how a relationship ends, it’s important to leave with growth. This is what I learned in my relationship with cycling that strengthened my experience with running.
Even Pacing is Great Until it Isn’t
As a runner with a track background, I was obsessed with even splits. Whether it was 800m or a marathon, there was a precise pace I wanted to hit throughout the race to reach a goal time. As far as energy efficiency goes, this is the superior method. However, if a runner has fragile mental focus, this can be a roadblock in racing success.
Nothing screams “roadblock” like my times senior year of high school.
5k XC – 16:01, 16:01, 16:03, 16:10
3200m on the track – 9:55, 9:59, 10:01, 10:03, 10:04
It didn’t matter the course, the weather, or the competition – there were goal splits in my head, and I was so focused on them I wasn’t capable of going any faster. I’d unintentionally installed a restrictor plate in my legs. Additionally, if just one split was too slow…pffffff the wind was out of my sails and I’d run well below my ability.
Cycling races are the antithesis of even splits. Because wind’s such a dominant factor, a rider’s goal is to break-away early without dragging everyone along in their slipstream, or be the last rider standing. This means viciously attacking on features within the race such as hills, a strong crosswind, or a really technical section. Essentially, road races are like a 3-5 hour fartlek workout, and times or average speed are practically irrelevant.
How does this translate back to running?
- Don’t put all your focus on a time – Have a range of times in your head so you don’t get stuck on a number: a time you can live with, a good time, and a great time. Keep your focus on consistent effort, not consistent pace. After running uphill for a mile, don’t let a slow mile split shake you. Remember that the downhill is on the horizon and don’t be shocked at that blazing split either (especially true in ultra/trail racing).
- Account for conditions and use them to your advantage – Learn which lines are fastest in muddy conditions (it’s often not the shortest way). Zip up your jacket in a strong headwind and let it be your sail in the tailwind. Put in a surge when you have good footing, knowing there’ll be roots, mud and sharp turns to tiptoe through up ahead.
- It’s all in the effort – If you leave it all out on the course and overcome all the small adversities, you’re going to feel like a winner, no matter what your time ends up being.
Get Comfy with the Bonk
Bonk, empty tank, death march, whatever you want to call it – if you’ve done a handful of endurance events you know the feeling. All your energy has left your body and now you’re putting everything into placing one foot in front of the other. With most bike rides lasting 3+ hours, this happens often in cycling. I’ve bonked 30 miles from home, ready to call for a ride. I’ve bonked 5 miles from home, ready to call for a ride. When the bonk hits, it feels like there’s no way you can possibly continue. However, if you always succumb to the temptation of calling it quits in a non-emergency, you could be missing out on one of the most rewarding experiences in endurance sport.
One of my biggest disappointments in cycling was dropping out of a 200 mile race, 150 miles in. I was hanging onto the leaders with only 4 of us left. The pace was brutal and I found myself yoyo-ing off the back of the group as we climbed hill after hill. When the string finally snapped and I was dropped and alone the effort set in. Even worse, I got caught in a downpour, and not the refreshing kind. It all hit too hard. I pulled off the road and called for my girlfriend and her parents to come pick me up. My day was over.
In contrast, one of my proudest moments on the bike was during a 4-stage race. Going into the weekend I had high hopes for a win in the overall classifications. Unfortunately, the whole weekend started horribly when I became dizzy from dehydration and crashed my bike off the road – halfway through stage 1. Knowing if I DNF’d I’d be unable to participate in the rest of the weekend, I practically crawled the last 40 miles to the finish, stopping at any shady spot I could find, and begging for water from other dropped riders along the way. The following day I suffered through a double-header, but started feeling better as the day went on. Amazingly, the last day I felt great and won the premier stage! Just about the best example out there as to why you should stick it out if you can.
What’s most crucial in your moment of bonk?
- Have extra fuel – Maybe you’ll luck out on a well placed mini mart, aid station, or have a generous friend with you that can save the day – but don’t count on it. If you often train solo, you should always carry a few more snacks and sips than you think you’ll need.
- Take a breather – If you find yourself struggling to inch forward, it’s ok. Take a moment to collect yourself, refuel and refocus on heading towards the next landmark. More often than not you’ll find yourself coming out the other side of the paincave and getting a second/third/fourth wind.
- Remind yourself – Remember all the work you’ve put in getting to this starting line or distance. Throwing that all away during a moment of weakness is an injustice to the countless hours you’ve put in.
- Keep throwing wood in the fire – Prevention is always the preferred method. To fend off the bonk, make sure you’re eating and drinking regularly. Timing and amount is dependent on the person and conditions. In general, I enjoy a bar or gel every 40-50 minutes, and a few sips of water or sport drink every 20 minutes.
Put simply, if you want to do epic things, assume it may go awry and be prepared. Had I embraced the bonk and took the time to collect myself and refuel in my 200 mile bike race, I would’ve surely made it to the finish, and probably still placed in the top 10. Remember you may not end up reaching your goal, but you’ll learn a lot about yourself and how to better prepare for the next attempt. In a sport where the goal is to push your body to its limits, you’re bound to fall on your face every now and then. Make sure your mind isn’t the weakest link.
While taking your easy days easy isn’t new to training philosophy in the running world, it’s often brushed off by the average runner who feels it’s a waste of a workout. Yet, if you’ve read about or trained with an East African athlete you know their easy days are often trots, several minutes per mile slower than they’re capable of running. They believe recovery days are just as important as workout days, and running at a hair below lactate threshold isn’t going to allow the body to recover the way it needs to. This is something I stubbornly misunderstood until I started cycling.
The best cyclists find a way to get through a 3-5 hour race with as little effort as possible; saving their energy for big attacks and the final sprint. As a runner, unless you’re regularly in championship 1500m or 5ks, this is a pretty foreign way to approach a race. Most distance runners are accustomed to leaving it all on the course, every single race. This mindset’s easy to carry into training. However, training’s not a race and shouldn’t be treated as one.
In high school and college I thought anything under 7 minute pace was downright dumb. I was afraid to go slow, thinking it would rub off on my performance. It wasn’t until reaching the upper categories of bike racing when I realized how important recovery was. Enlightenment first came in the way of riding at the front, breaking the wind for everyone, and then being humiliated in the final sprint. Knowing I’m no sprinter, I recognized my best bet was attacking and breaking away before the finish. In order to do this I had to be fresh and explosive at the moment of attack, and then hold a really hard effort for a few minutes to create separation. Thus, my training changed. I focused on a large number of extremely hard, short efforts (high-intensity intervals). These workouts would leave my legs feeling like jello, and the following day I’d have to ride around in the easiest gears available to spin out the soreness. I’d regularly get passed by the casual commuters on the bike path. A true easy day.
After a couple short months my fitness took a noticeable jump, breaking a plateau that formed the year prior. This all happened because my body was able to absorb the hard efforts, actually recover from them, and then be prepared to go even harder.
Carrying it over to running, I started to find workouts that I struggled through in college to be much more manageable, and I would sometimes even surprise myself. My easy days were typically 3-5 miles with my dogs, who love to stop and smell the roses. It was rare we would ever dip below 10 minute mile pace. Instead of my paces staying within a 2 minute range across the entire week, the window of paces became much wider. My fastest paces became faster after my slowest paces became slower.
Take What You’re Given
If asked to only name one thing I learned from cycling, it’d be to appreciate what the day has given. In most cases, aside from relays, running is an individual sport. In contrast, cycling is very much a team sport. Oftentimes riders are tasked with a thankless job like draining themselves to bring a break-away back so a teammate has a better chance of winning.
Most people reading this have probably watched a stage of Le Tour de France, or at least seen some highlights. A break-away, which often happens early in a race, is a group of riders that goes off the front while the rest of the peloton lets them go. The peloton, or main group, is expecting to eventually reel them back in. If a teammate’s in the break, a rider’s job is to make sure the group up the road doesn’t get caught. Sometimes a rider will kill themselves by latching onto other riders trying to bridge the gap. This foils their attempt by forcing them to give a free ride up to the leaders. Other times a rider may be in the break-away, but end up getting caught before the finish. The exhausting effort means the peloton will likely swallow them up and spit them out the back faster than they can say “good work” to teammates still in the lead group, leaving them crawling to the finish line.
Unfortunately, not every race is going to be our best day when running either. In a trail ultra it’s easy to take a wrong turn and add on more miles than expected. In a half-marathon you may drop a crucial bottle when you really need it. Perhaps you woke up with an upset stomach the day of your race. What’s important is accepting this may not be your best race ever, but you can still make a good day out of it. Find a new way to challenge yourself within the race. Embrace the journey of your body discovering a new distance. Analyze what went wrong in your race prep. Whatever form of motivation you find, take what you’re given on the day, make the most of it, and use it to prepare for the next one.
While cycling may come across as a sport for the equipment junkies, the strongest lessons over thousands of miles had nothing to do with how light or fast my bike was. Instead, the comforts of low impact and coasting allowed me to push my body far beyond what I thought it was capable of, without a high risk of injury. I learned to embrace the adventure of stretching my limits and gained understanding in how to manage my effort after it blew up in my face. I learned to let go of trying to perform perfectly. But most importantly, I learned to be grateful for my fitness and the ability to enjoy the outdoors on a daily basis.
Cassidy Bigsby is a coach with Team RunRun. To learn more about him or to work with Coach Cassidy, check out his coaching page.