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In a chat group of a local cycling community a hot debate arose about running. This is something that most cyclists shun greatly and few can manage it for a few kilometers. Personally I can run for a few kilometers like say three maximum and for considerable slower speed than I could long before I took cycling seriously.

So one of our expert cyclists began the hot debate by saying running can help improve our respiratory system which will eventually improve our cycling experience that we would be able to sustain strenuous cycling activity especially on a higher elevation terrain. While he had a point in that not many of us were willing to give it a try because like myself the last time I tried to take off for 100m by running I was drained a lot unable to cycle vigorously as I always do. Somehow I found one of us who now runs like 30 to 40 kms a day though I was not able to confirm if he still cycles as he used to.

I am currently researching on this issue to see if it can help us to improve our cycling experience or we should continue with other warming exercises we have been having.

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    I think probably elite level triathletes think they're good at both cycling and running. – thosphor Aug 10 at 13:20
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    Here is a recent take on your question. But you could also look to Emma Pooley as proof that you can be great at both. – Adam Rice Aug 10 at 13:23
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    Rule 42: // A bike race shall never be preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run.If it’s preceded with a swim and/or followed by a run, it is not called a bike race, it is called duathlon or a triathlon. Neither of which is a bike race. Also keep in mind that one should only swim in order to prevent drowning, and should only run if being chased. And even then, one should only run fast enough to prevent capture. – Swifty Aug 10 at 14:49
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    I'm not sure this question should be closed, as some people have thus voted, but it could definitely be worded more generally as a question on specializing in multiple endurance sports, or maybe multiple sports in general. If there were an athletic training SE site, it would be a fit for that; as it currently is, I think the fitness SE site is too general. – Weiwen Ng Aug 10 at 16:54
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    30-40 K / day? That's 18-24 miles per day. That's closing in on a full marathon a day. You sure about that? I mean, I know some people do that, but they're probably pretty few and far between and most of them probably do not combine it with cycling. – FreeMan Aug 10 at 22:33
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Can one be good at both? There is a reasonable correlation between run and bike speed for athletes who do both, so if you are good at one there's a reasonable chance you could be good at the other. Here is a plot that shows performance for a run-bike-run duathlon. Each dot in each panel shows the speed of an individual athlete in two of the three segments of this race. As you can see, the correlations between bike speed and run speed for the opening 3K run and the ending 15K run are 0.78 and 0.76. Note that the correlation between the two running legs is only 0.88, so a bike-run correlation of 0.77 isn't bad.

pairwise plot of speed for duathlon splits

Although there are techniques and specific physical demands that differ between the sports both cycling and running (other than sprinting) are endurance sports, so we could reasonably expect that ability in each are related. Your question was about the potential for a single individual to be "good" in each activity. A slightly related question is how to predict performance in one from performance in the other. This was addressed in an answer to another bike.SE question, "How many miles of riding require the same effort as one mile of running?"

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    It's a nice graph, but not necessarily easy to understand immediately. – gktscrk Aug 11 at 4:38
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    If the graphs all look like stripes going from bottom-left to top-right, then generally people good at and one of the three events will be good at any other one (good bikers are good runners and marathon runners). If the graphs all look like stripes going from top-left to bottom-right, then there's generally a trade-off between being good at one event and another (to be good at biking you can't be good at running, etc.). If the graphs all look like scatterplots without any pattern then maybe there's no connection. – Charles Aug 11 at 4:56
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    And if the graphs look different, you'll need to look one-by-one to decide. In this case they look pretty much like the first case: the biggest effect is that some people are just really good athletes (or really fit, or young, etc. -- the charts can't tell), across all three sports. The correlations are unsurprisingly tighter between the running events. – Charles Aug 11 at 4:56
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    The plot is a bit "too clever" with where it puts its axis labels. It took me a moment to understand that the text in the diagonal squares are labels for both the horizontal and vertical axes. – Emil Aug 11 at 7:04
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    The sample includes people whose cycling average speed is below 25 km/h and running average slower than 6 min/km. This is competitive only in the sense that they participated in a timed event. – ojs Aug 12 at 6:57
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I have been running for more than a decade. In 2018, I accepted a challenged to complete a sprint triathlon. I borrowed a CX bike and started training. My only previous bike experience was riding bmx bikes as a kid, which was ancient history. I can definitely say that my running fitness made it much easier to get up to speed on a bike. After only 2 months of cycling, I had a respectable showing on the bike and did well on the run (swim, not so good).

There are many articles about why running can help cycling performance. This one - is pretty good and backs up their claims with published studies. Some of the benefits they list include

  1. Improved cardio and VO2 Max
  2. Better travel option
  3. Increased bone density
  4. Better fat burn

The article also points out that you have to start slowly and be careful to build up incrementally. Many people suffer injuries when they start running and if you're 40+, be especially cautious. I would recommend the run/walk approach suggested in that same article. You're probably better off maintaining your cycling routine and running one day each week to being with. That will allow you to see how your body handles running and if/how it improves your cycling with minimal risk and investment.

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  • all good - It helps the wording be as approachable as possible. (hey I didn't know which you meant :) This is a great answer - keep it up ! – Criggie Aug 11 at 4:23
  • For run/walking, Couch to 5K is a programme that works well for a whole range of abilities, as long as you're willing to swallow your pride when you start (note to self!) :) – user7761803 Aug 11 at 12:25
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    Your last paragraph is particularly important for a fit cyclist starting to run - their cardiovascular system is probably stronger than their joints. Example: My knees aren't great but I had to build up very gradually indeed from running less than 1/4 the distance of my daily cycling commute. Strangely running faster (though far from fast) helped - I was more tired so wasn't tempted to add a loop. – Chris H Aug 11 at 15:03
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As @thosphor pointed out in comments, the very existence of the sport of triathlon proves that it's possible to be good in up to three endurance sports simultaneously. Thus, with respect to the OP, the question in the title is trivial.

Should we try to be good at more than one sport?

This may be a more interesting question, and some of the OP's phrasing implies that this may be the question they were getting at. I'm going to answer based on what I know of physiological and sports training principles, but I am not a specialist in the subject and I would welcome corrections from someone who actually knows the science.

When you start a new sport, part of the initial physiological response involves your brain learning to recruit the muscles involved. Thus, when you first lift weights, you don't actually gain much muscle mass, but you do gain strength as your brain learns how to fire your muscles. I would expect that all sports involve some sport-specific fitness as well as generic fitness. This corresponds to the sensation of fatigue that the OP reported after taking some time off for running.

The OP identified running as the chosen supplementary sport. Running is an endurance sport like cycling. Thus, once you achieve running-specific fitness, you would merely be adding to your general endurance. For that reason, it wasn't clear to me that you would expect running to improve your cycling fitness, provided you are getting sufficient overall training stimulus to achieve your goals. I have not digested the source that DSway provided in his answer yet, and I note that running has some logistical benefits (can exercise when away, can get the same training stimulus in less time).

Offsetting that is that you will need some minimum amount of training before you can run far enough to get enough of a supplemental training effect. Presumably, former runners will need to train less than complete novices, but even former runners who have not run in some time will have lost their running-specific conditioning. I can attest to this from personal experience.

Children should not be forced to specialize

Admittedly, this doesn't have anything to do with the OP's direct question, but I argue it's a reasonable tangent, and it is related to the question if we should diversify our sports.

Ross Tucker, a sports scientist who writes for the blog the Science of Sport, argued that forcing children to specialize early is counterproductive. Kids should instead be allowed to sample various sports, and to decide if they want to specialize at their own pace. If anything they should be pushed to delay specialization. Early specialization seems to be associated with both injuries and burnout. So, one might actually want to push a child to try out other sports.

The goal of his statement is to avoid the latter two outcomes, not necessarily to promote diversification for its own sake. Extrapolating from that to adult cyclists, I would argue that we should sample some other sports to see if there are any we like. I think we should not feel obliged to pick up running, or any particular sport, if we don't like that sport.

One potential exception is that sometimes, multi-sport training can help address overuse injuries. For example, I know that I benefit from weight training, as I would otherwise have more back and shoulder pain. For someone who runs very long distances, I wonder if they would benefit from diversifying into a non-weight bearing endurance sport (presuming that they enjoy it!) to reduce overuse injuries from running. Because cycling is not weight-bearing, perhaps those of us who are at risk for low bone density should try to find a second sport that is weight-bearing, like running or weight training.

As a side note, some sports do inevitably require early specialization to achieve an elite level. I believe these would tend to be sports that require a very high level of technical prowess, like gymnastics. These would be exceptions to the header. Related to this, swimming is very technique-intensive, and I suspect that most triathletes who do not have early swimming experience will have the swim as their weak sport.

Can athletes achieve a professional or elite level in multiple sports?

This is another question that may be related to the title, although I assume the OP may not find this personally relevant. Can an athlete achieve a high performance in multiple sports? Related but not identical, we might ask if it's possible to be world class in more than one sport, or world class in one sport and to play at a very high level in another. For example, I recall that Michael Jordan was one of the greatest basketball players and that he turned professional in baseball, even if he didn't come anywhere near the same level.

In addition to triathlon, decathlon and related multiple track and field sports, biathlon (shooting and skiing, derived from alpine warfare), and Crossfit all attempt to build proficiency in multiple related sports. So, clearly it is possible to perform at a high level in multiple related sports, e.g. different endurance sports, different ball sports, different combat sports, different strength or speed events. Some comments below noted athletes performing at high levels across multiple similar sports. In addition, Mavi Garcia came (late!) to professional road cycling from a duathlon (run + bike) background. She nearly won the 2020 Strade Bianchi race, beaten by Annemiek Van Vleuten, who is the dominant women's road rider of the moment.

However, we do not regularly hear of multi-sport athletes being in contention for world class status in related single sports or single track and field events. By world class, I mean being in regular contention for a podium spot in multiple high-prestige races in a chosen sport. I suspect that each individual sport requires a great deal of sport-specific fitness and technique and other forms of specialization. In cycling, the sport-specific techniques and skills include racecraft (e.g. which line to take in a hectic race, how to identify a break that must be covered, which rider to get behind for a sprint, etc) and bike handling. Those posters here who have also tried running can probably attest to the fact that they probably had different muscles being sore after a run than after their usual rides - this is an example of sport-specific fitness, even between two endurance sports that use the legs for propulsion.

I would suspect that to achieve world class status in one sport requires an immense amount of training in that sport. I would wager that most athletes don't have the time in the day or even during their entire careers to achieve world class status across multiple sports. If this were possible, we should more regularly hear of, for example, world class decathletes winning prestigious 1500m races on the track or Crossfit athletes transitioning to powerlifting, or vice versa. Perhaps we shall do so as time goes on and as multisport events gain more prestige.

With technique-based sports like ball sports or combat sports, there is the additional complication that the techniques and rules are very different, and there is a lot of muscle memory that one would have to un-learn. Most readers probably just remember that Michael Jordan didn't make the truly elite level in baseball, but that misses the point that they are very different games. This makes his transition doubly impressive.

It seems intuitively obvious that attaining a high level in different types of sports, e.g. strength and endurance sports, is impossible. Coffey and Hawley write that the metabolic pathways used to adapt to aerobic training will inhibit the pathways used to adapt to resistance training, and vice versa. Thus, it should be impossible for a world-class marathoner to simultaneously be competitive in 100-400m sprints, let alone to be world class at those shorter distances. This is not to say that endurance athletes should not work on strength exercises to enable their endurance pursuits and to enhance general fitness; it merely means that endurance athletes will not be able to attain their optimal strength if they were specializing in strength sports.

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    I was able to think of one - Clara Hughes - a Canadian who placed on the podium in the Olympics in cycling and speed skating. Definitely the exception rather than the norm. – Gaston Aug 10 at 18:11
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    There are certain disciplines that work very well together. Track cycling and speed skating are one of those. Another that comes to mind is sprint running and long jump (Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis). – ojs Aug 10 at 18:49
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    Perhaps that Texan is a bad example - his name brings a lot of baggage into any discussion. – Criggie Aug 11 at 1:24
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    The Norwegian triathlon trio (Blummenfelt, Iden & Stornes) are some of the best in the world, and were just a couple of seconds behind the running elite in a 5k run recently. – Matsemann Aug 11 at 12:32
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    Bo Jackson and Deon Sanders succeeded where Michael Jordan failed. They both had successful careers in the NFL and MLB. – Paul H Aug 12 at 19:53
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From personal experience being good at running doesn’t translate to being good at cycling and vice versa. The muscles used are different and the motion/technique is different. I’d be especially careful when going from cycling to running because it’s much more injury prone. If your main goal is to be good at cycling, don’t go running (unless running is the only option, for example on a business trip where you can’t bring the bike. In such a situation it’s better than nothing of course.).

A cyclist starting to run will probably be too heavy and muscular (unless he’s a climber) and really struggle with running form and injuries. A runner starting to cycle will probably lack muscles, will be bad at nutrition (cyclists eat a lot more during rides than runners while running) and will lack riding skills (especially going downhill) and tactics.

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