Is Biking or Running a Better Workout? Here's How to Decide

Want to spark some heated debate? Ask a group of runners and cyclists which sport is the better workout and get ready for some animated and creative arguments. Both burn calories, improve heart health and can be adapted for indoor and outdoor workouts.

Biking and running are both great workouts, but which is better for you? (Image: Getty Images/Westend61)

But what if your goal is to build muscle or prevent injuries? Here's what to consider before choosing cycling or running (or opting to mix both into your routine). Ultimately, however, it may come down to which one you enjoy doing more.

Which Burns More Calories?

Generally, running and cycling result in a similar number of calories burned. But as with all workouts, the exact caloric expenditure depends on the intensity and duration of the workout. To up that number, you can either increase your speed, add hills or try interval training, alternating between bouts of speed and recovery periods.

Here's what it would take for a 154-pound person to burn about 300 calories running or cycling, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • 30 minutes of running at 5 miles per hour
  • 30 minutes of cycling at greater than 10 miles per hour
  • 20 minutes of running at 8 miles per hour
  • 60 minutes of cycling at less than 10 miles per hour

Winner: tie

Which Builds More Muscle?

If you're looking to bulk up, neither workout is going to compare to strength training. While it isn't impossible to use cycling to build leg muscle, it's not likely, says Tony Carvajal, certified CrossFit trainer with RSP Nutrition. "Cycling alone will primarily build muscular endurance yet not so much muscle mass," he says.

When it comes to running, shorter, faster runs and sprinting are your best bet for building muscle. "Sprints boost GH (growth hormone) and IGF (insulin-like growth factor) levels in the body — two growth hormones occurring naturally in the body — both of which lead to all around muscle growth," Carvajal says.

Winner: neither

Which One Is Better for Weight Loss?

Good news for those looking to lose weight: Both cycling and running can be part of a successful weight-loss plan. However, either method of training needs to be part of a regimen that results in burning more calories than you consume.

You can go hard and fast and burn a higher percentage of calories from carbs, or slow and steady to burn a higher percentage of calories from fat, says Carvajal. He also points out that total calories burned will depend on a variety of factors — including intensity, time and distance.

Winner: tie

Which One Is Better for Losing Belly Fat?

Unfortunately, you can't spot reduce belly fat. It takes burning more calories than you consume in a day — which, as mentioned above, both workouts can help you achieve — to burn fat all over your body, including your belly.

Interval training can help increase fat burn and can be done with both cycling and running. An example of an interval training session would include a five-minute warm-up, followed by one minute of vigorous cycling or sprinting, then two minutes of recovery or lower-intensity exercise. You would repeat this cycle for 25 to 30 minutes.

If you really want to tighten up your midsection, you should also add strength training exercises to your running or cycling routine. A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that building muscle helps increase your resting metabolic rate and ultimately, maximize fat burn.

Winner: tie

Which Improves Heart Health More?

Both running and cycling (and any other aerobic exercise) can protect your heart. Regular cardiovascular exercise lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, while helping with weight loss or maintenance, according to the American Heart Association.

Running may have a slight edge, though, when it comes to heart health, according to experts at Harvard Medical School. This is because, in general, the heart has to work a little bit harder. But as with calories burned (see above), it's the intensity and effort of your exercise that determines how hard your heart works.

Winner (by a nose): running

Which One Costs Less?

Running is usually a much less expensive workout than cycling. When it comes to outdoor running, all you really need is a good pair of sneakers. If you prefer to get your sweat on indoors instead, you'll need a treadmill or a gym membership.

Cycling, on the other hand, can get quite expensive. While you can pick up a used or inexpensive outdoor bike for around $100, more expensive models, better suited for extensive riding, can cost an upwards of $1,000 — sometimes even more than $10,000!

On top of that, you'll need a pair of cycling shoes and suitable clothes, such as tight bib shorts (which can cost up to $400) and of course, a helmet. As for indoor cycling, you will either need a stationary bike or a gym membership.

Winner: running

Which One Has Less Risk of Injury?

Unfortunately, both running and cycling can lead to injury. In fact, 48 percent of cyclists experience physical problems in their necks, 42 percent in their knees, 36 percent in the groin and buttocks, 31 percent in their hands and 30 percent in their backs, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.

Running injuries are also common, with 66 percent of runners reporting at least one, according to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine. Most commonly, these injuries include shin splints, runner's knee, iliotibial (IT) band syndrome and plantar fasciitis. To avoid these injuries, Carvajal suggests running on a track or shock-absorbing treadmill instead of taking your workout outdoors.

When it comes to avoiding cycling injuries, you should pay close attention to the quality of your equipment as well as your form. For example, to avoid groin injuries, make sure you have a properly padded and fitted bike seat. You should also avoid pushing yourself too hard for too long, which can cause overuse injuries in the hips and ankles.

Winner: neither

Which Is a Better Low-Impact Workout?

If you're looking for a low-impact workout to help you recover from injuries, first, get the all-clear from your doctor before you hop on a bike or throw on your running shoes.

Once you do, opt for cycling, as it's lower impact than running and can therefore often be a better workout for people with injuries — especially those with knee or joint problems — says fitness coach Lillian Daniels, founder of The Happy Knee.

"Biking is low impact, and I recommend it for those with knee challenges as it really helps to gently improve their range of motion as well as blood circulation to the knee," she says.

Winner: biking

Which Is the More Social Workout?

While both workouts can be done in groups outside, running might have an advantage when it comes to socializing. After all, it's a lot easier to chat with friends on a jog than when you are in the middle of a rigorous ride, especially because bikers don't usually ride side-by-side, says UK-based personal trainer Mollie Millington.

Of course, indoor cycling classes at your local gym or studio are a great way to cycle in a social setting. There are also at-home options for both cycling and running that offer a social aspect to both workouts (Peloton, for example).

Winner: indoor cycling and outdoor running

So Which One Is the Better Overall Workout for You?

The bottom line is that both cycling and running are two of the most efficient cardio workouts you can do. Only you can decide whether cycling or running is better for you, and things like your health goals, any preexisting health conditions or injuries you have, your budget and generally, what type of workout you enjoy more, should be taken into consideration.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to help point you in the right direction:

  • Want a free (or nearly free) workout? Run.
  • Prefer a faster way to see the great outdoors? Bike.
  • Have knee or other joint issues? Bike.
  • Need a workout you can do anytime, anywhere? Run.
  • Want to sit down while you work out? Bike.
  • Is heart health a major concern? Run.
  • Hate running? Bike.
  • Hate helmet hair? Run.
  • Looking for a healthier commute to work? Bike.
  • Need a hands-free workout? Run.
  • Want more exhilarating rest periods? Bike (you can coast downhill!).
  • Enjoy researching and buying the latest, greatest gear? Bike.
  • Like working out with friends? Do indoor cycling and outdoor running.
  • Looking to lose weight or burn calories? Do interval training with either form of exercise.

Winner: you decide!

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