Most physiologists will agree that running performance is determined by the following three or four physiological factors: VO2max, lactate threshold, anaerobic capacity, and running economy (RE) (Midgley et al., 2007). Of course, psychology, motivation, and a central/peripheral governor may also play a role, but I want to focus solely on the trainable physiological factors.
An athlete is returning from a tibial stress fracture sustained during a high-mileage "base phase" in the month of December. This is the athlete's third tibial stress fracture in four years that can be attributed to running. Upon diagnosis, the athlete completed two weeks of aqua jogging, then progressed back on to the bike with moderate volumes and low-moderate intensities for the next 3-4 weeks. His competitive season will begin in May.
For no apparent reason, this athlete is prone to tibial stress fractures. High-mileage programs may not be appropriate for the athlete.
Program Considerations, moving forward:
Could/should the athlete replace some of his running volume or workouts with cycling? What might the athlete gain? What will the athlete miss out on?
Fitness gains from cycling:
As noted in the first paragraph, athletes can improve cardiovascular function as VO2max. There is mixed information as to whether training lactate threshold and anaerobic capacity on the bike transfers to running. It is likely that cycling will not attribute to additional stress on the tibia (no impact forces, little eccentric muscle action).
Areas not addressed by cycling:
Perhaps the biggest hole in using cycling training for improving running performance is that the kinematics of cycling are so dissimilar to running. Running relies heavily on stored elastic energy and the use of the stretch shorten cycle (SSC). Being able to utilize the SSC effectively reduces the energy cost of movement, increasing economy. Remember, economy is one of those variables that dictates running performance. Unfortunately for our athlete, cycling will not utilize the SSC to the same extent of running. Further, recruitment patterns and posture are also different. I would speculate that if you had elite level cyclists run on a treadmill, while their VO2max values would be impressive, their RE may very well be similar to untrained individuals.
Plugging the Hole:
So, how can we improve RE with a minimal amount of running? If you've read any other posts on this blog, you probably know that I am very interested in hill sprints. Sprint and distance running coaches like Lydiard, Daniels, and Canova have been using hill sprints for decades, claiming they improve power and economy. While these claims are still up for debate, we have seen some research emerging on the topic (Barnes et al., 2013). Further, we can reason our way through using hill sprints for improved power and economy (Figure 1). We've also seen that plyometric and strength training can improve RE, likely through the same mechanisms, leading to improved stored elastic energy (Saunders et al., 2006; Ronnestad & Mujika, 2013).
|Figure 1. Rationale for hill sprints improving running economy.|
Operating on the information we have - the runner can maintain aerobic capacity through cycling. The primary component of fitness to address will be RE, and potentially lactate threshold.
Training Running Economy:
Given the particular scenario, consider the following training methods to create a program that will enhance RE with a minimal amount of running volume:
- Hill sprints, fast uphill strides, high intensity or sprint intervals (Barnes et al., 2013; Midgley et al. 2007)
- Plyometrics - drop jumps, skips for height, broad jumps, uphill bounding/jumping (Saunders et al., 2006)
- Strength training - see previous post here
- Explosive strength/power training - jump squats, cleans, I also consider hill sprints to be power training (Paavolainen et al., 1999)
- Altitude training, heat acclimation (Saunders et al., 2004)
- Beetroot supplementation? Possibly, though research is generally not as effective for highly trained athletes
Outside of the weightroom, the athlete can incorporate fast running and plyometrics into his/her training routine. In this way, cycling can help maintain aerobic capacity and lactate threshold while the run training is focused on improving RE. Below are a few suggested workouts.
- 20:00 easy-moderate run with 10 x 10-12s maximal effort hill sprints + 60-90:00 moderate cycling
- plyometrics with uphill jumps and bounding + 60-90:00 cycling with 20x30(30) intervals
- 6-8 x 400m run @ >3000m pace + 30-60:00 easy-moderate cycling
Any one of these workouts could be completed as one bout, divided into two sessions in one day, or separated by days (run on one day, ride the next). That will likely depend on the individual athlete's goals, abilities, preferences, and injury concerns.
Barnes, K. R., Hopkins, W. G., McGuigan, M. R., & Kilding, A. E. (2013). Effects of Different Uphill Interval-Training Programs on Running Economy and Performance. Int J Sports Physiol Perform.
Etxebarria, N., Anson, J. M., Pyne, D. B., & Ferguson, R. A. (2013). High-intensity cycle interval training improves cycling and running performance in triathletes. Eur J Sport Sci.
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Paavolainen, L., Hakkinen, K., Hamalainen, I., Nummela, A., & Rusko, H. (1999). Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol (1985), 86(5), 1527-1533.
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Saunders, P. U., Pyne, D. B., Telford, R. D., & Hawley, J. A. (2004). Factors affecting running economy in trained distance runners. Sports Med, 34(7), 465-485.
Saunders, P. U., Telford, R. D., Pyne, D. B., Peltola, E. M., Cunningham, R. B., Gore, C. J., & Hawley, J. A. (2006). Short-term plyometric training improves running economy in highly trained middle and long distance runners. J Strength Cond Res, 20(4), 947-954.
White, L. J., Dressendorfer, R. H., Muller, S. M., & Ferguson, M. A. (2003). Effectiveness of cycle cross-training between competitive seasons in female distance runners. J Strength Cond Res, 17(2), 319-323.