Running and cycling are classic hobbies and exercises that people enjoy around the world. They’re both forms of aerobic exercise that can be pursued outdoors, whether on city streets or nature trails.
In general, running burns more calories than cycling. But it’s also higher impact and harder on muscles and joints. So, which is better for you? That depends on your goals and how you go about achieving them.
In terms of cardiovascular (cardio) health, both running and cycling are equally beneficial.
Aerobic activities help strengthen your heart so that it can pump more oxygen in your body. Doing cardio exercise, such as running and biking, teaches your heart to pump even more efficiently the rest of the time.
If you’re engaging in vigorous running or biking, you may need to limit your activities to no more than 60 minutes a day. According to an overview of multiple studies, vigorous exercise more than 5 hours a week, or 60 minutes a day, can actually begin to have a negative effect on your cardiovascular health.
The number of calories you burn in either exercise depends on the intensity and length of time you do it.
In general, running burns more calories than cycling because it uses more muscles. However, cycling is gentler on the body, and you may be able to do it longer or faster than you can run. You’ll also burn more calories if you’re running or cycling uphill for any portion of your exercise than you would if you were exercising on a flat surface.
Your age, weight, gender, and other factors determine your own baseline of calorie burning. Talk with your doctor to learn how many calories you should burn while exercising to reach your personal health goals.
Cycling can help you build muscle in your lower half. Running won’t lead to a lot of bulk, but it can help you develop stronger, toned muscles.
Pushing pedals while biking is resistance training that builds leg muscles. The top half of your body is also involved, but those muscles aren’t nearly as engaged as the bottom half.
Running uses all of the muscles at the same time and doesn’t engage them in a way that will build much bulk. However, your muscles and bones will get stronger from use and the impact of hitting the ground.
Running may be better for toning muscles since it works your whole body and burns more calories. You’ll need to add some weight training and potentially change your diet if you’re wanting noticeable results.
The look of lean, toned muscles usually results from overall body fitness and low body fat. You cannot pick where your body gains or loses fat, but you can pick which muscles you build.
One study found that working out four to five times per week was effective at maintaining muscle tone among active, aging adults. The key with toning is to exercise for a long amount of time without reaching muscle fatigue.
Running slower but for longer stretches may help you achieve a toned look.
To lose weight, you need to find the correct balance of calories in (not too many or too few) to calories out (burned through exercise and regular bodily functions). You may be able to lose weight more quickly by running. But if you cycle for long amounts of time, the calorie loss can eventually meet and exceed that of running.
The potential to lose weight by running or cycling depends on how you participate in the sport and how you combine it with healthy eating and other habits. While running does burn more calories on average, cycling is gentler on the joints, which might allow you to exercise longer and burn more calories overall.
One small study found evidence suggesting both cycling and running suppressed appetite in young men. These activities could be helpful if you’re trying to control cravings and eat more balanced meals.
Talk with your doctor and a physical trainer if you have a specific weight-loss goal.
When choosing whether to pursue cycling or running, consider these additional factors:
How much do you want to spend?
Cycling is more expensive than running due to the initial investment of a bicycle and the cost to maintain the bike over time. You also need a helmet and may want to buy special shoes and clothes.
However, a quality pair of running shoes can be expensive, too. And you can find plenty of high-tech clothing and gear to wear while running. Good shoes protect your joints, and special activewear can help wick away sweat. This gear may help keep you running for longer distances.
If you’re interested in cycling, try borrowing gear before making the investment. If you’re just looking to try a new sport to up your cardio exercise each week, running is the cheaper option.
Do you have a chronic condition?
If you have a chronic health condition, talk with your doctor before starting or increasing any new exercise.
Overall, cycling is gentler on the body, but it can increase low back pain. Injury is more common in running, but if you have trouble keeping your balance, running or speed walking may be a safer option than cycling.
Neither cycling nor running stands out as a far better option than the other. Pick whichever one fits your lifestyle to ensure you’ll enjoy it and stick with it. You can also switch between the two to reap the benefits of each activity and prevent boredom.
If you’re looking to achieve specific results, such as weight loss or muscle toning, work with a personal trainer who can adapt an exercise routine tailored to your needs.