Cycling vs running - which is better for your health?

If you're weighing up cycling vs running, this is what the fitness experts want you to know

Woman looking down at exercise bike in spinning studio wearing activewear and considering cycling vs running
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Unfortunately, there's no obvious winner in the debate of cycling vs running. It ultimately comes down to which one you enjoy the most. Both exercises have many benefits for our physical and mental health, being excellent sources of cardio exercise, and they can assist with any health goal we might have, whether that’s getting fitter or losing weight.  

However, not everyone has time to fit both of these activities into their workout routine. You may only have time for 20 minutes of cardio every few days or a stint on one of the machines at the gym. With many of us only having time to exercise a couple of times a week, at most, it’s important to choose the exercise that’s going to work best for you. 

So if you’re considering cycling vs running and whether to invest in the best running shoes or a new bike, or you just want to know which one is going to complement your lifestyle the best, here’s what the experts have to say.  

Cycling vs running

For burning calories

Generally speaking, running for weight loss will help you burn more calories in a shorter space of time than cycling. According to the American Council on Exercise (opens in new tab), a person weighing 140 pounds will burn 6.4 calories per minute cycling, compared to 13.2 calories per minute running.

However, if you want to lose weight, the most effective exercise will be the one you enjoy the most and can find the motivation to do it most often as it's doing the exercise that will help you get into a calorie deficit to lose weight. Running might burn more calories per minute than cycling for some people, but if you dislike it so much that you never start running in the first place, you'll stay put at square one. 

“Both are very effective at helping you to achieve and maintain a healthy weight,” agrees Sage Figueroa (opens in new tab), a fitness trainer specializing in pre-and post-natal fitness, including cycling and running. “Neither one has been proven to be more effective than the other and there is a misconception that exercise has to feel like a punishment to get results. The real results come when we shift our perspective and treat exercise like a gift, a privilege to spend time with yourself.” 

Figueroa, who also works with Echelon (opens in new tab) as the lead trainer in the UK, instead suggests finding “a consistent, low-impact, moderate pace, 20 to 30 minutes a day” worth of exercise you enjoy, instead of trying to do something you don’t like. She says, “This can get you the results you’re looking for, especially if you’re new to fitness.”

Woman running down a forest path in activewear with dog running alongside her

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For cardiovascular fitness

Looking to know how to get fit with running or cycling? Which one will be better for you all depends on your lifestyle, says triathlon coach Rosie Weston (opens in new tab). “As cycling will often be less intensive than running, it’s dependent on whether you want to prioritize a less intensive yet longer aerobic workout like cycling, or focus on a shorter yet more intensive workout like running.”

If you’re short on time, then running may be better for cardio exercise. “For an individual to get a similar benefit from cycling vs running, the general ratio is 1 mile of running to 3 miles of cycling,” says Weston, who is also an INCUS (opens in new tab)-supported professional triathlete herself. 

However, she adds, both provide very similar aerobic cardio benefits. “It can also be down to what equipment is available and other factors, such as time available and weather conditions. Both of these activities can be performed indoors in gyms or at home with the help of treadmills, smart turbo trainers, or Wattbikes, that can help individuals track progress. This can also provide an easier introduction for beginners.”

For moving your muscles

In terms of how many muscles these exercises use comparatively, running is the winner as it utilizes more of the lower body muscles - including the hamstrings, glutes, calves, quadriceps, and hip flexor muscles. Cycling isn't too far off though since power mainly comes through the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.

If you just want to move your muscles to feel all the benefits of exercise, either running or cycling works well. With research from multiple institutions, including a study by the University of New York (opens in new tab), showing that getting our muscles moving does wonders for our mental and emotional health, there are plenty of other reasons to exercise other than cycling or running’s physical benefits. 

You need to be comfortable to get the most out of your workout though, so consider this when weighing up cycling vs running. Cycling will have less impact on your joints, so if you suffer from any kind of joint pain or want to move for longer periods, cycling may be a better fit. However, if you don’t experience any joint pain and have invested in the best running gear to see you through your workout safely, then a jog may be a better option for you. 

This doesn't mean you should cycle or run every day though, and if you’re ever in doubt about the effect that exercise could have on your body specifically, speak to your doctor.

On the whole, Weston says, “Both cycling and running are great for fitness in their own respective right. Both can help generate a great cardiovascular base for fitness and improve muscular strength, dependent on the level of intensity the exercise is performed at.”

Group of women with racing bikes and helmets on at the beginning of a ride together, standing in the park

(Image credit: Getty Images)

For building strength

“In general terms, cycling is better for building muscles in the lower body with less impact to the joints,” says Weston, so if you’re looking for a cardio alternative to strength training, take this as your sign to dust off the bike in the garage. 

If you’re looking to achieve more muscle definition, rather than make them bigger, running could be a better option. “It provides a more cardiovascular-based workout but at a slightly higher intensity as it works for more muscle groups,” she says.

Is cycling better than running?

Cycling is easier on the joints than running as it doesn't have the same foot-to-ground impact, so it may be a better choice for those who experience joint pain or are new to exercise. However, it does require you to have access to a bike - which can be expensive if you have to buy one - and safety essentials. Running is physically more intense, even at a slower pace, but it does tend to burn more calories and requires less kit to get going. Many of the best fitness apps, like Nike Run Club, are also free for running activities.

"In terms of deciding between running or cycling, I'd say it's much for much," concludes Figueroa. "Neither one requires you to overthink your workout plan.  Exercise is here to enhance your lifestyle, not take away from it so give yourself that five, ten, or 20-minute boost." 

Grace Walsh
Health Editor

A digital health journalist with over five years experience writing and editing for UK publications, Grace has covered the world of health and wellbeing extensively for Cosmopolitan, The i Paper and more.

She started her career writing about the complexities of sex and relationships, before combining personal hobbies with professional and writing about fitness. Everything from the best protein powder to sleep technology, the latest health trend to nutrition essentials, Grace has a huge spectrum of interests in the wellness sphere. Having reported on the coronavirus pandemic since the very first swab, she now also counts public health among them.