Exercise enthusiasts have lots of options of how to lose weight and get stronger. With busy schedules and all kinds of rising and falling trends I often have people ask me,
“Is mountain biking better than running? Should I do both?”
Mountain biking and running both have pros and cons and they can both allow you to reach your fitness goals. The one that you choose is up to your specific goals and personal preference.
In order to give you better perspective let’s break down all of the differences between running and mountain biking. These comparisons can help you determine which one of these sports better fits your life and your personality type.
Mountain Biking Verses Running for Weight Loss:
When most people think of cardio exercise they imagine running on a treadmill. In my opinion, that’s just about as boring as it can get. Weight loss is not a quick fix. It is a journey that requires dedication, time, and sustainability.
Your weight loss journey has to be both effective and enjoyable. So, what exercise will you pick? Would you rather mountain bike or run?
Generally speaking, running requires more oxygen intake than cycling due to the fact that more muscles are moving during running. This means that running generally burns more calories than cycling. The reason it usually burns more calories though, is because most people can get their heart rate higher while running than riding.
Due to muscular fatigue, many people cannot get their heart rates high enough during cycling in order to mimic the demands of running. It is for this reason that most VO2 Max tests are completed by running.
For a trained athlete, however, who can get their heart rate to a similar intensity from both running and cycling, the caloric expenditure may be more even. In reality, when completed at the same intensity, running and cycling burn almost the same amount of calories.1
That means, when it comes to weight loss, due to similar caloric expenditure, mountain biking and running are right on par with each other, if you can maintain the same effort for both.
Endurance Element of MTB vs Run:
If you burn calories at the same rate running and mountain biking then that would imply that your exercise time could be the same for either sport with the benefit being the same.
While that is true, I know a lot of people who are willing to ride their bike for longer than they would ever consider running.
I may be biased, but running for 2 hours at an easy intensity is much more draining than riding a bike for two hours at the same easy intensity. That means if you enjoy riding bikes for a longer time than you would be willing or able to run then that means that ultimately you can burn more calories on the bike.
One of the reasons that you can ride for longer than you can run is because on most mountain bike rides, you will experience some coasting. These brief periods of recovery allow you to train even longer. It is very difficult to keep your heart rate up during these periods of coasting and it often attributes to a lower energy expenditure, however, that expenditure will usually even out due to the longer time spent on the trail.
Physical Strain Between Running and Mountain Biking:
This is often one of the biggest deciding factors on which exercise an individual chooses to engage in.
Since running is a weight bearing sport, it places a larger physical strain on your body. Cycling, on the other hand, is not weight bearing and can provide relief for the injured athlete.
Running is often hard on people’s knees, joints, cartilage and even bones. Stress fractures or arthritis are often barriers to enter the sport. Cycling can be a great escape for many of these injuries. In fact, many doctors or physical therapists will prescribe cycling as rehabilitation for different types of injuries. For example, cycling is one of the only rehabilitative techniques for non-surgical meniscus tears.
Bone Health – Running Might Be Better:
While the weight bearing nature of running can lead to injury, it also plays a critical role in bone health. Wolff’s Law states that bones respond to the stresses placed upon them. This means that as you place weight and stress on your bones, your bones will actually build up and become stronger.
Since cycling is not a weight bearing sport, it does not place the necessary demands on bones in order to build and strengthen them. If you plan to train exclusively on the bike, then you might consider adding a strength or weigh training program in order to place weight on your bones.
Loading your bones consistently, and early in life can even help in the prevention of conditions such as osteoporosis.
Strength Building MTB May Have an Advantage:
Both cycling and running can build muscle. In fact, they even work pretty similar muscles. The biggest difference is that cycling will more notably show these muscular changes.
If you are looking for bigger, stronger looking legs then cycling should be your sport of choice. Cycling is completed with almost 100% of concentric contractions. That means that muscles get shorter as they contract and result in larger, and sometimes even bulky muscles.
Additionally, mountain biking works the upper body as you push and pull your bike up and down the trail. Mountain bikers often have larger, stronger arms which you can be sure won’t be achieved through running.
Running undoubtedly results in strong legs, but the muscles will present as much more unassuming. Muscles of runners are considered to be much “leaner” and won’t necessarily be something you can show off as you walk down the street.
Bang For Your Buck – Run vs MTB:
If you have a very tight schedule where exercise often takes the back seat, then mountain biking might be a tough addition to your already daunting schedule.
Running can be completed anywhere. All that it takes to run is a pair of shoes and you are out the door.
Cycling requires a great deal of equipment and it takes much more time and effort to prepare the equipment. Bike maintenance is not an optional aspect of riding. While you can hire someone to tune up your bike, the day to day operations will fall on you. Before heading out of the door you should, at minimum, check tire pressure and lube your chain.
Not to mention the fact that cycling requires a lot more specific clothing, helmets, shoes, flat repair equipment, and more.
Finally, mountain biking requires trails. You might be one of the lucky people who lives backed up against the mountains, but the majority of the population will be forced to drive to the trails, thus adding more time to your workout routine.
All of this to be said, if you have a very limited time to exercise, running might be a necessity and not even just a choice.
On the Go MTB is a Little Tougher:
If your job requires you to travel a lot or you are constantly flying or changing locations then running is an easier hobby to take up.
While the travel involved with mountain biking is one of the things that I love, having to travel with a bike can intimidate a lot of people. In the world today it is easier than ever to pack and ship or travel with a bike (see our article on how to pack a mountain bike).
Traveling with all of the mountain bike equipment can be very intimidating for some folks. In addition, trying to find trails or a place to ride can be challenging as well.
Packing a pair of running shoes and running outside of your hotel room appears to be an easier option. Additionally, in an hour run you might only need to figure out 7 miles of road to run on, whereas in an hour mountain bike ride you might cover double the distance. Then again, being able to cover so much distance so quickly is one of the things that I love about the sport.
Price of Entry:
With all of the equipment required for cycling, it is no surprise that it costs more than it does to be a runner. The initial cost of cycling equipment can often bar an individual from trying the sport at all.
It is difficult to justify the cost of all of the equipment when you aren’t sure if you will love the sport as much as everyone says you will.
Running has a very low cost of entry, though. It is easy to try it and determine if you enjoy the sport before putting a large financial investment into the adventure.
The question is, will your love for running out-weigh the cost of mountain biking?
Fun Factor MTB Wins:
If you are in it for the fun, I will always recommend mountain biking. Don’t take my word for it though. I have often heard fun classified into various categories. I’ve heard it classified as type 1 and type 2 fun.
Type 1 fun is fun the whole time that you are doing it. It’s enjoyable. Type 1 fun could be anything from hanging out with friends to mountain biking.2 Not all mountain bike rides have to be hard. Most people find that riding trails is enjoyable because of the atmosphere and the joy of the adrenaline rush from going so fast.
Running is more often classified as type 2 fun. Type 2 fun is not usually fun during the event, but is fun to remember. Most people enjoy running due to the dopamine rush that they get after or because it makes their body feel good. Less people love running just for the actual experience. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible to enjoy running as type 1 fun, it’s just not nearly as common.
Can I Mix Running and Mountain Biking into my Workout Routine?
After all of this comparing and contrasting, it seems that the jury may be out on which exercise is actually “better.” Whether you choose to mountain bike or run might be purely personal preference. So, why not do both?
Running and mountain biking can work well together. If you are looking to work toward some very specific goals then you will need to be careful about completing both exercises. Overtraining is very dangerous and being fatigued from one exercise can decrease your results in the other.
However, if you are just looking for some good exercise and some fun while taking care of your body, then completing both exercises can help keep exercise fun by keeping it fresh.
Can I Carry my Bike and Run in a MTB Race?
Yes! One of the best pieces of advice I ever heard when I first entered the sport of mountain biking is that sometimes you have to decide when running is actually faster than trying to ride.
Even professional mountain bikers will be seen running their bikes in some races. Difficult obstacles, slow and arduous sections, or even traffic from other riders can make running a more efficient alternative to riding. Sometimes two legs can carry you faster than two wheels and knowing when to make that call can be the difference between a win or a loss, safety or injury.
The Final Verdict:
It seems that there are both positives and negatives to choosing cycling over running or vice versa. I think that most people find whichever sport they do more often to be more fun. I rarely hear that the grass is always greener because whichever sport you regularly participate in is bound to give you fitness, a good source of endorphins, and an active lifestyle.
At the end of the day it doesn’t matter which sport that you pick. What matters is that you do in fact pick one. Physical fitness is not a bonus. It is a necessary part of life. So go out and find passion, whether it is on two feet, two wheels, or both.
- Mastroianni, George R, et al. “Voluntary Pacing and Energy Cost of Off-Road Cycling and Running.” Applied Ergonomics, vol. 31, no. 5, 2000, pp 479-485.
- Dunfee, Ryn. “The Three (And a Half) Types of Fun, Explained.” Teton Gravity Research, https://www.tetongravity.com/story/culture/the-three-and-a-half-types-of-fun-explained