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Adam Yates, Freddy Ovett and other pro cyclists prove they’re fast on their feet

How the physiology and psychology of a pro cyclist can translate to impressive running performances.

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Just a few weeks into the off-season following the 2021 cycling season, professional cyclists are keeping fit by jumping into cyclocross races, or by lacing up their running shoes and pounding the pavement.

Do millions of kilometers on the bike make for good running legs? Recent results might indicate so.

Ineos Grenadiers’ Adam Yates ran 2:58 (6:48/mile) at the Barcelona Marathon in mid-November. While running a sub-three-hour marathon is nothing to laugh at, it was nearly an hour slower than Eliud Kipchoge’s in-race record of 2:01 (4:37/mile) set in Berlin in 2018, and also well off the pace of this year’s Barcelona-winning 2:06 (4:49/mile) by Samuel Kosgei.

Several thousand miles away on the same day, L39ion of Los Angeles’ Freddy Ovett ran the LA Marathon, cruising to a 2:48:55 (6:27/mile). Ovett’s 42.2km run was the 44th fastest time of the day.

Yates’ teammate Cam Wurf is no stranger to running, either. The two-time Giro d’Italia and also Vuelta a España starter ran a 2:45 (6:18/mile) marathon — at the end of an Ironman-distance triathlon — in 2019. Wurf continues to split his time between training and racing with the Ineos Grenadiers and honing his multisport performance for the Ironman world championships in Kona.

Cyclists running fast is not new

If we look back a few years, we can see that the running abilities of pro cyclists are nothing new. French cyclist Laurent Jalabert, who held the 1995 UCI number one ranking, recorded a 35:32 10km (5:43/mile) run, and finished the 2007 Barcelona Marathon in a credible 2:45:52 (6:20/mile).

German Rolf Aldag recorded a not-too-slow 2:42:54 (6:13/mile) at the 2006 Hamburg Marathon. And Spaniard Abraham Olano, who won the 2000 Tirreno-Adriatico and the Critérium International, recorded a 2:39:19 (6:05/mile) at the 2006 Barcelona Marathon.

And who could forget about Lance Armstrong turning back to triathlon after he concluded his abbreviated unretirement and return to cycling? With 70.3 the favored multisport distance of the Texan, Lance focused on the half-marathon run — off the bike — and recorded a few fast times, including a 1:15:56 (5:48/mile) when he won the 2012 Florida 70.3.

In the women’s pro peloton, a few pros also have proven running prowess, including Lily Williams. A member of the world champion 2020 women’s team pursuit squad who is currently on the Rally Cycling roster, Williams got her athletic start on a different kind of track. She was a four-time Florida high school state champion in the 1,600 and 3,200. Williams ran at Vanderbilt University before starting her pro cycling career with Hagens Berman – Supermint.

How are top cyclists running so fast?

How are top-performing cyclists able to throw down such speedy running times? Physiology and psychology.

Sport-specificity is a studied subject. Fast running is achieved by training for running fast, and likewise for cycling. However, one study indicates that cycling as cross-training may “contribute to improved or at least maintained non-cycling sports performance.”

Another contributing factor that may help some cyclists run fast may be familiarity with the feeling — discomfort — of pushing their bodies through extreme efforts across a wide range of durations, from one mile to marathon running distances. Trek-Segafredo has hired a full-time sports psychologist to work with its athletes, indicating the significance of mind-over-matter at the top level of pro sport.

Wout van Aert is a three-time world cyclocross champion — a discipline that requires a bit of running. He’s fast in the individual time trial, head-to-head sprints, and even climbing stages in grand tours. And WVA can also run at a good clip, too. The big Belgian ran a 1:11:11 (7:07/mile) at the Antwerp 10-miler.

Yates, Dumoulin, van Aert, and Wurf are not just average cyclists; they are world-class athletes — standouts even among WorldTour cyclists — with incredible lung capacities and extremely high strength-to-weight ratios. How does this translate from cycling to running? These exemplary cyclists are not carrying extra body mass when cycling, so when they are running the mass they do carry is propelled by energy storage and delivery systems trained specifically for high output across a variety of durations and distances.

Running in circles

When these cyclists who are accustomed to racing for hours at a time compress their efforts into a shorter duration, what happens?

Olympic mountain bike gold medalist Tom Pidcock, also on Ineos Grenadiers roster, is often at the pointy end of cyclocross races and one-day classics, claimed to have finished a 13:25 5km run late last year, and posted it to Strava. While this activity was quickly flagged — possibly for erroneous GPS data — there’s little doubt that he’s a capable and talented athlete.

Of the talented runners in the current pro peloton, Michael Woods name is often mentioned, and for good reason. The Israel Start-Up Nation GC rider had previously been a sub-four-minute-miler before taking up cycling. When he was 18, Woods circled the track to a 3:57:48 mile, which stood as one of the fastest miles ever run by a Canadian on home soil.

Dumoulin finished in second place at a recent 10km run, with a respectable time.

Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma) tore off a 32:38 at the Groene Loper 10k run (5:15/mile), in Maastricht, Netherlands in mid-November. Evidently, he’s been keeping in shape — albeit off the bike — while recovering from a broken wrist sustained when he was hit by a driver in September. Our colleagues at FinisherPix were in the Netherlands to ensure the 2017 Giro d’Italia winner’s running exploits were documented.

While running fast is not an indicator of cycling ability or vice versa, it does offer some insight into the fitness and cross-sport abilities of some pro cyclists.