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Biology Medicine Sports Medicine

Viva La Différence: Exercising Sitting Down vs. Standing Up (repost 2007)

The New York Times had an article today which discusses how bicyclists come in all shapes and sizes. Gina Kolata mentions that that many cyclists did not meet her conception of what an in shape cyclist would look like. The reality is that runners come in all shapes, sizes and ages also and this can be seen at many marathon events. The other part of the reality is that elites among both runners and cyclists have different morphological characteristics including a lower body fat content, higher MVO2 and various other items.

But, there is hope for all of us. George Sheehan once said “We are all athletes, some of us are in training and some are not.”

“When I first got into cycling, I would see cyclists and say, ‘O.K., that’s not what I perceive a cyclist to be,’ ” said Michael Berry, an exercise physiologist at Wake Forest University. Dr. Berry had been a competitive runner, and he thought good cyclists would look like good runners — rail-thin and young.

But, Dr. Berry added, “I quickly learned that when I was riding with someone with a 36-inch waist, I could be looking at the back of their waist when they rode away from me.”

He came to realize, he said, that cycling is a lot more forgiving of body type and age than running. The best cyclists going up hills are those with the best weight-to-strength ratio, which generally means being thin and strong. But heavier cyclists go faster downhill. And being light does not help much on flat roads.

But on the other hand, there are differences that make cycling a bit more forgiving:

“In running, when you see someone who is obviously overweight, they will be in trouble,” Dr. Hagberg said. “The more you weigh, the more the center of gravity moves and the more energy it costs. But in cycling, there are different aerodynamics — your center of gravity is not moving up and down.”

The difference between cycling and running is like the difference between moving forward on a pogo stick and rolling along on wheels. And that is why Robert Fitts, an exercise physiologist at Marquette University who was a competitive runner, once said good runners run so smoothly they can almost balance an apple on their heads.