Dear Mark: Cycling Harder Than Running, High-Fat Football Training, and Orange Theory

Dear Mark Cycling Hard Than Running FinalFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering three questions about training. First, why might cycling feel harder than running at the same heart rate, and what should be done about it? Second, is it safe or smart for a footballer to try to become a fat-burning beast when he’s currently in-season? Are there lessons can we draw from athletes who have given it a shot?

And finally, what do I think about the relatively new Orange Theory gyms that have arrived on the fitness scene? Are they good, bad, or both?

Let’s go:

Hi Mark,

I was wondering if you could answer this (or maybe answer in a blog post). I got a copy of primal endurance a couple of months ago and love it, great book. I’ve been running using Dr Maffetone 180 formula for a fair while (with good results whilst running), I also use the formula whilst hiking on trails and using gym equipment like the eliptical trainer. However I used to do a lot of cycling years ago and recently bought a bike as a different form of training for days when I don’t want to run/hike or use the gym. However when I use the 180 for cycling it feels A LOT more difficult for the same HR – 130 on the bike feels like 150 running for example. High 140s/low 150s – quads are burning whereas running at that same rate feels easy. Also my HR jumps around so much more whilst on the bike compared to other forms of training – I know this is most likely due to traffic, hills, bike handling on different surfaces etc.



Back in the day, I always dropped 10 beats on the bike to get the same “effort” I got running. That’s when I was pushing myself and, quite frankly, breaking my body down.

For Primal Endurance, you use the same heart rate whatever exercise you are doing. Swimming being so easy on the body for example, you can bang out intervals working really hard at the maximum aerobic heart rate. When you swim, the water keeps you cool, supports your body weight, and reduces impact. Whereas with running you are just jogging to get that same heart rate. This just reveals that due to the weight bearing, temperature elevating, overall difficult nature of running or cycling in comparison to swimming, the sensations of effort/degree of perceived difficulty are different. In terms of recovery, you recover the same from a casual jog as you would from a festive interval workout in the pool because the latter is so much “easier.”

On a related note, the question often comes up about being allowed to bump up your aerobic limit number as you get in better shape. This is exactly what you shouldn’t do. Going faster and longer at the same heart rate and perceived effort means you’re improving your fitness in a safe, effective way. You don’t need to push it.

And of course, we all have disparate fitness levels in different activities. Cycling, especially if you’re a little rusty, very well may be harder because you haven’t kept up with it. We all have strengths and weaknesses. Your perceived exertion will vary but you still honor the heart rate limits.

Hi mark,

Will keep this short. I play Australian football (afl). It’s a 2 hour sport each week plus training. During the game I clock up between 13-18km and it affects both aerobic and anaerobic systems. Lots of stop start play. Tackling, falling down, getting up sprinting, jogging etc
I really want to try your eating methods but don’t want to lose energy in the transition. Do you think I should wait to post football season to convert or is it possible to change to the high fat diet and continue to have a high output?

Kind regards,


Your instinct is correct: wait for the season to end before you switch over to an entirely new way of obtaining energy.

You can’t go from being a sugar-burner to a fat-burner right away without losing a little something. You need to build the metabolic machinery to support the new diet. That takes time. We’re always burning both fat and sugar, of course—it’s not all or nothing. When I say sugar burner, I mean someone who relies on exogenous glucose for the majority of their energy. I mean a person who needs a steady infusion of sugar every couple hours. I mean someone who gets ravenously hungry in between meals, someone who cannot reliably utilize enough of their body fat to provide energy between meals. They still burn fat, just not well enough to get off the carbs.

Football, like you say, is both anaerobic and aerobic. You’re burning massive amounts of glycogen. That means you can probably get away with cycling between high-fat and higher-carbs after particularly grueling sessions. But increasing your ability to burn fat and decreasing your reliance on glycogen during training will improve both high intensity output and lower intensity output. You can still go fast and hard. You’ll just be able to conserve glycogen for the times you truly need it.

The good news is that eating and training this way can pay huge dividends provided you allow enough time for the switch. Lebron didn’t. When Lebron James went low-carb paleo a couple years back toward the end of the season, he chose the wrong time to do it. It was the back end of the season, when energy is lowest and wear-and-tear is highest. His energy and performance suffered. Don’t make that mistake.

I have seen Orange Theory gyms popping up everywhere, and can’t log into Facebook without seeing at least one post of someone’s workout results.

I was wondering if you had an opinion on this latest cardio craze, and if you could explain this “Orange Zone”, as it appears to line up right with the “Black Hole” in your latest book, Primal Endurance.

Best regards,


I like that they’re doing high intensity intervals. Those are really effective. They offer great bang for the buck, and there’s considerable evidence they work better than the standard “cardio.”

I like that they bathe their trainees in soft orange light. One big problem with training at the gym at night is it ruins your circadian rhythm. The music’s blaring, the TVs are going, the fluorescent white light is burning into your soul and delaying your melatonin secretion. Using orange light mitigates the problem of night time gym visits.

I like that they’re full body workouts. It goes without saying that using your entire body is a better use of time than using a single body part.

I don’t like the monotony of the intensity. You need more than just high intensity all the time. One woman profiled in the Wall Street Journal found herself attending classes five days a week on top of running and Bikram yoga. She’s obviously an adrenaline junkie, the kind who has to go-go-go and end up a puddle of sweat or else feel like the workout was pointless. Orange Theory may attract and enable and encourage this demographic when really they should be slowing things down and using intensity intermittently, not chronically.

Honestly, it sounds a lot like basic circuit training or those boot camp groups you see in the park that focus on making folks “feel” like they got a great workout. Lots of movements, not a ton of reason behind them. I don’t see people getting markedly stronger doing only this.

The Orange Zone is a cool place to visit occasionally, but not everyday. That’s a recipe for burnout. Now, people can become addicted to the high intensity zone and feel like it’s working. And on some level, it is. It’s better than doing nothing. It will get you “fit.” But months, maybe years down the line, you’ll realize that you should have taken a more balanced approach.

That’s it for today, folks. Take care and be sure to chime in with your thoughts and advice below!

TAGS:  dear mark

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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18 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Cycling Harder Than Running, High-Fat Football Training, and Orange Theory”

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  1. Oh nice, thank you for addressing OrangeTheory fitness! I’ve been doing to it for six months and put off an extra 20 lbs in that time. I’m glad that you think it’s worthwhile. Going to the gym independantly doesn’t really work for me… I don’t push myself hard enough and I often just don’t go. 😛

    I only do OTF twice a week though, maybe 3 times if I’m feeling my wheaties. The rest of the time, I walk and recover. I can’t imagine going five times a week, that would probably make me tear something or I’d have to go to the chiropractor twice a week…

  2. I’ve always found, for the same piece of ground, running harder than cycling. But cycling can be made harder in a couple of ways (at least): being in the wrong gear/cadence, or having your seat too low.
    : )

  3. When the sun goes down the orange classes go on. And I’ve traded cycling for running. The body is happy.

  4. James,
    I think Mark did a great job explaining the differences in effort between exercising on the bike versus running or swimming, mostly the effects of gravity and heat. Of course, as aerobic fitness improves over time the physical effort required to maintain the target heart rate also increases. So even at the same low heart rate, it doesn’t get easier you just get faster. Some things never change lol. As for your HR jumping around more on the bike, it might be because of insufficient warm up. It takes quite a bit longer to warm up on the bike before your HR stabilizes and this is not helped with the starts and stops associated with having to cycle out of a city for example. Obviously, climbing is highly taxing on your HR so those who live in a hilly or mountainous area with steep grades may benefit from changing the gearing on their bikes. I put the equivalent of mountain bike gearing on my road bike to cope with the ubiquitous steep grades in my area without exceeding my target HR. The ridicule from my roadie friends was equivalent to my first use of an ISM Adamo split nose saddle several years ago but now a lot of them are using that or something similar. I’ve actually already had one convert to the big rear cog and a lot more are becoming interested. So goes the bleeding edge of fitness. In some tradition bound sports, and in our broader culture of instant gratification and fast results, it may take a bit longer for the propagation of such a radical idea as going slow to become fast. However, it is interesting to witness the shift that happens when people begin to rethink the glory of suffering as the root metaphor in athletic pursuits and turn toward sustainable physical improvement based in health as the new ideal. We are indeed fortunate to have the likes of Mark Sisson and Phil Maffetone as champions of this change.

  5. Wow, never heard of Orange Theory. Sounds interesting. Love the idea of the orange light. I know orange goggles have really helped me (as well as spending as much time outside during the day as I possibly can!)

  6. As a new-ish exerciser, I’ve not cared for the Perceived Rate of Exertion. Whenever possible, I would rather use heart rate. I find it hard to compare across the exercise bike, treadmill and rebounder. (The rebounder sends my heart rate up quite quickly, but jumping is fun, not ‘hard’.) My perceptions of the exercises themselves get in the way of RPE.

  7. Here’s a fact about cycling that is often overlooked, even by primal devotees; cycling is a very poor conditioning modality. It is a movement that is not duplicated in nature anywhere, and requires a machine to accomplish. Those factors eliminate it from the realm of primal training in my book. And the practical evidence of this: the conditioning that it does produce doesn’t seem to benefit any other activity to any significant degree. Transference is a quality that let’s us know that the activity is valuable to life. What cycling is: transportation, and, perhaps, a hobby or sport. But none of that qualifies it as a high-value conditioning activity. BTW, that also explains why this person found it harder than other functional movements; non-functional activities places greater demands on the cardio-respiratory system relative to functional activities due to unnaturalness of the activity. Natural movements don’t contribute much to cycling just like cycling doesn’t contribute to natural movements. We should not promote it as effective training in any regard. It simply is not.

    1. Have you ever tried mountain biking? I would say it is great conditioning! It may not replicate anything primal, but here is to evolution! I still get out of breath on a big hill, then recover on the downhill, to get ready for the next big hill! And I believe my jump squats, or any type of that activity prepares me for those hills since I don’t get out to the dirt to bike as much as I would like to.

  8. I had also never heard of “Orange Theory.” I do like the idea of keeping gym-goers more alert by blasting light and music at them though! I remember fighting my squats late at night at my YMCA and yawing hard between sets. That was no good.

  9. Not to put to fine a point on it, Dave, but you sound like the caveman who complained when he saw his tribe member spinning a stick into a block of wood that his movement was unnatural. Everybody knows you’re supposed to throw the stick. It’s a fact. And when fire was produced, you would have probably proclaimed, “Fire Bad.” But all kidding aside, as to your points, cycling helps develop one’s power to weight ratio for various reasons but perhaps the simplest is it is an excellent fat burning exercise. A better power to weight ratio is very primal as it helps you run, jump and climb more efficiently. It helps develop one’s aerobic fitness and endurance, an attribute that might help you in your next persistent hunt or the next run for your life. Elite climbers could easily transfer to other more natural pursuits such as distance running if they were so inclined. Elite track cyclists are able to perform explosive strength movements which makes them good at lifting heavy things and this can be witnessed in their ability to squat and deadlift. Cycling is also a great way to commune with nature and soak up Vitamin D, and certainly beats driving your car to the trailhead in terms of its impact on nature, all quite primal. Cycling is actually easier on your cardo-respiratory system than running, so you are forced to work harder to maintain the same heart rate. This has to do with gravity, and the impact and muscular balance required to run, as well as the fact that in running there is less of a cooling effect from wind as there is with cycling. But guess where this puts swimming, Dave. I will leave it to you to work the math. Or will you now argue that swimming is also an unnatural human movement, because as everybody knows, only fish are supposed to swim. ; )

  10. I love OTF, but I’m definitely victim to the addictive quality. I don’t feel like I need to be drenched in sweat for a good workout, but the bootcamp style class workout is a good fit for me. Unfortunately I am prone to overuse injuries due to hyperlaxity in my joints, so I’ve aggravated my carpal tunnel & gotten tendonitis in my shins. I’m taking a month off for “rehab” (and orthotics) and will re-evaluate at that point. I may lower my membership so I *can’t* go more than once a twice a week, so I’m forced to take more rest and do more strength training when I really want to work out.

  11. I have been going to OTF habitually since January and have seen improvements in my strength and endurance. It isn’t high intensity all of the time. There are three different types of workouts: endurance, strength, and power. Endurance days do not involve many high intensity bursts. Also, you are able to have a green day (lower intensity). whenever you choose. If it’s my fifth day of OTF in the week, I tell the trainer I want a green day and they are supportive and it’s actually recommended. There are drawbacks to OTF but overall I really enjoy it.

  12. I just gotta say – I have built core strength and endurance on my beloved bicycle. It’s not the end-all and be-all depending on how you think about fitness. Take some hills on a bike and you’ll be working. Plus the birdies singing and the sunshine and clouds. Counts for something. I’ll never say it’s equivalent to lifting heavy things, but it sure makes lots of us real happy.

  13. Regarding the difference between cycling and running/jogging, it needs to be appreciated that the heart and lungs are just one part of the cardiovascular system; exercise requires that your muscles do the work.

    Cycling is primarily a thigh powered activity, whereas jogging is primarily calf powered.

    Each activity will develop the muscles specific to that activity, so the mitochondria, slow twitch fibres, aerobic enzymes will be less developed in the thighs of a jogger than a cyclist.

    Hence for specific activities, you need to do specific training.

    Cycling will however carryover to hill running, as running up hills requires the thigh endurance that running on flat ground doesn’t develop.

  14. Good review of Orange Theory. My wife and I signed up for 8 a month three months back. At 59 twice a week as part of an exercise program. It feels pretty good. The instructor and group session help us push. Due to a two week trip to Kauai we did out 8 sessions in two and a half weeks. It did seem like too much.