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One Energy Pathway or Another: Is Cycling Aerobic or Anaerobic?

Conrad Kühn

The reality is that cycling can be a form of both aerobic and anaerobic, depending on the type of cycling you are doing. If this sounds a bit confusing, don’t disappear just yet. Instead, check out this explanation for this interesting phenomenon…

What Energy System Does Cycling Use?

While many people like to categorize cycling as either aerobic or anaerobic, the situation isn’t as cut and dry. If you have been cycling for an extended period of time and have exerted a certain amount of energy, you have reached a state where your body is utilizing both aerobic and anaerobic pathways.

This is because it is quite difficult for you to isolate one energy pathway from another. If you have reached a level where your cycling is considered to be anaerobic exercise, then it means that your aerobic system is still at play here.

On the flip side, after a certain age, your anaerobic pathways will deteriorate. However, the effort that you made to build up this pathway will still have a considerable benefit towards your aerobic pathways. The reality is that while you can prioritize one energy pathway over another, both of them will more or less be at work after a certain point.

Why Does Cycling Count as Aerobic Exercise?

Now, first and foremost, cycling is considered as a type of aerobic exercise so let’s take a look why this is. When cycling, your heart, blood vessels, and lungs are all utilized. As a result, you will experience the following changes during the workout:

  • Breathing will deepen and intensify
  • Increase in overall body temperature
  • You will begin to perspire

So, when does cycling fall under the category of aerobic exercise and when is classified as anaerobic exercise? Well, for the most part this all depends on your level of intensity and output.

If you aren’t exerting an excessive amount of effort while cycling, then you will be engaging in aerobic exercise. At this point, your body is relying on oxygen to produce energy to keep up with your cycling output.

In most cases, leisurely bike rides and long distance cycling are thought of as aerobic exercise. This is because you are using a moderate amount of energy over a greater distance.

To discover when cycling becomes anaerobic, check out the next section…

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Why is Biking Anaerobic?

The anaerobic energy pathway kicks in when you begin to maximize your energy output for a period of time. For this pathway to take over, you have to cycle with over 90% of your maximum power output for over 2 minutes.

At this point, your body will switch over to the anaerobic system and you will be considered to be undergoing anaerobic exercise. Therefore, racing, sprinting, and even mountain biking can all be thought of as anaerobic forms of cycling.

Now, since you are utilizing all of your power at this point, you can’t sustain anaerobic activity for an extended period of time. This means that you will cease this form of exercise around the 3 minute mark.

Putting It All Together

So, if this all feels like a lot of information being thrown at you, here is your top takeaway:

In specific forms, cycling may be considered either aerobic or anaerobic. For instance, if you are riding at a leisurely pace but are covering a longer distance, it would be considered aerobic exercise. On the other hand, if you were sprinting on your bicycle in short bursts, then it would be thought of as anaerobic.

However, with cycling, it can be difficult to think of yourself as being in one state or the other. This is because even when you are sprinting you will still be making use of your aerobic energy pathway. As such, it is more accurate to say that cycling is both aerobic and anaerobic, particularly when utilizing more energy over an extended period of time.

There – you now have your answers! As you can see, there is more to this energy usage than meets the eye. Nonetheless, it is certainly an interesting phenomenon.

Conrad Kühn
About the Author
Cycling Enthusiast / Mechanical Engineer | Hailing from Germany, where the first bike was invented is no coincidence. The cycling bug hit Conrad when he was really young, and he has been sick for quite some time now. Germany is a leading cycling nation. His first cycling experience began with him commuting to school with his friends. Racing to school was the best feeling ever. As Conrad grew up so did his passion for cycling. He used to race in local competitions but never made it to the professional level because of his other love: Engineering. As a mechanical engineer by profession, Conrad loves to understand the mechanisms behind machines and how they work. This intensified his passion for bicycles. Engineer by day and blogger by night, Conrad wants to share his knowledge with the global cycling community.
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