Run. Bike. Swim.
Which Suits You Best?

Find the activity that will keep you moving.

July/August 2017

By Linda Melone, CSCS


Figuring out which type of exercise you enjoy goes a long way towards getting in the recommended 30 minutes of activity a day. In addition to the fun factor, age, personal goals and availability of equipment are all considerations when choosing a workout.

Physiological changes that naturally occur with age may make some activities less advisable than others. “For one, as we age, our body loses muscle mass,” says Bryce Taylor, PT, MS, Indianapolis-based physical therapist and creator of the Halo Trainer. “Muscles also decrease in elasticity and bone mass decreases as well as lean tissue.” These changes contribute to a greater incidence of tendonitis with age. Oxygen consumption levels also drop, which makes us less efficient at creating energy for physical activity, Taylor explains.

While each has its pros and cons, running, biking and swimming are all appropriate aerobic exercises that improve cardiovascular fitness, says John Martinez, MD, primary care sports medicine physician and part of the volunteer medical staff with USA Triathlon and the Ironman Triathlon World Championships.

“Swimming may be a little better in some aspects compared to running and cycling, since it helps with upper body strength” along with the lower body, Martinez notes. “In addition, it’s the lowest impact of all three sports and may be better for people with knee and other lower extremity problems that may be made worse by running or cycling.” Running, Martinez says, requires the least amount of equipment and greatest options for available places to work out.

Here experts discuss pros and cons and benefits of these three popular options and advice on how to choose the right one for you.

CYCLING

Ages 20 to 40

Bone density peaks in your 20s and muscle mass is also at its highest levels. Fast-twitch muscles, those used in quick acceleration, are most abundant in your 20s as well, making sprints easier to perform than in later years.

When to Seize the Squeeze

You see them everywhere: sportswear and wraps all touting the benefits of compression. But really, what is sports compression?

If you’re not sure, chances are you’ve used it by wrapping a sprained wrist or ankle in an ACE bandage. This simple wrap was one of the first products specifically aimed at providing compression to an injured muscle or joint, explains Brian Grawe, MD, assistant professor of sports medicine and orthopaedic surgery at the University of Cincinnati Academic Medical Center.

“Compression therapy comes in many shapes and sizes,” says Grawe, who notes that such devices have been around for decades.

“Currently, numerous companies offer a variety of easy-to-use compression stockings and sleeves, and they are even sold with moisture-
wicking technology,” he adds.

Good Pressure

Grawe says compression devices provide two major benefits: swelling prevention and improvements in what is called proprioception, or the ability to control the position of a joint. These aids can be used on any swollen muscle, tendon or joint.

Sports compression serves other functions as well, including “reducing vibration of the muscles and other soft tissue, increasing or maintaining warmth of the body part, wicking away moisture, reducing chafing against another body part, increasing blood flow and reducing aerodynamic drag,” notes Ajit M.W.

Chaudhari, PhD, associate professor of health and rehabilitation sciences at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Chaudhari’s last point, that compression helps reduce drag, “is a clear advantage in high-speed activities like cycling.” This benefit is less helpful for a relatively low-speed activity such as running, however.

Caveat Emptor

Before you purchase a sports compression aid, you need to know if the manufacturer’s claims are true.

First, it helps to know what compression aids can’t do. Chaudhari points out that these devices are not braces, without the stiffness needed to provide physical support like a brace does. As a result, Chaudhari says, “It’s hard to imagine that they could actually absorb any forces or torques” that can lead to further problems with a joint.

Chaudhari notes that if wearing a compression garment or wrap “provides a sensation that triggers a change in the way someone activates his/her muscles, that could change the person’s movement such that it alters the forces” that can potentially damage an injured joint.

If you’re expecting compression devices to help you become like a superhero, you may want to think again.

“There are studies that have shown contradictory results as to whether people can perform better—run farther, jump higher—with compression. Some say that there is a little bit of a performance increase. Others say there is none at all,” says Chaudhari.

In fact, after conducting his own study, Chaudhari and his colleagues determined that while the tights successfully reduced vibration significantly among runners, the reductions weren’t associated with greater strength or jump height. “The participants in the study were able to maintain strength and jump height in all conditions with or without tights,” he says.

Wearing compression shorts also didn’t reduce muscle fatigue.

However, Chaudhari says if runners feel like the shorts help, that should be enough of a reason to use them, noting that “every little bit of perception counts when running long distances.”

Arthritis Relief?

Grawe says that he thinks the new target for compression device manufacturers is the treatment of arthritis, an approach that has its limits.

“People should not assume that a fancy wrap will cure their arthritis,” Grawe says. He adds, though, that it may help ease pain. “Many people experience pain from arthritis because of swelling and the resultant inflammation and abnormal joint mechanics that ensue,” Grawe explains. “Compression therapy can ultimately help control swelling, which can then lead to better function of the arthritic joint, and, hopefully, pain control.”

Some sports compression clothing and wraps now include copper. Does that really make a difference?

“There is no scientifically backed evidence anywhere that supports the claims that copper can reduce pain or inflammation,” says Chaudhari’s OSU colleague, Michael Jonesco, DO. “In my experience with patients who wear certain brands that include copper, they tout the comfort [of the product]. The fact that it may include copper is irrelevant,” he says.

Grawe agrees. “The answer here is: ‘We don’t know.’ Without a doubt, the addition of copper to compression sleeves will not hurt an injured athlete—barring an allergic reaction. However, the science is just not there,” he says.

That doesn’t diminish the real value of sports
compression.

“I am a big proponent of compression therapy and routinely recommend it for injuries,” says Grawe. “When my patients ask about the addition of copper to the sleeve, I usually tell them to buy one with copper and one without.

Therefore, they can figure out what works best for them and go with it.” —Michele Wojciechowski

“Between the ages of 20 and 40 tends to be when we’re at our most competitive and when our body and response time is best,” says Taylor. “Biking up steep hills can be an excellent strength-training activity for this age group. On the downside, biking presents increased risk of traumatic injury from poor terrain choice and obstacles.” Overuse injuries such as patellofemoral syndrome (painful knees) are common among cyclists.

Cycling may be a less available option for some people as it requires a substantial monetary investment up front, with the purchase of a bike and protective gear. “Also, safe areas to bike may be limited, depending on where a person lives,” Martinez says.

Ages 41 to 60

“Cycling is lower impact than running, so it’s good for decreased joint impact,” says Taylor. Diminishing VO2 max, a measure of the efficiency at which your body uses oxygen, as well as risk of overuse injuries and of lower back and neck pain as a result of sustained postures (depending on distance, riding style and frequency) may occur.

Biking offers several health benefits for this age group. Researchers following more than 20,000 people in their 40s, 50s and 60s for 10 years found that casual cyclists who biked to work were 15% less likely to be obese or have high cholesterol and were less likely to have high blood pressure or pre-diabetes, as reported in the November 2016 issue of Circulation.

Ages 61 and Up

After 60 the capacity of the cardiac, respiratory and strength systems decrease, says Taylor. “So cycling becomes largely a leisure activity with less susceptibility to lower extremity overuse injury or even spinal pain for that matter.” Biking’s no-impact feature makes it great for those with achy or stiff joint issues but is not great for bone building. “Cycling would be highly recommended as an accessory activity to some weight-bearing activities,” Taylor adds.

Cycling outdoors also presents risks if falls and crashes occur. The decrease in fast-twitch muscle fibers make endurance rides easier to do than shorter, high-intensity workouts.

 

SWIMMING

Ages 20 to 40

Swimming offers many pros and cons for younger folks. Taylor notes that the variable movements of different swimming strokes aid mobility, and adds, “Swimming is a full-body activity with far more core engagement than running or cycling. In this age group, the buoyancy is less due to higher body water content and more lean body mass, which is good for strengthening and overall calorie burning.”

The repetitive nature of the sport and physical demands of swimming along with the competitive nature of this age group makes them more susceptible to shoulder and hip impingement as well as lower back strains.

Ages 41 to 60

Increased fat mass often seen in people between 40 and 60 and decreased water retention provides increased buoyancy in this age group, says Taylor, who says, “Less variable movement patterns also reduces risk of injury.

On the downside, swimming does not provide the same bone stimulation as land-based exercises. This increases risk of osteopenia, lower-than-average bone density, which can progress to osteoporosis, loss of bone mass that leaves the skeleton prone to fractures. “It’s highly recommended that swimming not be the only physical activity performed but should be supplemented with weight lifting,” Taylor advises.

Ages 61 and Up

It’s more of the same pros and cons as in the 40- to 60-year-olds with an even greater risk of loss of bone mineral density, says Taylor. If your skill set is good, swimming provides great cardio conditioning, says Irv Rubenstein, PhD, exercise physiologist and founder of S.T.E.P.S., a science-based fitness facility in Nashville.

“It’s also the one activity you can do the longest without problems if you have joint issues,” adds Rubenstein. “Swimming also requires the highest level of skill among these three activities, which could be a demotivator for older people.”

 

RUNNING

Ages 20 to 40

The high-impact forces associated with running aren’t for everyone, but it’s safer for this age group and is overall a relatively safe sport, says Rubenstein. What’s more, “all you need is a good pair of running shoes,” he notes.

Rubenstein says that for younger people the impact of one’s feet striking the ground may provide a better bone stimulus than swimming or cycling, and that running “poses less risk for joint problems than in older demographics.” In addition, VO2 max is highest when you’re young, which makes running easier to start at a younger age. Few activities burn as many calories as running, making it a popular exercise choice among people looking to shed pounds.

Ages 41 to 60

If you’ve been consistently running throughout your younger years, and have no joint problems or other issues, it’s fine to continue running as you age, says Rubenstein. Plus, research shows that contrary to common belief, running does not cause knee arthritis and may in fact ease knee joint pain according to a study by Brigham Young University (European Journal of Applied Physiology 12/06).

Research showed running appeared to decrease concentrations of inflammation-provoking substances within the body. “An exception is if you had an injury earlier in life,” says Rubenstein. “If you haven’t rehabbed the muscles enough, that muscle is not going to be able to withstand the shock as well and may not have as much strength as your other knee.”

Ages 61 and Up

Taking up running after 60 requires careful consideration. To start, after age 60 you’re likely heavier than you were in your 20s, which creates more stress on knee joints, says Rubenstein. “Plus you have less muscle mass and more body fat, so your muscles will be less capable of getting full benefits.”

If you’re new to running, start off walking before you run. Even if your joints are perfect, to start running immediately can set you up for overuse injuries such as shin splints and tendonitis, warns Rubenstein. Even a fit person who changes skill sets needs to allow time for joints and muscles to adapt to a new fitness activity.

 

Staying Safe on Your Bike

Out of the three options of swimming, running or biking, the last carries the biggest injury risk. The following tips can help you keep safety in focus.

Get the Right Wheels: Buy the right bike—road, mountain or hybrid—based on the riding you’re likely to do; recumbent models, in which the rider is in a lying-back position, are more comfortable but harder for motorists to see. A good bike shop can not only help you find a machine that meets your needs but also size you to your bike, a crucial factor in maintaining control while minimizing joint stress.

Helmet Up: You don’t want to deal with the consequences of a serious head injury, so riding with a helmet is a must. Sport or multi-use helmets are economical for recreational and road riders; look for a tag indicating the helmet meets standards set by the Consumer Products Safety Commission. Adjust until the helmet is snug but not tight. It should sit level on your head, not tilted back, with the front edge no more than one inch above your eyebrows to protect your forehead.

Shift Happens: Be sure you know where the front and rear shifter (and the handbrake controls) are located on the handlebars. The front shifter provides large gear jumps; the rear one fine-tunes. Instead of peddling slowly in a higher gear, you can ride longer if you pedal more quickly. Find a protected area to practice shifting.

What Starts Must Also Stop: While you work on shifting gears also ensure that you know how to slow down. Most beginners only use the rear brake but you can reduce stopping distance by almost 50% by also using the front brake.

Stay on the Bright Side: Wear brightly colored clothing for visibility. Other safety accessories include lights and rearview mirror, gloves to prevent scrapes and padded cycling shorts to prevent chafing. If you put your foot down often when riding, a platform peddle is best; experienced riders might choose toe clips or power straps.

Help Drivers to Not Hit You: That means riding with traffic in a straight line and stopping at red lights. In addition, try to make eye contact with motorists, skip the earphones and stay at least three feet away from parked cars.

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