Gran Fondos vs Marathons

Because I’ve never been a runner, really, I have always held up the marathon as one of the ultimate physical challenges one could imagine doing. I’ve never really put any brain power into it, simply because the thought of running so long never interested me in the past, and would be pretty difficult  now, given that my knee gives me a hard time just walking downtown.

Two minutes of internet research brought me to this handy  calorie-burning calculator for runners and, after pumping in my imaginary numbers, was given around  3000 calories burned for a full 26 miles. I burned more than that at the 136 km St. Tropez race this year and I’m pretty sure I remember passing  5000 on the 2012 Etape du Tour in the Pyrenees. Who knows what Haute Route was like, since my computer was broken most of the time. Maybe Rob can fill in those blanks.

But I don’t even know if calories tell the whole story. I can guess that running a marathon involves a consistent effort over the whole time you’re on the road, for example. For most cycling events I do there are lots of long descents that allow you to recover. Conversely, I’ll bet there are few, if any, times during a marathon that you are forced into the red as much as you would be on the bike during a long climb, bridging a gap, or just trying to hang onto a pace line. Maybe it’s an unfair comparison.

Have any of you run a marathon and done a big mountain sportive/gran fondo? If so, enlighten me. I’ll never know it from my own experience!

21 thoughts on “Gran Fondos vs Marathons

  1. Have a look at an Ironman. Here a Marathon is compared to an 180 km Ride. Here in Germany they have “Bike Marathons” Depending on the elavation its between 180 km and 240 km….

  2. It’s interesting that you are writing about running. My wife has been training for a 5.5km scheduled for next weekend so I decided to go see what my cycling legs could do in a run with her. My first time in 13 years. A moderately slow pace compared to my running days but the aches and pains in the legs were excruciating after the short 5km run. For 5 days last week my upper quads were screaming each time I’d sit down. My avg HR was way up there. My regular cycling mate is actually training for a marathon at the moment after having completed a half marathon 3 weeks ago at a very respectable 1:30. So 2 days after his half marathon and with tired legs he did and 82km/h at 30km/h and HR 139avg. A training run he did for 28km had his avg HR at 155bpm. I never hear him complain about the rides but always after big runs he is aching. There is no hiding in a run. By the way I ran again today, 3km, and although I had a respectable 1km speed I cramped at the 1.5km mark and hobbled/ran back home.

  3. I can mostly agree with what Luc said. Mostly. Running hurts more but you get used to that after a bit and once you do, it simply doesn’t hurt as much or for as long. I ran first for more than a decade before picking up cycling.

    On the other side of that, my calorie burn numbers confirm yours in the post. I was stuck at a certain weight running. When I added cycling, I dropped another 20 pounds easily. The big difference was being able to ride daily where I had to take a day off after anything more than a 5k and two days for anything more than 10 miles.

    As for “working” or how hard I had to work, I ride with some very fast guys so there are no breaks, even on downhill sections. I had an easier time dialing it back when I was running. I work harder cycling but it hurts less afterwards. Make sense?

    • I suppose the ‘work’ part could be intense in either activity. I was a leisure runner at best, back in the day, and only ‘trained’ for a few 10 ks. I have never suffered like I have on the bike, but that is just because I discovered a different world in cycling. As for weight, I concur. We can spend many more hours in the saddle than running, I’d guess. Much more efficient for fat burning.

  4. I’ve done Haute Route 3 times and the much tougher 100 cols challenge but I don’t think I’ve ever suffered more than in my last marathon – 2:59 in Paris.
    Talk all you want about running vs cycling, but never forget that a marathon is 10 times harder than a half… The first half is 32 kms, and the second half 10.2. Until you’ve done one, you can’t understand. Even training regularly and being able to coast through 37 min 10Ks, nothing compares.

    In cycling, you can suffer for much longer and for over many more days, but I’ve never suffered more for 1 hour than the last hour of that Paris Marathon. It was my last race without wheels other than the occasional fun run after cycling season is over.

    • That’s an impressive time, and I can imagine the fact you were closing in on 3:00 attributed a bit to that suffering you did in the last 10K! If my knee completely heals some day, I’ll do a marathon, just to say I ‘understand.’

  5. I have never run a marathon but I have done several 20 plus mile hill races on foot and I have never done a seriously hilly bike event (and never will) so my view that 20 plus mile hill races cross country in snowy conditions are obviously the true mark of an athlete can be taken with a pinch of salt. The pain you get from running on roads after an hour or so is a different thing altogether which is why I enjoyed hill running so much.

  6. I have done a few mountain biking events of around 50 miles (long way on an mtb) and have done a bit of running (mostly trail running), in my experience I would say the running was harder but that is more due to the physicality of the movement of constantly having all your weight going through your ankles, shins and knees every stride compared to cycling which doesn’t batter you, unless you hit a tree at high speed from experience that one hurts…a lot.

  7. Having run over 100 marathon distances in both training and racing, including 7 Ironman marathons under my belt (or should that be under my feet), I’d like to weigh in on the discussion. My fasted marathon was a 2:37 and my fastest marathon in an Ironman was 3:19. I can tell you from personal experience that cycling requires just as much energy, but a marathon is much harder than riding on the body. Just look at how many marathons an elite runner will race in a year, compared to how many races a pro cyclist will race. The cardio requirements may be comeparible but the pounding a marathon puts on the body is significantly more than any bike race. I stopped running years ago, because after running the equivalent distance of over twice around the planet the stress on my body was just too much. I was either injured, or very close to it and always in some state of pain. I know some guys that are still running well into their 60’s and 70’s, but all of them complain about their injuries and pains, while by comparison, I seldom have injuries of pain directly tied to my cycling (except for the odd crash from time to time). I get as good or sometimes better cardio training from cycling without the damaging impact related stress. If you’re going to run, focus on training and racing shorter distances. Your body will thank you.

    • You and bigtosh90 bring up a point I didn’t really consider when writing the post, i.e. the physical toll on the body will certainly add to the ‘suffering’. I was just thinking from an ‘energy’ standpoint, but I knew the two activities couldn’t be easily compared.

  8. The longest distance I ever “ran” was a half marathon, I had only run 10Ks before. After weeks of earnest training I had to slack off towards the end due to work deadlines. For the event itself, the run was going great and on pace at first, but at km 16 very quickly flexing my right knee became absolute, utter agony (never had a problem during training). I finished the last 5 km of the race with a painful walk/hobble. It was a different kind of sufferfest.

    That being said, Vicious Cycle readers might be a self-selecting group of people physically not suited to running!

    And, as one Canadian to another, no discussion about suffering and marathons is complete without a nod to Terry Fox’s Marathon of Hope – on an artificial leg he ran 143 consecutive marathons until his cancer forced him to stop:


  9. I dislocated my kneecap a couple of years back, and now even a 90 minute football match causes me pain, I couldn’t imagine attempting one of these crazy marathons. Cycling (usually on an exercise bike thanks to the English weather) is so much softer on it and it means I can really train some endurance fitness in!

    On a side note, Mike Franchetti, our head cycling contributor at has recently written a post on the five best cyclists of all time. We would love to hear your opinion on the topic:

    Thanks, and happy writing!

  10. Funny that all of sudden several of my favorite cycling blogs write about running. Maybe it is just the off-season, but there might be a trend. I hope we are not turning into tri/biathletes.

    Anyways which is harder is a really good question. I used to jog ten years back and even though I never did a marathon or run as fast as some of you guys I still did some pretty lengthy training runs. Eventually I lost interest when I got knee problems, but I picked up jogging again recently and it sure is hard to get started.

    The thing that worries me is that my body build might have actually changed having done so much cycling in the last few years. What I’m saying is that for a runner running is easier and for a cyclist running will be tougher. You should really take the appropriate xx% finishers of both events and then compare how much you need to suffer to achieve the same level of results.

    In the end suffering is a mental thing. Getting dropped from a group will hurt much more than any knee-problem 🙂

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