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Your ability to sprint is often the difference between winning and losing. There are a few other metrics in cycling that are as important as sprinting such as FTP, VO2max, bike handling skills, and tactical awareness. However, it is uncommon for a race to come down to which rider has the best VO2max – instead, it’s always their sprint.
A strong sprint can get you the holeshot, help you bridge across to the break, or help you win the biggest race of your cycling career. No matter what type of rider you are, your sprinting ability is critical to your cycling performance, and improving it could be your ticket to the next level.
With just a few weeks of committed training, you could see a 100w improvement or more on your maximum power output.
The power equation
Many cyclists think that ‘power’ is pushing down hard on the pedals and that the more force you put into the pedals, the more power you are generating. Not quite.
Here’s a quick math equation reminder: power = (force x distance) / time
The more force you put through the pedals and the further you move them — quicker cadence — the more power you are generating. Therefore, maximum power output happens when you push both hard and quickly on the pedals. That’s why you see the best sprinters in the world such as Caleb Ewan sprinting at more than 120rpm, and track cyclists sprinting at greater than 150rpm.
Applying this newfound knowledge to your training, you should include both low-cadence and high-cadence intervals in your sprint training. Too many riders get stuck doing only standing starts, or over-geared efforts. While these efforts alone can certainly increase your ability to put force into the pedals, you won’t learn how to hit your top speed or maximum power output until you practice sprinting at a high cadence.
High-quality interval training
We’ll get to the classic big-gear intervals in a second, but first, let’s look at high-cadence interval training. If you are new to high-cadence training, then try this simple workout:
Alternate 10 minutes of high-cadence (100-110rpm at 80 percent FTP) intervals with 10 minutes of easy riding (80-90rpm at 55-65 percent FTP). This workout will help you focus on your high-cadence pedaling technique without pushing the boundaries in terms of overall intensity. Keep your backside planted in the saddle, and avoid bouncing while pedaling at a high cadence.
When you’re ready to take it up a notch, try some high-cadence sprints. This is a simple workout used by professional track cyclists to help improve their turnover speed, or how quickly they can change cadence and push maximum force through the pedals.
This workout consists of six to eight sprints in a light gear, with 5-10 minutes of easy riding (<55 percent FTP) in between efforts. Starting in a relatively easy gear (maybe even the small chainring), sprint as fast as you can until you spin out or reach >140rpm. Each sprint should last 6-10 seconds. The goal of this workout is to turn the gear over as quickly as possible, not necessarily to produce the highest power output.
And now for the workout, you’ve already heard of: standing starts. For these intervals, roll down to a near standstill (<5mph) in a big gear such as the 53×14, and then sprint as hard as possible until you exceed 100-110rpm. As with the high-cadence sprints, do 5-10 minutes of easy riding in between efforts to ensure a full recovery.
During these intervals, you won’t be pedaling quickly during the first few pedal strokes. Here, focus on using your core and upper body to leverage your body over the frame and get your legs to turn the pedals over as quickly as possible. Standing starts require both art and skill, so it might take you a few tries to get it right. But don’t be discouraged, once you get the hang of it, these intervals are a fun way to challenge your previous best and see how fast you can get up to speed.
The final set of sprint intervals is more of a race simulation than an interval workout. For this session, find a downhill or tailwind section that can get you up to 25-30mph without requiring too much effort. Once you’re up to speed, open up your sprint like you’re going for the win at the Tour de France. Use your entire body for each pedal stroke, and sprint as fast as you can without looking at your power output. After 10-12 seconds, relax, turn around, and give yourself a 5-10 minute break before doing it again.
This set of intervals is my favorite because it is the most applicable to real-life sprinting. Sure, you can focus on specific intervals in specific gears to improve your turnover, torque, or maximum power output, but it’s not always the numbers that win a race; it’s whoever crosses the line first.
Sprinting from high speed is more chaotic than an interval workout, both physically and mentally, and so it’s important to practice trusting your instincts, finding the right gear, and sprinting on various roads and gradients rather than repeating a computer-generated sprint effort. And that brings me to my final point of advice.
Practice real-life sprint scenarios
Specificity is one of the most overlooked factors in cycling sprint training. It’s the same argument that comes up frequently in virtual racing on Zwift or RGT – just because you’re good at indoor racing doesn’t mean you’re going to be good at outdoor racing. Trainer-riding technique is different than riding outside because you don’t have to be aero, you don’t have to steer, and you don’t have to know how to descend or bump elbows.
The same principle follows for sprint training: avoid lots of non-specific sprint training that doesn’t apply to your cycling goals. If you’re a crit or road racer, do as much of your sprint training as possible outdoors and on your race bike. Doing your sprint training on the trainer will change your position, leverage, and technique.
Sprinting is about much more than pushing down hard on the pedals – it also has to do with your head, shoulders, arms, hands, and core, pushing and pulling on the handlebars with each pedal stroke. The indoor trainer will limit your whole body movement and significantly affect your ability to generate power.
An indoor trainer can certainly help improve your fitness and power output, but it won’t directly translate until you put it all together in a real-life sprint. As long as you have good weather and daylight, do as much of your sprint training as you can outside.
Take a few ideas and workouts from this article and try out the training for yourself. Don’t overdo it, and remember to fully recover between each workout. In just a few weeks, you will see a significant improvement in your maximum power output and overall sprinting ability. When you hit 200 meters to go in your next race, you’ll be beaming with confidence.