“First one to the lamp post line wins!”
Whether it was to the car during a rainstorm, across the airport to make a connection, or at the end of a race, everyone has sprinted at some point in their life, but not everyone practices or performs sprints during bike rides. But you should.
These short, all-out efforts are crucial to winning races, and they can also improve daily fatigue and energy levels and even boost aerobic fitness. However, strength training, pedalling efficiency, and practice are all important to fine-tune your sprint.
Winter and spring are great times to work on these areas and gain the benefits that will allow you to sprint with confidence on various terrains and disciplines.
What Exactly is a Sprint?
The defining factors of a sprint: It’s short in duration and maximal in effort.
These explosive efforts can be time-based or distance-based. Some cyclists define sprints as an effort given over a specific distance, such as 200 meters or 300 meters, while others define sprints as a short duration effort lasting 15 seconds or 45 seconds. In any of these scenarios, you go all out in intensity.
The Benefits of Sprinting Go Beyond Speed
Not only do sprint workouts improve sprint power, but they can also improve endurance. A study published in 2016 in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise investigated perceived fatigue and energy levels following a repeat sprint workout versus a workout that did not change effort throughout (like a zone 2 or tempo ride with no intervals). Eight women and seven men who were recreationally active completed the study. The researchers found participants who completed a repeat sprint workout reported both lesser feelings of fatigue and increased energy levels throughout the day when compared to those who did the steady-state workout.
Another study published in 2005 in the Journal of Applied Physiology investigated the influence sprint training had on endurance capacity in eight recreational cyclists. Researchers found that participants who completed a two-week sprint training plan (with sessions lasting about 15 minutes and one to two days of rest between workouts) increased their endurance capacity by a striking 100 percent.
What a Proper Sprint Looks Like
A well-executed sprint can be described as “a dance between [the cyclist] and the bike,” according to Zack Allison, cycling coach at Source Endurance LLC and a former professional road cyclist who specialised in sprinting and criterium racing.
A proper sprint will depend on a cyclist’s ability to produce a high-power output at a high cadence while holding optimal form and using their entire body to perform the effort. Meaning that all cadence, power, and form need to be engaged in order to maximise these short efforts.
What to look for in each of those metrics:
Allison assesses his athlete’s “ability to do high cadence out of the saddle” to determine the proficiency of their sprint form. Engaging the upper body and the lower body simultaneously while spinning at a high cadence will produce the most power in these efforts. This is key for any cyclist who is looking to improve their sprint.
Riding out of the saddle at a high cadence may feel awkward and difficult at first, but it is an excellent way to improve sprint form and pedal inefficiencies. If you can sprint out of the saddle at a high cadence, just think of what you will be able to do at a more natural lower cadence.
The ideal sprinting cadence lies somewhere between 90-120 rpm. However, this can vary depending on the rider’s physiology and riding style. Riders who naturally have more fast-twitch muscle fibres may prefer a lower cadence sprint, while riders who naturally have more slow-twitch muscle fibres may be able to put out more power at a high cadence.
The amount of power a rider will produce during a sprint will depend on the rider’s sprinting experience, sprinting proficiency, and body size. A rider in a bigger body who holds more muscle and practices sprinting often will, on average, be able to produce more watts than a rider in a smaller body with less muscle mass and who does not practice sprinting.
Cyclists born with a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres will be able to produce more power over a 5-second effort when compared to athletes with a higher proportion of slow-twitch muscle fibres. Keep in mind, a cyclist with a natural ability to produce high power for 5 seconds may not be able to do so if they have poor form.
Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan, Ph.D., exercise physiologists and authors of Training and Racing With a Power Meter, have tested hundreds of cyclists and gathered this data to see what sprint power output looks like for cyclists at various levels:
- Fair or category 5 men typically have a maximal 5-second power of between 11.85-14.22 watts/kilogram of body weight. For a 150-pound male cyclist, this is between 815-969 watts for 5 seconds.
- For a 150-pound female cyclist, this is between 9.72-11.45 watts/kilogram of body weight or 663-780 watts for 5 seconds.
- For comparison, a 150-pound world-class male sprinter can expect to have 22.81-25.18 watts/kilogram of body weight or 1,555-1,717 watts for 5 seconds.
- A 150-pound world-class female cyclist can expect 17.70-19.42 watts/kilogram of body weight or 1,207-1,324 watts for 5 seconds.
Tip: Knowing your 5-second maximum power output can help you set a baseline for improving sprint form and power.
There are a few key factors to focus on when assessing a rider’s sprinting form. An optimal form will include leaning the bodyweight forward while keeping the hips back. Hands should stay in the drops of the bars with enough bend in the elbows to avoid the forearms hitting the tops of the bars. Aim for a slightly rounded to almost flat back.
Sprinting in the drops of the bars with bent elbows will allow the rider to move the bike underneath them. This upper body position provides a lower centre of gravity which is more aerodynamic and stable than sprinting with hands on the hoods. If riding in the drop bars in or out of the saddle isn’t comfortable, start practicing your sprint form by riding with your hands in the drop bars at easier efforts. As you get more comfortable with that, you can start intensifying the effort, while staying in the drops.
Tip: To practice good sprinting form and to better control the bike, practice the sprinting motion from a stop, like when you’re at a stoplight or a stop sign. To do this, get in the drops, clip in, start your effort, and practice moving the bike side to side while pedalling. The high amount of force required to put down on the pedals from a stop is similar to the force required to sprint at speed. Practicing this motion out of stop signs and lights is a great way to get comfortable and better control your bike.
What Gear to Use for Sprints
A good rule of thumb is to start sprinting in a gear that is one gear harder than if you were immediately maxed out on cadence when riding out of the saddle. (Maxing out on cadence you cannot spin your legs any faster or you’d start bouncing on the saddle.) However, the best gear choice for sprinting will depend on the speed at which the rider is starting the sprint, the grade of the road they are sprinting on, and the road surface condition.
Many riders make the mistake of starting in too hard of a gear, so treat the start of a sprint as a windup. Start seated, increase cadence, and then get out of the saddle and shift gears. Some riders prefer to stay in the same gear and sprint to maximum cadence. Other riders prefer to shift while out of the saddle.
Tip: Try shifting as soon as you are about to max out on cadence. Remember to lighten the load on the pedals for a split second to allow the gears to shift more easily than when shifting during a sprint.
How Sprinting Changes on Different Terrains
Sprinting looks different on tacky versus slippery surfaces. It is important to be aware of the type of terrain a cyclist is sprinting on for both safety and speed. “Traction control” is the main difference between sprinting on various terrains, according to coach Allison.
Traction is defined by the ability of the bike’s tires to grip the surface and propel the bike forward. The looser the road surface, such as on dirt roads or gravel roads, the more important it will be to have the cyclist’s bodyweight shifted over the back of the bike. This extra weight in the back will provide more traction on an otherwise slippery surface.
Tip: Ever spun out your rear tire while out of the saddle on a gravel road or a mountain bike trail? Try shifting your weight back over the saddle next time you’re pedaling on these terrains.
The Best Workouts to Improve Your Sprinting
Following a training plan that includes workouts designed to improve sprint power and form should include a few key factors:
- Resistance training to improve leg strength
- Exercises to improve pedalling efficiency
- Optimal rest between all maximal efforts
- And simply practicing
A trial published in 2021 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning discusses the effects of strength training compared to no strength training on time trial and sprint performance in 24 trained triathletes and cyclists. The researchers found that strength training compared to no strength training improved both time trial and sprint performance—a good reason to add more lifting to your workout schedule.
Another trial study published in 2021 in the European Journal of Applied Physiology investigated if there was a difference in repeated 4-second peak power outputs when participants rested for 15, 30, or 45 seconds between sprints. The researchers found that peak power output was maintained when participants rested for 30 seconds and 45 seconds, and peak power output decreased when participants rested for 15 seconds between sprints. They also found a 9 percent increase in peak power output between sprints when participants rest for 45 seconds, compared to 30 seconds.
The takeaway: Longer rest periods between sprints may contribute to increased power output and, therefore, more effective training and metabolic adaptations.
Put these tips into practice with sprint workouts, targeted to your training schedule:
Sprint Form Workout (winter/early spring):
10 minutes zone 1 or easy spinning
3 x 1-minute seated fast pedalling drills (100-120rpm) (2 minutes rest in between)
5 minutes in zone 1 or easy spinning
6 x 10 sprints out of the saddle at 90-150rpm (3 minutes rest in-between)
10-minute cooldown in zone 1 or easy spinning
Sprint-Specific Strength Workout (winter/early spring):
10 minutes in zone 1 or easy spinning
3 x 8 deadlifts at a manageable weight (3 minutes rest in between)
3 x 10 walking lunges with a manageable amount of weight (3 minutes rest in between)
3 x 4 step-ups per leg with a manageable amount of weight (3 minutes rest in between)
3 x 8 single-arm dumbbell rows per side with a manageable amount of weight (3 minutes rest in between)
3 x 10 pushups
10 minute zone 1 or easy spinning or foam rolling
Sprint Practice Workout (early spring/summer):
10 minutes in zone 1 (easy spinning)
5 minutes in zone 3 (7 out of 10 rate of perceived exertion spinning)
5 minutes in zone 1 (easy spinning)
6 x 10 all-out sprints on a flat road or trainer (3 minutes rest in between)
10-minute cooldown in zone 1 or easy spinning