Rowe & King Coaching: How to become a faster sprinter

31st March 2016

Being able to sprint is critical for all racing cyclists – wouldn’t it be nice to be a faster sprinter? Races are rarely won solo – you are usually up against at least one, but maybe a whole peloton full of other riders.

That said, you need to be able to get to the finish of a road race or long event in order for your sprint to be of any value. It’s the mixture of speed and endurance which make the optimum cyclist – the balance of which depends on a number of factors, including your natural physical makeup, i.e. are you made up of more fast or slow-twitch muscle fibers?

To illustrate, track sprint cyclists can have around 80% fast-twitch muscle and 20% slow-twitch, making them well suited to short, but very fast efforts. Long distance road cyclists on the other hand, i.e. some Tour de France riders, can have up to 80% slow-twitch muscle fibers with only 20% fast twitch.

We are not all natural sprinters, however we all have some fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are primarily what we use when sprinting. Fast-twitch fibers;

  • Have a high activation threshold and will only be activated when the force demands are greater than what the slow-twitch fibers can meet
  • Take a shorter time to reach their peak force and can produce higher amounts of force than slow twitch fibers
  • Are more suited for explosive, strength and power-based efforts in cycling

Conversely, it’s the body’s slow-twitch muscle fibers that are used during long, steady efforts. Slow-twitch fibers;

  • Can provide their own source of energy, so can sustain force for an extended period of time
  • Are unable to generate significant amount of force
  • Have a low activation threshold, meaning they are first recruited when a muscle contracts
  • Are built through combining a careful blend of steady-state endurance training (i.e. riding across zones 1,2,3 and 4)

Lets bring the concept of fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers to life

You’re riding a 100-mile sportive with a group of friends. At the start, you are likely to set off at a moderate pace (likely in zone 2), where you will be using your slow-twitch muscles, which can sustain force for an extended period of time, but are not able to generate a significant amount of force, i.e. ideal for the start of a sportive.

At some point in the event, you will want to put an effort in, whether that be up a climb, or towards the end in a sprint finish – this is where your fast-twitch muscle fibers come in. Your fast-twitch muscles will allow you to produce those surges of power, which gives you the increased speed – although it comes at a cost. That cost is lactic acid. The key is to increase the maximum power that you can produce, before the point when lactic acid totally consumes your legs. This is achieved by increasing your strength and then power. Your increased power then needs to be turned in to something tangible – speed! After all, the aim of the game here is to travel faster on your bike.

So, how can you become a faster sprinter?

Here are a few tips on developing your fast-twitch muscles, and helping with your top end speed on a bike;

  • You need to get strong first. Over-geared efforts will help with your pure strength
  • Then you need to turn your strength in to power. This is achieved by introducing some explosive efforts, i.e. standing starts, or rolling efforts, where you get on top of your gear
  • Finally, the tip of the iceberg is transferring your power into speed. This involves sprinting! Some high cadence work will help, along with hitting your maximum power output, whilst travelling fast. Without beating around the bush – you need to practice sprinting at full speed. This is most effective when you are relatively fresh, as when you are fatigued – you will struggle to produce the power required to push your limits.

A typical training session to make you a faster sprinter

Here is a typical sprint session used amongst the pro peloton, the principles of which apply right down to grass roots level. Its focus is on developing your speed, making you a faster sprinter.

  • 30 minute warm up – ride out. Just easy riding, get out on to some quiet roads
  • Find a flat section of road, with no junctions and as little traffic as possible.
  • Set yourself a finish line. This could be a road sign, a mark on the road, or simply where you place your drink bottle
  • At about 700m from your finish line, start winding your speed up over about 500 meters to about 80% effort, staying seated. At this point you should be travelling quite fast (precise speed depends on many factors, i.e. your ability and terrain).
  • With about 200 meters to go, ‘kick’ or accelerate flat out – 100% effort to produce as much power as you can, focusing on your finish line. Your maximum sprint effort should be no more than 15 seconds – if it is, start your sprint slightly later.
  • Make sure you give commit 100% to your sprint, right to the finish line.
  • Spend a few minutes to recover – don’t try and sprint again until you feel your legs are totally free of lactic acid. Your fast-twitch muscles will not engage properly unless they are suitably recovered. Spin the legs in an easy gear to recover.
  • Aim to complete 4-6 sprint efforts in total, with suitable recovery in between. The number of efforts you can complete will depend on your fitness.

Good luck and remember, you become good at what you train, so don’t forget to train your sprint if you want to be fast when it counts.